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  • Writer's pictureA.H. Plotts

Movies For Writers That Are Not Just About Writing: Out of Africa

Here I'll try to explain why I find certain movies so inspirational for my own fiction.

Starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Out of Africa is the cinematic version of the writings of Isak Dinesen, (the pen name for Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke, better known as Karen Blixen), about her time living and running a farm in Kenya. I have spent a great deal of time on the African continent and this film resonates with me and my experiences there. Kurt Luedtke, who sadly passed away in August, wrote the screenplay. Sydney Pollack directed it.

This film was a huge hit when it was released in 1985, winning 7 Academy Awards including best picture, best adapted screenplay, and best director. It has since fallen out of fashion in some respects, due to the portrayal the Africans and the somewhat patronizing westerners in the film. However, anyone who knows anything about the history of Africa's colonization can tell you that this film actually portrays the Africans with much more respect than the reality of the times. I believe, from reading her writings, that Baroness Blixen had much respect for the African people she knew and loved. She was Danish, and was pleasantly excused from the British imperial thinking popularized by the majority of the white settlers around her.

But this post is not about the politics of the times the film portrays. I'd rather avoid politics for my blog posts altogether. Rather, I want to focus on how this film inspires me to write whenever I watch it.

The first voice over, by Meryl Streep as Blixen, introduces us to the written words of Blixen/Dinesen:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. *

This simple line is also the first in the book that the film was based upon. From the start, we are provided with a setting - the foot of the Ngong Hills in Africa, and a period of time - in the past. Right away we want to know more: Where are these Ngong Hills? Does she still have the farm? Does it even exist?

SPOILER ALERT: Dinesen's farm fails and she is forced to leave her beloved

Africa, heartbroken for the loss of her land and the death of a man that she loved enough to write about, Denys Finch Hatton. After returning to her native Denmark, Blixen becomes an award winning author, writing about her time in Africa as well as a number of other short story collections and the novelette Babette's Feast, which was also made into a movie.

In the film and the book Out of Africa, Dinesen's love of storytelling becomes clear. It is emphasized in scenes where Finch Hatton is mesmerized by Karen's on-demand, verbal creations. It's magical to watch Karen pull her stories from the air around her, which is exactly where I believe many fictional stories reside. She starts with one line given by Finch Hatton, and builds upon it, introducing characters, a setting, and an event. We are suddenly in the middle of the adventure with her.

I admire the film for how it portrays pivotal moments that become important for Karen's writing, in Kenya and when she returns to Denmark. I am ever impressed with how these simple gestures elicit the ways stories come to be: The silver pen, given as a gift, with which Karen immortalizes her stories by writing them down. Karen's "parlor trick" of creating fiction from one, simple phrase. Her memories, especially the lone figure on safari and the red sun setting in the distance. Writing is like that. It's the creation of worlds and people that starts with an impression, a thought, one line. The writer adds words until, altogether, they mean something once unimaginable.

Out of Africa is an epic love story about a woman, a man and a country. It is also so much more. It is as if Luedtke imbedded his own love of storytelling and the craft of fiction right into the script, while staying true to Blixen's writing. Out of Africa is a tale of passion: for the gift of putting words to page and making them mean so much to so many.

*Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen, Modern Library Edition,1992, pg. 3.

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