South African Ivan Botha And Donnalee Roberts On Their New Female-Led Film: ‘Swimming Upstream Only Makes You Stronger’

Writing, producing and acting dream team Ivan Botha and Donnalee Roberts have had box office success with their films Pad Na Jou Hart and Vir Altyd.

And now the pair are back with a first for South African cinemas.

Their new film Stroomop which releases on Women’s Day, 9 August, follows five women who end up together for Adventure Therapy on the Orange River.

There they go on a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance and healing.

This time Ivan is behind-the-camera and Donnalee leads the cast: Simoné Nortmann, Chanelle de Jager, Carla Classen and Ilse Klink.

Donnalee and Ivan were inspired to tell this story because there are very few local films that have female heroines.

“We wanted to honour and celebrate women. Women are more than just one thing. Every woman I have ever crossed paths with has been written into these five characters,” says Donnalee.

Little did the pair know that their film would come to fruition during a time when women all over the world are finding their voice.

“Women are standing up everywhere. Countries where women didn’t have a voice, they are now saying this is my voice and it matters.”

She continues: “In Afrikaans culture the term stroomop means to be difficult. We wanted to challenge that. It’s difficult to swim upstream, but it also makes you stronger in a world where there is the unwritten expectation to just go with the flow.”

For Ivan, who makes his directorial debut, it was a big internal debate to tell this female-driven story.

“With my male privilege I asked myself what gives me the right to tell this story? I realised my privilege and accepted the challenge. I knew I was the right person because I knew that I was going to surround myself with an incredible cast and crew members, a lot of our crew members were female.”

He continues: “All the people who have inspired me in my life have been women. This is my thank you to all the women who inspire me.”


Not only do the characters go on an adventure, but making the movie was in itself an adventure as well. Shot on location on the Orange River, it presented a lot of challenges.

Ivan explains: “We were 1300km away from home which was Johannesburg for everyone. We camped next to the Orange River. There was no electricity, no cellphone signal, and you had to drive 40 minutes just to phone your loved ones.”

Getting to set was a mammoth trek. The daily routine consisted of a 20 minute drive by 4×4, a 20-30 minute boat ride and a 30-40 minute hike through tough terrain carrying equipment and gear.

Ivan has nothing but praise for the cast and crew who championed the conditions.

As producers it was important for the duo that the women were comfortable on the water, so they had some rafting training beforehand.


“We partnered with SA Forest Adventures, a Cape Town based company. They did all our water and rafting safety. There is always some danger and risk but we put them in a safe controlled environment. We spent about a week training and practicing rafting.”

Ivan adds: “And, all the women performed their own stunts.”


Donnalee plays Lana, a surgeon with a tragic past. When they started writing the script Donna wanted to write a character that would challenge her.

Speaking about her character she says, “We had this joke – her sleeves were always rolled up whether to save someone’s life or to start a fight. She’s a bit of a rebel.

“Lana has built a very high wall because of her past. She dealt with great loss as a young girl and that is what drove her to be a doctor. She goes on the physical journey which becomes an internal one too.”

To prepare for the role she shadowed a surgeon for a few days and even had the opportunity to go into surgery.

“For me as an actor it was important to get the small things right. To get the body language right, how to hold a scalpel and how to move in the operating room. It was wonderful to get the opportunity to observe that.”

Physically it was also challenging. In the first week Donnalee thought that her body would break in half.

“But the way that we are made – we are made to survive. After week one I could feel that I became physically stronger to swim, to raft the rapids and to hike to set.”

She continues: “I was also challenged emotionally to play a character that is that raw and honest.”


While penning the script they already had some of the cast in mind to play the four roles.

“Everybody on board is how we pictured it and how we wanted it – half of the battle for a director is won when your casting is right. We prepped and briefed everyone before they signed on. Everyone accepted the challenge, they were amazing,” says Ivan.

For Donna it was a privilege to act alongside her co-stars.

“They are incredible. Their performances are strong, brave, honest and real. I am so thankful to have been able to make this amazing movie with them.”

With the movie they have also started a movement. They visit schools to speak to young women, to encourage them and create a culture where women celebrate each other.


Ivan hopes that everyone who goes to see the movie identifies with the characters in some way.

“I want them to spend an hour and 45 minutes with the characters and cry and laugh and just relate to them. We want people to leave the cinema inspired. We want them to know that whoever they are it is enough.”

Donnalee adds: “I hope that people are empowered to be brave and to swim upstream and not allow others to define who they are.”


Written by PH

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