Heaven Reaches Down to Earth was created during a spate of homophobic killings in our country. I was aware that the film would likely be viewed through this lens and believed it was always going to live in that context in my mind. Our expectations of queer romance narratives, as filmmakers, had found their way into even early iterations of the story, and I reverted to the idea that a film like ours had to have “external” conflict. Our characters would have to go against tradition, their parents, their friends, society, or culture for their attraction to thrive. It felt like everywhere I looked in my country, queer people were and continued to be victims of violence, so I made the assumption that even our film had to reflect that in order to be truthful.
The day before production, we received word that our main location had succumbed to a wildfire. We were forced to face the uncertainties of creating in such a wild, unpredictable environment—the eternal next to the ephemeral. We pivoted the entire schedule to safer areas in the Du Toitskloof Mountains, and proceeded with the shoot, albeit with half our original locations. I felt this urgency that everything around us was disappearing or changing. The film became an experiment, a constant adaptation to show ourselves that the story was within us, not contingent on the perfect location or ideal weather. We wanted to show that we were more than the traumas around the film, as alive as the environment around us.
In one of the last conversations we had, Thapelo Maropefela (our lead) and I were driving through a mountain range similar to the one in Heaven Reaches Down to Earth. He told me how small he felt in comparison, and how these mountains would be here for the rest of time. From that point on, I knew I wanted the voiceover in the film to feel like it was emanating from the earth itself: all-knowing and infinite.
After we began editing, the film still felt incomplete. My experiment had failed. I felt too controlled by those formal expectations of needing external conflict to rise to a climactic scene in order to create an engaging piece. I wasn’t allowing myself to be present enough to let the film reveal itself to me. We shot one more day and the last scene we captured was the mountain-climbing sequence. The film needed a release that knocked on the door of pure desire and attempted to personify that moment of first attraction. The inclusion of the mountain sequence catalyzed the full transformation of our film into one of desire and exhalation: the people, the land, forever linked.
Months later, a violence similar to the one we had transcended with our film claimed the life of our beloved Thapelo. This cruelty is a form of erasure. I ask myself, even now, if we are able to show that we are more than the violence our country has become so defined by. I’m still not ready to accept how quickly the film became a time capsule of everything that used to be. I still carry around in my head the conversations we had on that mountain.
But today, the first image I conjure up of Thapelo is the penultimate frame of that dream sequence, in which he stands atop the summit. Exhaling, pure adrenaline in his body—mountain and sky in every direction. It’s an image as vivid and immutable from my mind as those mountains he wondered about. It is a reminder that simply committing to film the memory of our artistic siblings can be, in and of itself, an act of resistance—revolution through the simple act of creating; to say we were here, and continue to be.