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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
African love affair inspires Oscar

By Rebecca Thomas
BBC News Online entertainment staff

German movie Nowhere in Africa bowled over the voters of the Academy Awards, who named it 2002's best foreign-language film.

But Stefanie Zweig, the author of the best-selling autobiographical novel on which it was based, says the film should not be taken as a true representation of her life.

Nowhere in Africa
Regina (or Stefanie Zweig) loved the Kenyan way of life
The film tells the story of how she and her German-Jewish parents gave up everything to flee to Kenya to escape the Nazi persecution of World War II.

But while Zweig's story is told through the loving eyes of the little girl Regina, the movie focuses more on her parents and the problems in their marriage.

Zweig, who has also been a film critic for much of her adult life, fully recognises that film adaptations are often very different from the original text.

I wrote the book in respect for my father, who told me very early in life not to hate
Novelist Stefanie Zweig

And film-goers should know that life for her family in 1938 Kenya was not quite the one portrayed on screen, she adds.

"The couple in the film talk so very much about their marriage, whether they are going to stay together, what Kenya is like for them, and that was not real," says the 71-year-old author.

"When you have just escaped Nazi Germany in fear of your life, you did not come to another country and talk about your marriage, you tried to go on.

"I wanted to talk about the Holocaust and my parents and how when Hitler came, my father lost his profession, his language and his homeland."

Glamorised version

In the film, Regina's mother Jettel is portrayed as a cold, vain woman who refuses to accept that she cannot return to her luxurious life.

Her torment and the harshness of the rural African farm life begins to pulls her marriage to Regina's father apart.

Zweig says she was always aware that her parents were unhappy but that her mother would never have dared to act like Jettel.

Nowhere in Africa
The film presented a more luxurious way of life

"My mother was a very spoilt woman but she was also very charming and warm-hearted. The actress does not convey that.

"She is a rather cold and tough woman and, at the time, you did not know what tough women were.

"My father would have murdered her on the spot if she had been like that."

Equally, the author did not recognise the well-dressed actress playing herself as a small child. "We were very poor," says Zweig.

However, the older actress with her "sad look", playing Regina aged about 12, did remind her of herself.

Parental respect

If Zweig was melancholic in Kenya, it was because she was touched by her parents' loneliness and fears for the family they had left behind.

Zweig on the other hand "thrived" in Africa, loving everything about it.

Ouwor meant everything to me
Novelist Stefanie Zweig

"I was so little I didn't really know what [the move] meant. From the moment we got on the ship, I forgot everything about my old life, which is rather curious as I never forgot anything."

Out of respect for her parents, Zweig wrote Nowhere in Africa and its sequel Somewhere in Germany, many years after their deaths.

She had already written a successful children's book called a Mouthful of Earth, in which she tells much about her life in Kenya.

It was nominated for prizes in the UK and Germany and won the National Geographic Society's best juvenile book title in The Netherlands.
Nowhere in Africa
The movie focuses on the parents' relationship

It was while collecting the Dutch prize that Zweig decided to write the grown-up version of her story.

"I thought to myself, 'You really are a fool to waste all your life in a children's book, why don't you tell the true story?'," Zweig says.

The continued influence of her father also played a big part.

"I wrote the book in respect for my father, who told me very early in life not to hate, he taught me tolerance and not to give way to sentiments. I loved him very much and I wanted it to be his book," she adds.

Lasting love

The film of her story is visually sumptuous. For Zweig, who holds vivid images of Kenya in her mind, this was one of the movie's best qualities.

Many other parts of the film also moved her, most notably the actor playing Ouwor, the devoted "houseboy" who took Zweig under his wing.

Zweig has returned to Kenya twice since leaving in 1947. She found the farm had been destroyed.

Nowhere in Africa
Ouwor was a huge support and friend

However, she has no idea what happened to Ouwor, who could neither read nor write to keep in touch.

And in this respect, the movie has been invaluable, the author concludes.

"Ouwor meant everything to me. He was my fatherly friend and it was love at first sight for me when I saw the actor doing his part.

"We spoke Swahili and it was exactly as if I had seen Ouwor again."

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