In 2007 a desperate mother from Lavender Hill, Ellen Pakkies killed her tik addict son. Eleven years later her story is being told on the big screen. Channel24's Leandra Engelbrecht spoke to Jill Levenberg about her award-winning role in Ellen: The Story of Ellen Pakkies.
Cape Town – A couple of years ago Suidooster star Jill Levenberg auditioned for the role of a neighbour in a film based on the true-life story of Ellen Pakkies. But that project didn’t materialise.
Fast forward a few years and Jill finds out the project is back on track with director Daryne Joshua, who she worked with on the award-winning Noem My Skollie, helming Ellen: The Story of Ellen Pakkies.
Jill immediately wrote Daryne an email.
“I told him I really want to be part of telling this woman’s story. I don’t even care if I am playing a dog or a cat or a neighbour. I don’t mind, it is just that the story means so much to me because I understand the plight; everyone in Cape Town is affected by tik in one way or another,” says Jill.
Weeks later she got a response from Joshua..and so started what would be Jill's most profound acting challenge to date.
A GOOSEBUMP MOMENT
As Jill started researching Ellen she discovered that she had a lot in common with her.
“She is born on the 6th of December which is also my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her deceased son Abie’s birthday is on the 7th of August which is also my mother’s birthday. That already gave me goosebumps!”
The similarities didn’t stop there though, Ellen spent her formative years in Kensington, just like Jill who still lives there.
“It was a surreal experience,” says Jill.
And from there the bond was sealed. They spent a lot of time together and Ellen took Jill around in Lavender Hill where she met Abie’s friends, visited the church he was buried from and the location where the rehabilitation centre used to be.
‘I NEVER PUT THE CHARACTER DOWN’
During the five weeks in which the movie was filmed Jill isolated herself – she rented a tiny place near the sea to collect herself. She ran on the beach every day to empty herself and started to live and be Ellen.
“I didn’t really ever leave or put down the character. I didn’t go home a day after shooting and wash her off. I kept her throughout the five weeks of filming.”
Ellen: The Story of Ellen Pakkies gives an uncensored authentic look into the struggles that family members face when they are living with an addict. There are a number of emotionally taxing and violent scenes.
For Jill the most challenging scene to film was the murder scene.
“I had to go into a state of disassociation in order to commit the act of murder. That was the most challenging for me. I knew that if I found that psychological state that I would be able to find the ability within myself to do it.”
She continues: “I did intense research on disassociation, post-traumatic stress disorder and did a lot of preparation.”
Jill and her co-star Jarrid Geduld who plays Abie spent a lot of time working together to create the mother and son bond.
Speaking about it Jill says that when they met they clicked immediately.
“We spent a lot of time engaging with each other and we are both passionate about our craft and the situation in Cape Town. Nothing has changed since this happened 11 years ago. Both of us knew that we needed to do the story justice.”
She continues: “We totally immersed ourselves in the storyline and the characters during filming. Nothing was too extreme for us. During the fight scenes we had two stuntmen on set but both of us looked at one another and said ‘go for it.’”
‘ABIE’S SPIRIT WAS THERE’
The movie was filmed on location in Lavender; in Ellen’s house and the room where Abie was murdered.
For Jill filming in the space where everything happened felt as if Abie’s spirit was there.
“One day during filming the art department hung a picture on the wall of Hawaii. It was a second hand poster that they found in a shop. When Aunty Ellen came inside, she stopped in shock and said Abie had a picture just like that.”
She continues: “The atmosphere between cast and crew was very special. We all knew that we were doing something that was very special and important.”
A LIFE-CHANGING ROLE
The film had its South African premiere at the Silwerskerm Festival in August where it won a number of awards including best actress and actor for Jill and Jarrid.
About her win Jill says that she is very grateful for the recognition. This role has changed her as an actress and a person.
“I am incredible humbled and honoured to have received this role. It is life changing and it has given me a platform. I hope that this film will make a difference and that it will start a conversation around the country; and that the desperation of people in Ellen’s situation who are still living that way will be taken seriously.”
She continues: “As I person I was incredibly inspired by Ellen’s story. I am someone who believes that when you are transparent you facilitate mutual healing. She inspired me to speak out about my own molestation.”
“Ellen and I still have an incredible bond, we will remain friends.”
Ellen: The Story of Ellen Pakkies opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, 7 September.
(Photos supplied: Lindsey Appolis)