Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am

Shaleen Surtie-Richards was a national treasure whose acting career spanned film, stage and television over 35 years. Her recent and untimely passing made the influential Surtie-Richards a legend in her own capacity and a martyr to local actors. It comes as some comfort that she wouldn’t have done anything differently if she had to do it all over again. Yet, accumulating close on 50 acting awards in her time, including two Fleur du Caps, her end highlights the inequalities of outmoded policies relating to the remuneration and treatment of actors in South Africa.

It’s an injustice for a legendary film, TV and stage star to cross over without the dignity or recompense she so rightly deserves – representing a chasm for thousands of others aspiring to reach the same summit. While Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am was filmed from the perspective of a lifetime achievement, encompassing highlights with interviews from friends, family and peers, it’s a fitting tribute after her passing. Humble, down-to-earth and an absolute force, this celebrity documentary covers her childhood in Upington, her early theatre work, her expansive influence and the iconic film, TV and stage roles that made her a household name.

Starting with her landmark performance as Fiela both on stage and in Katinka Heyns’s Fiela se Kind, we get insights and inspiring behind-the-scenes stories about her significant role and considerable influence. Using archive clips and photographs, the chronicle features her kingpin role as Nenna on Egoli: Place of Gold over its 18 year run before getting to grips with some of her stage work, most notably Shirley Valentyn. Interviewing key collaborators at every stage of her journey, it’s a heartfelt and warm tribute to Surtie-Richards as other South African legends pour their hearts out.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards

“Fiela, Nenna or Shirley? It was always Shaleen.”

Interviewing Marc Lottering, Pieter Dirk-Uys, Royston Stoffels, Sandra Prinsloo, Brümilda van Rensburg and many other noteworthy collaborators and compatriots, it’s an intimate character portrait and a comprehensive overview of her award-winning performance career. Grounded, authentic and charming, she captured the hearts of South African audiences with a number of lovable characters who she played with affection, also realising the political influence and true inspiration of her work.

Mirroring Surtie-Richards and trying to extract her essence in the process, I Am Who I Am is an unpretentious, generous and warm celebrity documentary from Diana Lucas. It remains a glowing testimony to her life, lightly touching on her failed marriage and hinting at other relationships and health concerns. Keeping a good pace and being mindful of entertainment value, it’s a celebration of everything Shaleen Surtie-Richards that remains compelling with charming interviewees and nostalgic throwbacks to some of her most memorable moments.

I Am Who I Am follows a typical documentary format in relaying the memories and thoughts of her friends, colleagues and lifelong fans. Using some disarming behind-the-scenes footage of guests before calling action, gives the chronicle another dimension and some added vitality. Surtie-Richards suffered a stroke but carries the same call-it-like-it-is spirit that made her famous. Using her interview as a backbone to the film, this collation of performance excerpts, photographs and charming interviews characterise the legend, highlighting her generous spirit, in-the-moment performance style and capturing a great who will be sorely missed.

The bottom line: Spirited