It was any woman’s absolute worst nightmare. And it was a story that rocked South Africa to its core. In April of 1997, Celeste Nurse gave birth to her first baby at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. A beautiful little girl. Amidst the blur of giving birth for the first time, the shifting mind space of the hospital and the sense of dislocation, Nurse’s baby girl vanished. It took 17 years for the wrinkles in the story to be smoothed out, in the face of so much emotional damage incurred. Girl, Taken, a film on this year’s Durban International Film Festival, which also featured on the recent Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival, directed by Francois Verster and Simon Wood, is completely unmissable. é
It’s one thing reflecting on a yarn cast in the media that stretches out over almost two decades and then some, and quite another doing the homework that lends a balanced sense of journalistic integrity to the story, which will give you, in the audience, the kind of goosebumps that don’t just go away. Girl, Taken explores every one of the interstices in what happened to the Nurse baby, who was grown and raised as Miché Solomon, in Dreyersdal, Tokai, a suburb of Cape Town, blithely unaware of the catastrophe that had happened when she was just a couple of days old. She was stolen by a woman who constructed a web of lies around the birth. But one who also wove a life of complete love around the child as she raised her.
The earth-shattering revelation came at a time when the child in question – named Zephany Nurse at her birth – was in high school and this documentary, with balance, sensitivity and acuity, describes the story as it revealed itself. With frank and engaged talking heads, it’s the kind of work that will grab your focus by the scruff of its proverbial neck and leave you haunted by the complexities of who is good and who, bad in a tale of this nature.
Combining amateur footage and happy snaps taken by a young family, with serious documentary weight, this film offers a rich and careful but open-ended glance at different levels and types of privacy, love and resentment. Referencing Joanne Jowell’s important 2019 Tafelberg publication Zephany: Two mothers. One daughter. An Astonishing True Story, it shifts effortlessly from actuality into universality, given the candour with which the ‘stolen child’ in question reflects on her love for her parents, whoever she deems them to be, but reaches into your own heart and your own understanding of good and evil, of ownership and child-raising.
Girl, Taken is directed by Francois Verster and Simon Wood. Written by Neasa Ní Chianáin, Francois Verster and Simon Wood and produced by Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane, Shameela Seedat and Francois Verster, it features creative input by Peter Coyte (music), Michael Carter, Fahema Hendricks, Chris Lotz and Felix Seuffert (cinematography), Bob Caldwell, Khalid Shamis and Miriam Strugalla (editing) and Reto Stamm (sound design), it is on the Durban International Film Festival, which runs until 30 July online and without cost, and at all regional cinemas in the Durban area.