When local producers refused to share knowledge on filmmaking with a then wannabe filmmaker, he sought assistance in Hollywood, where he obtained tutorials from famous Hollywood producer Julia Verdin, branded for films such as The Merchant of Venice and Stander.
Additionally, Deon van Zyl, 49, from the Vaal received mentorship in cinematography from world-renowned cinematographer Shane Hurlbut ASC, recognised for films such as Need for Speed and The Greatest Game Ever Played.
With the knowledge he acquired in Hollywood and R150 000 from his retirement package, Van Zyl produced a 21-minute documentary titled My Life on the Tracks – the Rohan Vos Story.
The documentary, which he says took him a year to complete, was recently nominated among the list of more than 100 entrants from around the world for the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards (HIIDA)
“Although the run time is only 21 minutes, it took a year to create a final production, mainly because when I started I never knew how to make a film. So I learnt as I went and I made lots of mistakes along the way. But I also learnt a great deal and the more I learnt the more I wanted to learn. My passion for making films just grew and grew, so I never stopped learning and probably went overboard at times, but I loved every minute of it,” says van Zyl.
He says travelling by Rovos Rail luxurious train back in 2007 inspired him to document it.
In the documentary, Vos, the CEO of Rovos Rail, tells “his remarkable story in his own words, sharing some intimate and personal details in vivid detail never told before. Intimate interviews with family and employees add authenticity to this timeless piece of African rail history.”
Van Zyl says: “While many documentaries have been made about Rovos Rail itself, featuring the train and the respective routes, none has been made that tells the story of the life of the man behind the train, and his story is a remarkable one … and this is where I really got to appreciate that filmmakers are ‘storytellers’ and just how important our role in the world really is … this is a story I knew just has to be told.”
Detailing his journey in the filming industry, Van Zyl, a qualified engineer, says he worked as a project manager for more than 20 years, and when he was retrenched from his job last year, filmmaking was a passion he wanted to pursue.
“But I never knew anything about making films, so I got together some names of people in the industry and called them up and asked them for help but I learned very quickly that those in the South African film industry don’t easily share their knowledge. No one was prepared to offer any assistance.”
“One day I just sat down and thought that if this was my passion, surely I owe it to myself to learn from the best and decided that if no one in SA was prepared to teach me, I would look to the USA and I did … Hollywood,” recalls van Zyl.
In Hollywood, he obtained a producers’ certificate course under the tutorship of Verdin and 25 weeks mentorship from Hurlbut.
“I think I realised, however, in this time that cinematography is a fine art and would take years to master, so a lot of the stuff just went over the top of my head. It was extremely technical and just like they do it in Hollywood … it was huge. Bigger than anything I have ever seen and probably will ever see again ….”
He then decided to focus on indie filmmaking (films produced outside of the major film studio system), and it was during this journey when a band of filmmakers and storyteller in Portland, Oregon, known as Stillmotion, taught him how to tell stories.
Stillmotion offered him “a place as a pilot and, together with a team of filmmakers, journalists and teachers from all over the world, we piloted and helped develop Muse, a complete storytelling program that helps everyday people like me and you create master stories”.
Synopsis: ‘My Life on the Tracks – The Rohan Vos Story’
Van Zyl says that during the golden era of steam train travel, Vos started Rovos Rail with only four passengers on the first trip. But today Rovos Rail is hailed as the most luxurious train in the world, travelling to some of the most exotic destinations in Africa.
“What is quite incredible is that, for Vos, the rail business was never intended for him, but before he knew it, the journey had begun … there was no turning back and no way out.”
Vos, who grew up in Delareyville in the North West province, “tells his remarkable story in his own words, sharing some intimate and personal details about his life in vivid detail, some of which have never been told before”.
Intimate interviews with family and employees add authenticity to this timeless piece of African rail history, says Van Zyl.