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THE LETTER WRITER

Director: Christian Vuissa
Screenplay: Christian Vuissa
Players: Aley Underwood; Bernie Diamond; Pam Eichner; Kylee Thurman; Stella McComas
Genre: drama; teenage rite of passage
Rating: ***‘

The Letter Writer’ is a low-budget, independent film , in many ways a small film, dealing with the rite of passage of heroine, Maggy (Underwood) from being a thoroughly young ‘Modern Miss’ in an immoral world to finding her true course and life’s purpose. If such an idea sounds prissy, then in some parts of the film the overt morality of the story and message is indeed rather overwhelming.  For the most part, however, despite stiff and ‘clunky’ acting from many of the principals, the film offers a heart-warming and emotionally-uplifting story where good triumphs in an entirely palatable and convincing way.
The film is dedicated to actor Bernie Diamond, who plays Sam Worthington, a non-de-plume for an elderly gentleman in The Maple Hill Rest Home, whose passion in life is to send letters to unknown persons that he selects largely at random from a telephone directory. Bernie Diamond passed away in 2011, soon after the making of this film. Ironically, it is entirely by accident that Maggy becomes a recipient.
At the beginning of the film Maggy Fuller falls asleep in the middle of a college lecture, earning her an earnest reproof from her school Principal. At home, her mother’s recriminations echo the stereotypical adult sentiments: Maggy seems generally out of kilter with responsibility, focus, and purpose in life. She sings (badly) in a teenage band, and gossip suggests that her position is due entirely to the generosity of her boyfriend, Jay. Her best friend, Kimmy (Thurman), is a bottle-blonde whose personality is as synthetic as her hair colour; Kimmy represents peer pressure at its worst: cheating for tests is not only acceptable, it is recommended; Kimmy ingratiates herself with the band by offering networking opportunities for the band members to earn a breakthrough. The tenacity and confidence of the band members are fragile: fellow students scoff and gossip about their competence and lack of talent.
The director depicts a dysfunctional family initially.  Maggy lives with her mother (Eichner) in a low-rise apartment block; her father walked out on the family when she was small and thus she has no male role models. Her mother is a waitress, leaving her alone regularly for night shifts at work.
There is a total lack of Hollywood gloss about this film. It was filmed in Utah, with the aid of the Utah Film Commission, and this may explain an intangible overlay of religious values that become explicit in some of the dialogue and implicit in the plotline of the film. The setting is small-town America, with the cosy plastic décor in the diner, and sycamore and plane trees lining leafy avenues covered in drifts of leaves in autumnal reds and oranges. Inexperienced actors deliver lines stiffly in parts, with precious pauses in the dialogue which destroy mood and slow down the pace of the action.
If one can overcome these flaws and limitations, all of which become visible in the first thirty minutes, the story develops a sincerity and conviction about old-fashioned values and a moral centre designed to offer young people a way forward to gain confidence and a sense of self, leading inevitably towards a purpose in life.
Worthington’s letters to strangers are inexplicably astute and appropriate for the recipient. Maggy receives her first letter when she is despondent and bowed down by criticism and an abiding sense of failure: ‘You are an example that inspires and uplifts’ and ‘You are not alone.’ Child-cancer-sufferer, Michael, receives a letter about ‘courage in adversity’. The uplifting sentiments are so affecting that Maggy determines to find the sender and her investigations lead her to re-uniting temporarily with her estranged father, in the hope that he knows the sender.
‘The voice is the most beautiful instrument of all,’ avers Sam, whose real name is Stanley. This passing judgement acquires significance at the very end of the film. Sam’s ‘voice’ is expressed through his letters: he wrote 10 letters of encouragement one morning and takes Maggy on a circuit to find people who display signs of need. ‘I felt one of them was for her,’ he tells Maggy, who asks him what prompted him to deliver the first one to a young mother pushing a pram in the park.
Once the viewer is emotionally involved in Maggy’s destiny, the writer-director shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, as slowly Maggy’s life unravels. Violins trill relentlessly in the background and, at one point, lugubrious choral work contributes towards an outburst of tears. There is no subtlety about the director’s approach here; but the homily is far more palatable than a parable from the pulpit.

About The Author

Sanlam 2018 Annual Results

7 March 2019

 

Sanlam’s 2018 annual results provides testimony to its resilience amid challenging operating conditions and negative investment markets

Sanlam today announced its operational results for the 12 months ended 31 December 2018. The Group made significant progress in strategic execution during 2018. This included the acquisition of the remaining 53% stake in SAHAM Finances, the largest transaction concluded in the Group’s 100-year history, and the approval by Sanlam shareholders of a package of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) transactions that will position the Group well for accelerated growth in its South African home market.

Operational results for 2018 included 14% growth in the value of new life insurance business (VNB) on a consistent economic basis and more than R2 billion in positive experience variances, testimony to Sanlam’s resilience in difficult times.

The Group relies on its federal operating model and diversified profile in dealing with the challenging operating environment, negative investment markets and volatile currencies. Management continues to focus on growing existing operations and extracting value from recent corporate transactions to drive enhanced future growth.

The negative investment market returns and higher interest rates in a number of markets where the Group operates had a negative impact on growth in operating earnings and some other key performance indicators. This was aggravated by weak economic growth in South Africa and Namibia and internal currency devaluations in Angola, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Substantial growth in Santam’s operating earnings (net result from financial services) and satisfactory growth by Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM) and Sanlam Corporate offset softer contributions from Sanlam Personal Finance (SPF) and Sanlam Investment Group (SIG).

Key features of the 2018 annual results include:

Net result from financial services increased by 4% compared to the same period in 2017;

Net value of new covered business up 8% to R2 billion (up 14% on a consistent economic basis);

Net fund inflows of R42 billion compared to R37 billion in 2017;

Adjusted Return on Group Equity Value per share of 19.4% exceeded the target of 13.0%; and

Dividend per share of 312 cents, up 8%.

Sanlam Group Chief Executive Officer, Mr Ian Kirk said: “We are satisfied with our performance in a challenging operating environment. We will continue to focus on managing operations prudently and diligently executing on our strategy to deliver sustainable value to all our stakeholders. The integration of SAHAM Finances is progressing well. In addition, Sanlam shareholders approved the package of B-BBEE transactions, including an equity raising, at the extraordinary general meeting held on 12 December 2018. Our plan to implement these transactions this year remains on track.”

Sanlam Personal Finance (SPF) net result from financial services declined by 5%, largely due to the impact of new growth initiatives and dampened market conditions. Excluding the new initiatives, SPF’s contribution was 1% down on 2017 due to the major impact that the weak equity market performance in South Africa had on fund-based fee income.

SPF’s new business sales increased by 4%, an overall satisfactory result under challenging conditions. Sanlam Sky’s new business increased by an exceptional 71%. Strong growth of 13% in the traditional individual life channel was augmented by the Capitec Bank credit life new business recognised in the first half of 2018, and strong demand for the new Capitec Bank funeral product. The Recurring premium and Strategic Business Development business units also achieved strong growth of 20%, supported by the acquisition of BrightRock in 2017. Glacier new business grew marginally by 1%. Primary sales onto the Linked Investment Service Provider (LISP) platform improved by 5%, an acceptable result given the pressure on investor confidence in the mass affluent market. This was however, offset by lower sales of wrap funds and traditional life products.

The strong growth in new business volumes at Sanlam Sky had a major positive effect on SPF’s VNB growth, which increased by 7% (14% on a comparable basis).

Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM) grew its net result from financial services by 14%. Excluding the impact of corporate activity, earnings were marginally up on 2017 (up 8% excluding the increased new business strain).

New business volumes at SEM increased by 20%. Namibia performed well, increasing new business volumes by 22% despite weak economic conditions. Both life and investment new business grew strongly. Botswana underperformed with the main detractor from new business growth being the investment line of business, which declined by 24%. This line of business is historically more volatile in nature.

The new business growth in the Rest of Africa portfolio was 68% largely due to corporate activity relating to SAHAM Finances, with the East Africa portfolio underperforming.

The Indian insurance businesses continued to perform well, achieving double-digit growth in both life and general insurance in local currency. The Malaysian businesses are finding some traction after a period of underperformance, increasing their overall new business contribution by 3%. New business production is not yet meeting expectations, but the mix of business improved at both businesses.

SEM’s VNB declined by 3% (up 6% on a consistent economic basis and excluding corporate activity). The relatively low growth on a comparable basis is largely attributable to the new business underperformance in East Africa.

Sanlam Investment Group’s (SIG) overall net result from financial services declined by 6%, attributable to lower performance fees at the third party asset manager in South Africa, administration costs incurred for system upgrades in the wealth management business and lower earnings from equity-backed financing transactions at Sanlam Specialised Finance. The other businesses did well to grow earnings, despite the pressure on funds under management due to lower investment markets.

New business volumes declined by 13% mainly due to market volatility and low investor confidence in South Africa. Institutional new inflows remained weak for the full year, while retail inflows also slowed down significantly after a more positive start to the year. The international businesses, UK, attracted strong new inflows (up 57%).

Sanlam Corporate’s net result from financial services increased by 4%, with the muted growth caused by a continuation of high group risk claims experience. Mortality and disability claims experience weakened further in the second half of the year, which is likely to require more rerating of premiums in 2019. The administration units turned profitable in 2018, a major achievement. The healthcare businesses reported satisfactory double-digit growth in earnings, while the Absa Consultants and Actuaries business made a pleasing contribution of R39 million.

New business volumes in life insurance more than doubled, reflecting an exceptional performance. Single premiums grew by 109%, while recurring premiums increased by a particularly satisfactory 56%.

The good growth in recurring and single premium business, combined with modelling improvements, supported a 64% (71% on a comparable economic basis) increase in the cluster’s VNB contribution.

Following a year of major catastrophe events in 2017, Santam experienced a relatively benign claims environment in 2018. Combined with acceptable growth in net earned premiums, it contributed to a 37% increase in gross result from financial services (41% after tax and non-controlling interest). The conventional insurance book achieved an underwriting margin of 9% in 2018 (6% in 2017).

As at 31 December 2018, discretionary capital amounted to a negative R3.7 billion before allowance for the planned B-BBEE share issuance. A number of capital management actions during 2018 affected the balance of available discretionary capital, including the US$1 billion (R13 billion) SAHAM Finances transaction. Cash proceeds from the B-BBEE share issuance will restore the discretionary capital portfolio to between R1 billion and R1.5 billion depending on the final issue price within the R74 to R86 price range approved by shareholders.

Looking forward, the Group said economic growth in South Africa would likely remain weak in the short to medium term future, and would continue to impact efforts to accelerate organic growth. The outlook for economic growth in other regions where the Group operates is more promising. Recent acquisitions such as the SAHAM transaction should also support operational performance going forward.

“We remain focused on executing our strategy. We are confident that we have the calibre of management and staff to prudently navigate the anticipated challenges going forward,” Mr Kirk concluded.

Details of the results for the 12 months ended 31 December 2018 are available at www.sanlam.com.