Venus by Jon Smith

Original feature-length screenplay

Winner: Best Screenplay
The Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition 2012 (Quarter-Finalist)

Log line

A young black woman travels to Europe to make her fortune as a musician, but instead, due to her large and pronounced buttocks, becomes the unwitting star of one of the most infamous and popular freak shows in England and France.

Story Outline

Cape Town, 1810. SAARTJIE BAARTMAN, a 21 year-old black woman, is a gifted musician, singer and dancer. Saartjie, with large and pronounced buttocks, her frame typical of her Khoisan tribal heritage, performs to a packed audience at a Cape Town tavern, silencing the wolf-whistles, lewd comments and rowdy soldiers with a mesmerising violin performance.

Hendrik CESARS, a weathered Dutch-colonial farmer, introduces Saartjie to Alexander DUNLOP, the Battalion's Scottish doctor who tried but failed to treat Saartjie's son CIARAN's fatal pneumonia. Cesars, hatching a plan to take Saartjie to London to make his fortune, tries to garner Dunlop's support for the proposal, but Dunlop thinks the idea foolhardy.

Worse for wear, Cesars is assisted home by Saartjie and they enter the house to find Cesars' wife ANNA furious they've been out so late; a crying baby demands Saartjie's attention. Saartjie is servant to the Cesars' and wet-nurse to their daughter VERONICA, she breastfeeds the baby, before placing her down to sleep. Her son's cot lies empty, but not forgotten.

Dunlop, moonlighting in the local hospital, doing what he can for prostitutes dying of syphilis, is 'caught in the act' and ordered to attend a meeting with the GOVERNOR of the Cape by his superior, GENERAL GREY.

Relations between Anna and Saartjie are on a knife-edge: despite Anna showing no interest in her own daughter, she is clearly jealous of Saartjie's natural motherly abilities and punishes Saartjie through ill-treatment and by forbidding her from playing her violin in the house or at the tavern. Anna and Cesars bicker over Anna's desire to move closer to her family in Cape Town, their marriage exposed as nothing more than mutual toleration. Cesars refuses Anna's demands and seeks solace gambling on dice games at the tavern. Saartjie withdraws with her collection of newspaper cuttings celebrating theatre, the arts and actors – the pull of London ever stronger for both Cesars and Saartjie.

The syphilis outbreak hits closer to home when one of the male servants RANAKO displays late-stage symptoms. Dunlop, as a favour to Cesars, tries to assist and on hearing Saartjie's heart-breaking violin lament is clearly warming to the possibilities of Saartjie's performing talents.

Dunlop, despite being a decorated military surgeon, loses his position having been caught using military supplies to combat the syphilis outbreak devastating Cape Town. Ordered to return to England, to await another posting, he agrees to join Cesars and Saartjie in their plans to show Saartjie's musical talents in London. Saartjie, caught mimicking Anna's snobbish behaviour, is beaten in retribution.

Tensions between Anna and Saartjie reach a bitter conclusion when Saartjie discovers Anna has burnt the last physical memories of Ciaran on a bonfire; the cot, bedding and a favourite doll nonchalantly fed to the flames. Saartjie, beside herself with grief, escapes the farmhouse. Cesars, catching up with her, realises the relationship between servant and mistress is no longer tenable and final plans must be put into place for the long, subterfuge voyage to England.

On arrival in London, Cesars, Saartjie and Dunlop can only rustle up small lacklustre crowds to see Saartjie's musical revue and the venture seems all but doomed. Saartjie suggests they capitalise on her natural assets; being well aware of her audiences' fascination with her backside. In agreement, they move to the heart of Regency freak shows, Piccadilly, and re-brand the show "The Hottentot Venus". Despite the prohibitive entrance price, Cesars' determined and successful PR & marketing campaign creates an unprecedented demand for Saartjie, which results in a gruelling schedule of sell-out shows, day-in, day-out.

MACAULAY and GRENVILLE, members of the African Institution and vehement campaigners against slavery and the recently outlawed slave trade, have been alerted to The Hottentot Venus. Abhorred by what they see, and convinced that Saartjie does not perform of her own free will, confront Cesars and Dunlop accusing them of enslavement and mis-treatment. Cesars throws them out of the theatre – the catalyst for the African Institution to make preparations to mount a court action to liberate Saartjie from the employ of Cesars and Dunlop.

The taxing performances, poor weather and an increased reliance on alcohol take their toll on Saartjie and her health deteriorates with each passing month. The show is demeaning and physically challenging and a far cry from the performances Saartjie dreamed of delivering when she agreed to travel to England. Frustrated and lonely, despite a growing friendship with a dwarf performer from a neighbouring show, Saartjie demands her share of the gate receipts declaring she wishes to return to South Africa.

In a bid to appease and placate Saartjie, Cesars who clearly has a gambling habit, agrees to pay Saartjie a weekly stipend from her earnings and after forcing her to perform a particularly demeaning 'private viewing' for a perverted aristocrat, and being challenged by Dunlop over his terrible treatment of Saartjie, spoils her with an all-expenses-paid trip to the dressmakers and the promise of Sundays off and the chance to ride around London in an open carriage – of course this exploitation of Saartjie's dreams and vanity is a barely concealed ploy to drum up more interest in the show and to increase ticket sales.

Summoned to court, Cesars convinces Dunlop to forge Saartjie's transit papers and to create and backdate an employment contract to show the court their business is bona fide. Saartjie uses the opportunity to increase her equity in the partnership demanding 50% of gate receipts. Dunlop champions her cause and reluctantly Cesars agrees. The court case opens and Cesars' weak testimony and dubious paperwork leaves the Judge erring on the side of the African Institution, however it is Saartjie's own testimony in which she bears witness to performing of her own free will, her dreams of being a London stage performer and her acknowledgement that Cesars saved her from ill-treatment from his wife, Anna, that convinces the Judge the case be dismissed.

Dunlop, the closest thing Saartjie has to a 'friend', receives orders to report to Gibraltar and must leave London and Saartjie. He demands his outstanding payments from Cesars but the money is all gone, squandered at the gaming tables, Furious, Dunlop comes close to killing Cesars, but Cesars promises Dunlop that there is a buyer, Réaux, keen to purchase Dunlop's exhibition rights and take The Hottentot Venus to the more 'permissive' Paris, now that Napoleon has been ousted. Dunlop sells his stake and flees England, leaving his morals and Saartjie behind.

In Paris, Saartjie's health deteriorates quickly; her dependence on alcohol has become an addiction and her performances are often cancelled due to ill health or she refuses to 'perform' as Réaux requires.

On hearing of Napoleon's return to Paris, Réaux leaves Paris to escape possible retribution for unknown crimes and with Réaux gone, Cesars must return to the role of 'handler' on stage, but with no French language skills, and Saartjie's poor health, the show comes to an abrupt end when Saartjie collapses on stage.

CUVIER, a renowned French anthropologist pays Cesars handsomely for the chance to capture illustrations of Saartjie, as he believes her to be a 'missing link' between ape and man and is perversely fascinated by Saartjie's pronounced buttocks and labia. Saartjie, with very little fight left in her becomes more and more the plaything of the controlling men around her; increasingly isolated she self-medicates with alcohol and her health takes another turn for the worst.

Cesars, realising that his cash cow is drying up, tries once again to win at the tables but continues to lose money – Saartjie, seeing where Cesars hides what remains of his cash, and having given up all hope of returning to South Africa, commits a final act of defiance by burning Cesars' last remaining money. When Cesars discovers this betrayal, he beats and rapes Saartjie.

With no income, Cesars in serious debt with the gaming rooms and with Saartjie barely able to stand, they live out their days destitute in the dilapidated Paris venue burning furniture for warmth and drinking cheap alcohol. Saartjie, now showing the symptoms of syphilis, makes one last drunken bid for freedom, but only makes it as far as a neighbouring street before collapsing. Cesars brings her back to the venue.

Saartjie dies lonely and forgotten in Paris and Cesars puts into plan a scheme to continue to profit from her death. Cuvier wants her body for his private scientific collection and after purchasing her corpse dissects her, preserving her brain, genitals and buttocks in glass bell jars.

Cesars learns of Saartjie's syphilis on route back to South Africa and it appears he himself has now contracted the fatal illness – an ironic post-mortem 'gift' from his victim.

Dunlop, now serving in Gibraltar learns of Saartjie's death in a newspaper article, the news crushes him with guilt.

Cuvier, delighted with his new collection, admires the body parts; wax cast and skeleton of the Hottentot Venus, which we learn during the closing credits, were on public display in France until 1976.

Saartjie Baartman's remains were returned to the nation of South Africa and she was finally laid to rest in 2002.