"Who am I and where do I belong?" The feature film "Skin" (2009) starring Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neil and Alice Krige, follows Sandra Laing, a child of dark skin born to white Afrikaner parents in South Africa in 1955, through three decades as she tries to answer these questions, and struggles for classification, first as a Caucasian and later as a black woman.

Full of brutal irony matched with delicately realized images of personal and political devastation, the film brings us an intimate look at racial injustice under apartheid, while honoring its mythic impact on our collective experience.

By focusing on the people involved, not on the politics, "Skin" never succumbs to melodrama or polemic, a tribute to director Anthony Fabian's skill, and to his fortunate collaboration with composer Hélène Muddiman. Her subtle score, with its hybrid of western and African music, deftly draws us in close, letting the drums and woodwinds of South Africa speak with, not for, the characters.

Fabian commented in a post-screening Q&A that he consciously avoided gimmicks – any 'look at me' directorial bombast. "We kept the African selection of instruments, even in the demolition scene, to give the audience time to relate."

As an artist, British-born Muddiman signed with EMI at the age of 18. Classically trained, she plays a range of instruments including guitar, bass, keyboards and piano. Her singing has featured on many of Hans Zimmer’s film scores, television, and various hits for other artists.

She now composes and arranges for film and TV, and for recording artists such as Elvis Costello.

I spoke with Hélène at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Cat Robson: You’ve scored other films – "Jean," "A Fist Full of Pizza" and "Candy." How was "Skin" different?

Hélène: I wanted to work with white percussionists and a black string section, for instance, which took a lot of time to organize. Just the logistics of it all, because of a lack of high speed internet access – even that is still limited in areas of South Africa.

I wanted to work with Miriam Stockley. She is a white woman who sings sounding black and almost male at times. So again, trying to dispel the stereotyping: “That must be a black man.” It’s part of the whole ethos of the film, not prejudging people on appearance.

CR: Did you believe you were gifted as a child, and did you have anyone who encouraged that?

Hélène: Yeah, I mean lots of people, not just music people, but obviously my family, even though at times they wanted me to get a proper job. But always they supported me.

I guess one of the things that really encouraged me – and the more I think about it the more funny it seems – but being a woman, there were not many role models when I was growing up, composers who were women.

But one of the things I remember when I was a very small kid was watching all those lovely cartoons that Hanna-Barbera did, and I thought they were two women: Hanna and Barbara. It’s true. "The Flintstones," I just adored them, the whole thing. And as I child I never realized what a producer does or a director does, but just loved the music and thought that Hanna and Barbara had done these.

And I think that’s important for everybody: to have a role model that everybody can see. I don’t know how old I was when I realized. Thank god no one told me earlier. By then I was already inspired and thought I can do this. Hanna and Barbara did. In fact when I studied Bartok, Bela Bartok, I thought that was a woman.

CR: You had a record contract at a very young age,18. How was that for you?

Hélène: I think when I was a kid I was inspired by the thought of being the first woman to…whatever. That actually encouraged me as well. The fact that there weren’t that many women composers didn’t make me think “Well, I’m not going to do it.” It made me think, “Well I’m going to be the first.”

And obviously I’m not the first, there have been many fabulous [women] composers. But when I was ten or eleven there weren’t any that I knew of. And obviously I wasn’t thinking it was going to take me 30 years to get here. But I was quite inspired by, rather than daunted by, the prospect of being one of the first. But as I say, I’m not really the first.

CR: Success doesn’t automatically make for the deepening of our personality the growth of our souls, the growth of our emotional life, the growth of our personal relationships. Has it supported that in your life?

Hélène: I think on a practical level, yes, because it has allowed me the freedom to do other things. Like not worry where dinner’s coming from and that is important. And it’s important because it allows you to do more of the work that you love to do. And the more you do the more you get asked to do, hopefully.

And being a composer as well – much more than being an artist – I think one has the luxury of more longevity. Because as an artist at 35, if you haven't made it by then, sadly the world is structured [around] the young. I don't know that that is necessarily a good thing, because I'm sure there are many artists out there who have blossomed into their music – are late blossomers. Sadly we'll miss out on those people because it's not geared up for that.

And who knows, I hope that will change. Because there are many reasons why people are successful and not successful, and it's not necessarily about more talent, or the music they create, or the painting they do, it can be many other factors.

I've been very fortunate, being in the right place at the right time. As they say, preparation makes opportunity. And I've had many opportunities. I'm sure I've missed opportunities at other times, but all the preparation I’ve done in my career has provided opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had.

CR: Is there anything you want to do professionally that you haven’t yet done?

Hélène: The more I come to the see film festivals the more passionate I become about the medium. Even as an artist with the record deal, in the band I was playing with we made our own videos. I’ve always been quite obsessed with the marrying of music and visuals, and my biggest ambition was to write music for films.


Photo - Sam Neill as Abraham Laing, Ella Ramangwane as Young Sandra and Alice Krige as Sannie Laing, from the film "Skin."

Photo – Hélène Muddiman

"Skin" CD, contact Hélène Muddiman, www.helenemuddiman.com. 

"Skin," winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 24th Santa Barbara International Film Festival, both the Jury and Audience Favorite awards at the 17th Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles, and a nomination for a Time for Peace Award 2008/09, judged by 25 UN Ambassadors. www.Skinthemovie.net.