Dirkie: Lost in the Desert (Jamie Uys, 1970)

“One of the most…
                                                 The San Francisco Bay Guardian

The Most Amazing Adventure A Boy Ever Lived Through
Now On Blu-Ray For The First Time Ever!

Filmmaker Jamie Uys (THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY) cast his own son as a sickly eight year-old boy stranded with his pet dog in the Kalahari Desert, “one of the most rugged and desolate regions on the face of the earth.” The result is a children’s feature so punishing and merciless that it has been nicknamed “The Passion of the Dirkie.” Severin Films proudly presents the “sadistic yet hilarious” (Ilovehotdogs.net) South African survival movie about a boy menaced by plain crashes, infernos, hungry hyenas, angry elephants, spitting cobras, stinging scorpions, dwindling cough medicine, dehydration, and a grueling landscape. Beautifully rendered in Techniscope and Technicolor despite nightmarish shooting conditions that took the film’s crew almost 7,000 miles through the wilderness of Namibia, DIRKIE: LOST IN THE DESERT set South African box office records on its release and traumatized select children all around the world.

“We’re all the better for receiving…
Birth. Movies. Death

Special Features:

  • English and Afrikaans Theatrical Release Versions
  • New Commentary with Star Wynand Uys and Film Scholar Ernest Mathijs
  • … And Your Little Dog Too – An Interview with Producer Boet Troskie
  • Trailers
  • Poster Gallery
  • BONUS FILM: Papam Pasivadu, a Telegu-language re-make from India

I can only guess what it must have been like for Wynand Uys in the late 1960s. Your father is Jamie Uys, a South African filmmaker who would become best known for his ethnographic, cult hit comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980). While flying to Namibia to promote his film The Professor and the Beauty Queen (1967), in which Wynand had a role, Jamie becomes enthralled with the Kalahari’s seemingly endless red dunes and is reminded of a news story involving a plane crash with only one survivor, a small child. He writes a script about a sickly eight year-old sent by his pianist father to recover in a dryer climate. The boy, Dirkie DeVries, and his little terrier, Lolly, board the small plane of this Uncle Pete, but Pete suffers a heart attack mid-flight and they crash in the Namib, a coastal desert in Southern Africa. With no options, Dirkie must find away to survive in the harsh environment while dad Anton desperately tries to locate his son. Jamie cast himself as Anton and Wynand as Dirkie, along with Pieter Hauptfleisch as Uncle Pete and a dog credited as Lady Frolic of Belvedale as Lolly (a diva actress name if I ever heard one). Maybe things were easy at the start. Maybe Jamie first filmed scenes of Anton and Dirkie sharing time at the piano as they appear at the start the film or maybe Wynand got to sit in a plane and pet his little dog. Either way, it must not have been long before Wynand found himself bundu bashing in a crew of 16 through nearly 7,000 miles of Namibia, playing a tiny Leonardo DiCaprio to his father’s Alejandro González Iñárritu in a production of The Littlest Revenant.

Wynand’s Dirkie is able to use the plane’s radio following the crash, evidencing his survival to his father and the relevant authorities, but he accidentally destroys the aircraft shortly thereafter and so the massive, military-led search knows little of Dirkie’s actual location. Needing water and food (and stalked by a lone, hungry hyena), Dirkie and Lolly set out on a miserable trek through the Namib where he is tormented by snakes, scorpions, territorial elephants, rocky outcrops, and that persistent hyena. And if getting stung, scraped, spat at, and scared isn’t enough, young Dirkie is tormented with the anxiety that his pup is killed on at least three separate occasions. Dirkie (aka Lost in the Desert and Adventure in the Red Desert) offers more harrowing punishment of a meek eight year-old that you ever knew you wanted (note: you do want it), but the production must not have been easy young for Wynand Uys either. Jamie Uys and Mimosa Pictures negotiated permission to film in a number of usually off-limits areas of Namibia. The production made stops at the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, Etosha National Park, Windhoek, Walvis Bay, Rhehoboth, and Namibia’s restricted diamond zones, but on a 250,000 Rand budget, cast and crew were hauling equipment, sleeping in tents, and rationing food and water delivered weekly by planes. Days were scorching, nights were freezing, and desert winds blew away everything. Production was prolonged due to the film being shot in two versions (one in English and one in Afrikaans), second takes required moving the entire set-up to dunes devoid of footprints, sand got into cameras, and shooting conditions precluded reviewing filmed material until location shooting closed. Animals were tamed but not trained and a unique medical condition caused Jamie Uys’s lips to burst into “a (painful) bloody mush” due to the intense heat. When Jamie Uys became incapacitated, the production stopped and costs soared.

Dirkie is briefly saved by an indigenous man (Khoi San) and his son, although a misunderstanding regarding Lolly sends Dirkie and his pet into the barren red dunes of the Kalahari alone. Casting of an indigenous child actor was apparently challenging, verging on impossible, as the local tribes sheltered from modern contact believed Jamie Uys was looking to purchase children as slaves, however “gentle negotiations” and a change of filming location secured Uys’s actor. Jamie Uys’s father character, Anton, experiences oddly comparable attitudes in the film as the search for Dirkie drags on. As time passes and his bank account dwindles, the Colonel responsible for the search takes an increasingly unsympathetic tone, a newspaper editor exhibits open suspicion toward the pianist and backs out of a commitment to assist in the expenses of the search, and Anton’s own manager even counsels him to “try to forget he ever had a son” and focus on “earning money.” Mortgaging his home, Anton has a couple millions leaflets printed and spread across the desert from a plane to encourage his lost son and provide some information to assist in his survival. Eventually, Anton searches the desert personally with the help of a knowledgeable guide, leading to the film’s climax and its somewhat ambiguous ending.

Dirkie was a resounding success on its initial release, setting box office records in South Africa, gaining a deal with Columbia Pictures for international distribution, and creating a generation of kids in the 1970s who could only wonder if they had imagined this disquieting, potentially traumatic film. Certainly Dirkie carries with it the cultural trope of the “lost child” which is consistent with the colonial experience of Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa. The lost white child embodies the colonial anxiety of never truly being at home in a foreign land and of the uncertain future that follows, while no doubt also expressing the guilt felt over the harms and abuses inflicted on indigenous populations generally and their children most specifically. Notably, Dirkie is never hardened by his experience. He isn’t made into a man. He is simply beat up more and more, left looking less and less like himself and more and more like an undead child trudging wraith-like across the desert with his dog and his suitcase. Jamie Uys never gets romantic in his cinematography. While his footage of the Namib and the Kalahari are impressive, the landscape always remains rugged and unforgiving. I can only guess the impact of Wynand Uys getting roped into his father’s plans to make a film about his being pummelled by the African elements. On the one hand, Wynand seems to have never acted again. On the other hand, he is still deeply connected to nature, working as a biologist, operating a river lodge and nature reserve, and working as a pilot and a nature photographer — so maybe the filming experience wasn’t that bad!

With all due respect to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), if any film could be inspired by the line “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” and truly mean it in the most cruelly brutal sense, it’s Dirkie. As a “controversial and provocative” feature plucked from a far-flung corner of the world and being equally comfortable playing as an afternoon matinee and a midnight movie, Dirkie: Lost in the Desert is precisely the kind of bizarre, forgotten quasi-kids film that Severin Kids seems made to celebrate. And with little options available to see this sun-baked kiddie-crucible, the label would be doing a service for those of us waiting for clean and complete edition of the film. He’s been out there 50 years now, Severin! Bring Dirkie home!

Credits: First of all, big thanks to Letterbox user “laird” for dubbing the movie “The Littlest Revenant.” This imagined release includes both editions of the film and its Indian remake, as well as the cooperation of its star, Wynand Uys, and its producer, the Chairman of Mimosa Films, Boet Troskie. Looking for a commentary moderator, MMC! chose cult film scholar Erenst Mathijs given his essay on The Gods Must Be Crazy in his and Xavier Mendik’s book 100 Cult Films.

This post also drew heavily upon Mimosa Films’s behind the scenes account of the film’s making (even if it feels a bit embroidered — always print the legend when given the choice, right?). Thanks are also owed to Jacob Knight’s review for Birth. Movies. Death., the San Francisco Bay Guardian article on some Cinefamily screenings, the Planet of the Nerds review, the review at ilovehotdogs.net, and WordRidden’s article on rediscovering the film.

4 thoughts on “Dirkie: Lost in the Desert (Jamie Uys, 1970)

  1. Connor C. July 11, 2020 / 8:30 pm

    Cloak and Dagger would be perfect for Severin Kids. Gotta love a movie that tries to mix family friendly video game jokes with cold blooded murder.

    • spinenumbered July 13, 2020 / 9:19 am

      It’s been a REALLY long time since I saw C&D. Maybe I should check that out again…

  2. michelleayers June 14, 2021 / 8:38 pm

    this film was the bane of my existence until a few years ago when i finally discovered the name of it, thank you internet. I remember watching it as a child, and i could tell people even now, the whole plot, the snake blinding him, the Kalahari tribes man who tries to help but the boy thinks he’s eating his dog etc, and no one knew what i was talking about. I started to thin i had imagined it. I have loved finding people who have blogged about it, and how horrific it was, and terrifying in child hood.

  3. Gail May 4, 2022 / 4:46 pm

    Fantastic film. Always remembered it. In the interval everyone was clamouring for ice cream. We all felt the intense heat.

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