“Everyone has a story to tell, they just don’t know how to go about it.”
These are the words of Strandfontein resident John Fredericks, a script-writer and producer whose first feature film, Noem My Skollie, will be released in theatres in September.
And with Mr Fredericks’ words in mind, the FunDza Literacy Trust has launched a writing competition in conjunction with Noem My Skollie, to give the youth a chance to have their stories told.
The FunDza Literacy Trust, based in Muizenberg, is a non-profit organisation which aims to get young adults to read for pleasure by providing local books that they can relate to.
The organisation was started about five years ago by Dorothy Dyer, a teacher who felt that her pupils did not have enough exciting local books. She then roped in Mignon Hardie, a trustee who is now a director, and writer Ros Hayden, who wrote the first book for the organisation, called Broken Promises.
FunDza runs a series of literacy programmes, including a mobile application where they upload stories written by professional authors, much like a library on a cellphone.
Mr Fredricks’ movie will follow his early life when he and a group of friends were arrested for trying to steal money from a shop and he landed up in Pollsmoor.
To stay out of the gangs in the prison, Mr Fredricks made a deal with the hardened gangsters: He would tell them a story every night.
Mr Fredericks said the FunDza Literacy Trust has published some of his short stories in their virtual library, including one of the first he wrote, titled Mr Creep, about a little girl who falls onto a railway track and is recued by a gangster, identified as The Creep.
Mr Fredericks, 70, who grew up in Kewtown, said he was born into a time where being poor and being labeled a “skollie” because of where you came from was a way of life.
“I didn’t think about being poor. Poor was normal. And if you did something wrong at a young age, you would get punished, and you would have a criminal record.”
Mr Fredericks said he developed his gift for story-telling through a love for reading and gathering with a group of friends in the evenings to talk about the events of the day.
“My friend’s father was a dagga merchant at the time. We went there and listened to stories about their prison escapades. We wanted to be that. And so it became a legacy of broken hearts and dreams. This was our way of life. It was our adventure,” he said.
“At the age of 17 I was arrested for burglary. They caught us inside a shop in Athlone. It wasn’t planned. We came from the club and wanted to buy a bottle and ended up stealing things from this shop. The shop’s alarm sounded and the police were there in no time.”
Mr Fredericks was sentenced to two years behind bars. He said that when they arrived in prison, they already knew what to do because of the tales of their friend’s father. “This is where my story-telling came into play,” he said.
“I loved to sing. One day the prisoners smacked me around and I said, ‘That’s not necessary. I would rather sing.’ I sang, then they harmonised. And then I had to write songs and letters for them. They gave me tobacco, and I told them stories.”
He said the stories intrigued the hardened gangsters because of the way it was told. “I used to make up stories and make the prisoners the characters. And they didn’t want me to stop. Crime and violence was their game and they wanted to hear about it. I told a story in detail. I took them there.”
At the age of 50, Mr Fredericks quit his job as a security guard and decided to write movie scripts. “I had never written a movie script in my life before. It was probably a laugh. But here is a guy from the ghetto who had a great story to tell, and he was labeled.”
He wrote some thrilling stories, some published on the FunDza application, and also wrote some well-received documentaries, such as Hard Living Kids and Mr Devious, which follows the life of Mitchell’s Plain rapper Mario van Rooy, who was killed in the prime of his life.
Mr Devious won the Best Documentary award at the International Film Festival in New York in 2005.
To enter the FunDza Noem My Skollie competition, writers between the ages of 16 and 25 need to send an original written piece, between 500 and 750 words long, based on the theme ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. It can be submitted in either English or Afrikaans, and entries must be emailed to email@example.com before midnight on Friday July 15. The winner will receive R2 000 cash as well as tickets to the gala premier of Noem My Skollie either in Cape Town on Wednesday August 24, or in Johannesburg on Monday August 29. The movie will be released in cinemas on Friday September 2.
Two runners-up will win cash prizes of R1 000 each.
Mr Fredericks encourages all writers of the competition to give as much detail as they can in their stories. “Try to take the reader there. Let them see the characters.”
He also encouraged the communities of the Cape Flats to see the movie. “This movie is for my people, and I would like as many of them as possible to see it.”
All good writing submitted as part of the competition will be published on FunDza’s mobile network, along with some of Mr Fredericks work.