'Ladies' Detective' film brings Tinsel Town to tiny Botswana
Alexander McCall Smith's hit book series set in Botswana is bringing big-screen money the African country.
Until Hollywood came to town, work was scarce for Botswana film producer Portia Molebedi Sorinyane. Her home country of dust and diamonds was her inspiration; but if she wanted a job, she had to cross the border into South Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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"There is no film industry here, so if you want to eat you need to move somewhere else," she says from behind a pair of trendy, oversized sunglasses.
But that, she hopes, is changing. This month, filming started on the first international movie ever to be shot in Botswana – The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a movie based on Alexander McCall Smith's hit book series of the same name.
This means that Ms. Sorinyane has a gig as an assistant producer. It also means that her country of 1.7 million, whose economy is almost entirely dependent on diamond mining, may be the latest nation to cash in on Tinseltown's Africa fad and launch a lucrative new industry.
In many ways, it is fitting that the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency should be the launch of a film industry here. Mr. McCall Smith's series is set in Botswana, and focuses on the character Precious Ramotswe, a plucky, "traditionally-built" detective who solves fraud and misdeeds in Gabarone, the capital city.
The feel-good books exploded in popularity after Sept. 11, 2001 – they have been translated into 40 different languages and sold more than 15 million copies.
If all goes as planned, the movie will expand into a BBC series.
Seven years ago, when McCall Smith talked to producer Amy J. Moore about turning the series into a movie, both assumed that it would be shot in Botswana – the country that gives the story its flavor.
"We'd always talked about wanting to shoot here," says Ms. Moore, a self-described "occasional New Yorker" who has spent time in Botswana for the past 20 years. "But then there was this notion of budget."
How Botswana lured Hollywood
Because it did not have a film infrastructure in place, Botswana was expensive. South Africa and Namibia, on the other hand, both had established film industries. A slew of international productions – "Blood Diamond," "Beyond Borders," "10,000 B.C.," to name a few – have been shot in these countries; last year, South Africa's "Tsotsi" captured an Oscar and pushed the local film scene into the spotlight.
After crunching the numbers, Moore and the Weinstein Company, which is financing the film, decided they needed to shoot in South Africa – much, Moore says, to her disappointment.
But then Botswana's government stepped in.
"When we got wind of hearing that someone was interested in making the film, we got in touch with [McCall Smith], and then I got directly in contact with [Moore], and said we wanted to do it here," says Onkokame Kitso Mokaila, Botswana's minister of environment, wildlife, and tourism. "We saw an opportunity in this move to initiate a film industry."
After quickly moving the issue through the parliament and the cabinet, the government offered the filmmakers $5 million – enough to offset the costs of importing equipment and crew from South Africa.
It also made some demands: at least a third of the cast had to be from Botswana; the entire film had to be shot here – no running off to a studio back in the US. With one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, the government pointed out, the country was well able to provide this staff.
The filmmakers agreed to switch location.