Writing and Research

The drama of young love is made for the movies. The confusions and aspirations, the naiveté, the stirrings and crushing disappointments of adolescence make for dramatic stories.

There were hints of these ideals and ordeals in the voices of teenagers from all over Zimbabwe who were interviewed two years ago by MFD research teams. These meetings laid the groundwork for a film about adolescent sexuality. The arguments and thoughts of Zimbabwean teens are captured in hours and hours of tape recordings filed away at MFD offices.

Those recordings document concerns about sex and morality, about religion, culture, the media, school, career, parents, pregnancy, ambition, passion, peers, relationships, HIV, music, alcohol and attitudes to sexuality. They are a vital reference for the story of Yellow Card.

Twenty six discussion groups were set up throughout Zimbabwe, town and country. They were conducted in English, Shona and Ndebele, at schools, in townships, in smart suburbs, in rural communities, among Girl guides or Boy Scouts, boys alone or girls on their own, mixed boys and girls, or any number of variations of the above. A few individuals agreed to speak in depth, one-on-one, about adolescent life and choices.

Almost all the young participants were agreed on a few things. They got most of their ideas about sex from their peers. Discussions among the family were "taboo". They almost all longed for ideal, open relationships which included greater understanding from their parents. They mostly agreed that they knew a lot about HIV and they were adamant that most of the "information" was boring and dull. They talked about sexuality, for the most part, as "doing it", having sex, although a few groups were very clear that "relationships" were not just about sex.

Getting from taped interviews to a storyline was the next step. Armed with this research and the knowledge that the story would focus on a teenage boy, writer-director John Riber sat down with another writer Andrew Whaley to build up a story outline.

First impressions clearly indicated that this would be "the flip side" to an earlier MFD film, Consequences. It would be the boy's story. And the boy who made a girl pregnant would end up literally carrying the baby. The central, dominating theme of the film is responsibility - Tiyane's responsibility to the girl he makes pregnant, the other girl he falls in love with, to his parents and family, to his soccer team, but most of all to himself. When Tiyane faces the truth - that he is a father - he finally accepts responsibility for his actions. It is that simple.

The more the writers explored this theme of responsibility, the tougher it got for Tiyane. "He's a kid whose hormones are all over the place," says John Riber. "He's not bad, he just can't help himself."

The worry was always that Tiyane would not endear himself to audiences. For a start, he sleeps with Linda, but doesn't love her. No sooner has he bedded her (almost accidentally) than he falls head over heels in love with a totally inappropriate girl, Juliet, who is by comparison upper class. Then he lies and deceives himself that Linda is not pregnant and remains silent. He never lets on for a moment to Juliet what is going on in his life. It is only when the baby arrives literally on his doorstep that he is forced to face facts.

Says Whaley: "The whole point of this story is that Tiyane ducks and dives away from responsibility. Morally, I guess he's blameworthy. But he's human. And a lot of young people are like that - scared to face the truth. The whole film works its way to that overwhelming moment when he realises he is isolated by his own lies. He can't go on. He knows he has been wrong, but he has to put everything right, however painful it is for him. For the sake of his child."

Right from the start Riber wanted a light and youthful, comic story that avoided lecturing. And his image of "a young guy playing football with a baby on his back" is comically incongruous. Imagine Babangida or Rigobert Song on the bench with a baby on their backs.

The writers also infused Yellow Card with plenty of characters. There is Skido the class joker whose clownish ways make his infection with HIV all the more painful. The smaller roles from Tiyane's mother and father to a one-scene security guard to the football coach and his Hyenas team, a soccer agent, a headmaster and a score of others, all bring the Yellow Card Story dramatically to life.

In a pre-test showing of Yellow Card in five African countries, the body of evidence is that youngsters love the film. And high up on their list of preferences is the film's strong characterisation and highly believable storyline with plenty of action, comedy and relevance to young people in Africa.