Making Cinema in South Africa - Interview with Five Young Film Makers
Kunst, 20 Nov. 2007 - Africaserver magazine
The Rialto lobby

From November 7 until 11 this year, the Cinema South Africa festival took place at the Rialto film theatre in Amsterdam. In five days over fifty films were shown, long and short ones, documentaries and feature films, some of them with the directors present. Africaserver Magazine used the occasion to talk to filmmakers about their views on the present state of South African cinema.
We talked to Vincent Moloi, Carmen Sangion, Khalo Matabane, Natalie van Rooy and Yunus Vally, in that order. The way they answered our questions is just as diverse as their views and their work.
First we asked them to introduce themselves.

Vincent: I have been involved in the film industry for 8 or 9 years and have been directing for 4 or 5 years. I started small, at Soweto Community TV, and grew to a larger scale. Other people might say I have grown big but my goals are still the same as when I started. It is quite a dynamic and complex search that I'm on, but I guess that is the fun with filmmaking, you never really know the answer and sometimes even your question is not quite clear. My stories have always been about small things, about little people so to say. Only now, other people are realising they are about universal topics and issues as much as they are community based. Little stories show the dynamics. When you deal with bigger issues, you tend to intellectualise them and lose the humanity.

Each and every continent is very dynamic, so is Africa. It has so many complicated layers even Africans can't completely understand them all. We have been so extremely colonised, at the moment we are searching for an identity. In my work I want to show the dynamics and the problems we are faced with, on a human level, with small, human people.

Carmen: I went to film school in Johannesburg 10 years ago. After that, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in films and then I discovered I was interested in writing, and the writing eventually lead to directing. Since then I have been trying to find my voice and been experimenting and writing a lot. It's easy to write because it doesn't cost a lot, so I that part I do a lot. The other part, seeing a film to the end, is more expensive so I have made only three films so far. For survival I also do television and corporate videos, but my passion is storytelling and I would like to do feature films.

Film school was small with little resources, but it did open my eyes to what was really going on in my country . I grew up in a middle class family, my parents sheltered me from the politics of the nation. When I went to school I had the desire to get into Hollywood, but school taught me film doesn't need to be about glamour and can make a difference.

Khalo: I have thought about that, when you go through history, like South African history, who do you become? That is one of the questions I ask in my films: who are South Africans, who am I? When one goes through all these experiences of repression, reconciliation, globalisation, modernity, who does one become? On the other hand I can very simply say: My name is Khalo, I am in my early thirties, I was born in a village in a rural area, I try to make films. I have no kids, no dogs, no cats and I'm not married.

Natalie: I come from Cape Town, Beacon Valley, Cape Flats. It's a red zone area, as they describe it. I am a producer, I was associate producer for Mr. Devious, My Life (about the life of her late husband, the hip hop artist Mr Devious - Mario van Rooy, have a look at the site - wk). That was the first project I was working on, almost for three years, that is a long period, but it was also a long project. My background is not actually the film industry, but I do have quite a passion for it. So I will continue if I get the chance, I still work on other projects for Rainbow Circle Films. Also for other projects, I will need to tap into other people, to put myself in their shoes, and that's fascinating for me. I think that is to only way you can succeed, if you have a passion for what you are doing.

Yunus: I have worked in the tv and film industry for 15 years as a graphics designer, which is my day to day job. I am a first time filmmaker as the director of The Glow of White Women. My documentary came out as part of the Black on White series, that wanted to talk about race which is something I have a lot to say about. I also do web sites and animations, I see myself not as a classical film director, more as an experimental motion maker.

I come from a very Islamic background, half Cape Malay, from the first slaves brought in by the Dutch in the 17th century, half Gujarat in India. That coincides with the image of Africa as homogeneous and essentialist, but it's not. Because you are carved into a nation, doesn't mean you are that. What you are beginning to see in South African cinema is that things are not that clear cut.

How important is it to you to make films that are related to the present day or historical reality of your country, of the place where you live?

Vincent: First of all, I'm see myself as a world citizen and I do not want to limit myself to only South African stories. One of my ambitions is to tell a story that has nothing to do with South Africa, because I think our planet is a place for me and for everybody else. But I'm particularly telling local stories now because is a greater need to tell South African stories as I think the image has been distorted. People have a quite misguided conception of South Africa because of the history and I'm trying to fight perceptions with my documentaries, and I try do that subtly. Yesterday my film about street sweepers in Johannesburg was playing and one woman was wondering if street sweepers in Amsterdam go through the same experiences.

Carmen: I don't see myself as a political filmmaker, but politics will always influence what you are doing, is the back drop to every story. As I said before, my upbringing was sheltered. Because of that, my films are more about the politics of everyday life and the personal. My problems did not come from national politics, but from other things like domestic violence. I grew up in a home with an abusive father. Those are the issues in the community I grew up in: violence, rape, drugs, alcohol abuse. So my films are about that, how people survive. Politics are personal choices people have to make: do I have to leave my husband or shouldn't I?

Khalo: Which films are not connected to your own experience and to reality? When I watch a film, whether it's Traffic by Soderberg or Jaws by Spielberg, I can tell so much about the maker, what his political stand is, what his belief system is, what his vision of the world is. Every film is the reflection of someone's soul. You can tell who they are by their films. It doesn't matter how superficial, even for filmmakers who claim to be apolitical you can see that. The notion that art exists outside of the creator is nonsense to me. Filmmaking is about good storytelling or bad storytelling.

Natalie: It is so important for me to be involved in the film industry and in the reality of what is going on in our country. I think it is important for other people to know what is really happening and at the same time to create a platform for indepent filmmakers. It is hard to make films and the industry is so tough. In South Africa I think there are less subsidies and funds than in Europe, so it's harder to find funding and to actually make a film, but I do think that if you do believe in the story, it doesn't matter if you find funding as long as you know in yourself this is what you are going to pursue. People want to see results before they believe in a story and are willing to invest in it.

Yunus: My first film is definitely rooted and only rooted in my reality which happens to be South African. I am not so sure I want to do that again, that is that important. The ideal to become a global citizen, of sharing something that is universal, has only recently come for South Africans. My next project is called Black Oedipus, what I want to explore is abnormality and the use of let's say Freudian methods in a continent like Africa. It might be a doctor and a patient talking about what is going on in the patients life and turning that into cinema. That would be South African people as I don't know any others.

How do you see the present state of filmmaking in South Africa?

Vincent: I think it is in its infant stage. We still try to find our identity, our voice. We are a society that is still in pain, and a lot of times when you are in pain, you tend to be confused with a lot if things. When you are confused, you say things from the heart and these are not always right. I also think we still lack a lot of skill, but the more we make films and television the better it will become.

Carmen: I feel like I'm stuck between two generations of filmmakers, the younger generation that is focused on fantasy, entertainment and commercial work and the group from the old school with the political and social bagage about the country. I see the importance of the films that are being made by them, and I too want to make films that have a meaning for the life of people, but I also have a desire to reach an audience. That is the challenge for me: to meet the audience halfway, to make the film I want and yet to give the audience and the broadcasters what they want. That is even harder as the South African audience is not used to watching South African films. But I do think there is a lack of funding. Especially as a woman, I find I am sometimes overlooked because my stories are not male and also because I am not a political filmmaker.

Khalo: What is really incredible, now we realise in Africa and in Latin America that we can have a leadership that is as brutal as the colonialists, and that fact does not make colonialism right. We expected that when the black took over the mines, they would be more moral, but they are not. Now we realise they can't be, because there's capital driving it. This novelty of innocense connected to race disappears. That is the question I think we have to address, how can you go through the most horrifying history in the world and subject other people to the same history. And I think film making is in a crisis, because all these subjects about the world and Africa have become so complex. We are working in a world where light and shadow are all intertwined, where strokes of light come in, and also strokes of darkness. As a filmmaker I have been trying to capture that.

Natalie: They should show documentaries and feauture films from South Africa. There is a lot of cinema, but it is mainly movies from international events they screen at cinemas, there is no real platform for local films, no place where you can go on a Saturday evening and have a look at a local film.

Yunus: As I'm not a typical filmmaker, I have very little to say. I can tell you what I think about film making in South Africa. What irritates me is that it's NGOish, it is always trying to help and save and redeem society. My documentary is about desire, about the politics of sexuality, and so poses more questions than it answers. I am not interested in answers and I don't think film is in the business of giving answers to anybody. Films coming out of South Africa, however brilliant sometimes, seem to be filling in this expectation of living under Apartheid, as if we didn't fuck, laugh, shit or scream then. But somehow people survived, made music, made babies, had homosexual relationships. I would like to talk about the victim from a different point of view, perversely. I am tired of this history of oppression as all definitive, that only because of Apartheid you are who you are.

Do you feel there are typical obstacles to film making?

Vincent: A lot of funding comes from outside. Many people still want to perpetuate their views, how they see you. Funding comes with those conditions, they tell you which actors to use, because they think it will sell. Only if we can manage to free ourselves from those chains of funding we will be able to find a true South African film language. The truth is none of these formulas have really worked so there is no justification to push those agendas. Film making is expensive, which makes it harder. In the music industry at home, there is a genre called Kwaito, that started in the nineties and became really big after freedom as young people were looking for ways to express themselves. Commercial companies never believed in it, but young people started to make music in their rooms in the townships and it became big. Now it is a million rand industry at home. We can learn from them, the cheaper film technology becomes, the better it will be for us, it would be great if we would only need a camera.

It would be good if film administrators had more belief in young talents, at the moment I feel they do not have enough belief in young South African filmmakers, which is sad.

Carmen: My gender is not a problem to me, but I often find it is a problem to others. Even in Hollywood, there are very few female filmmakers and it worries me. If it is hard for white women in the West, how much harder is it for me as an African woman? And it makes me think when I'm working on a script: should I write about a black woman or about a white man? Race also continuously is a challenge, for me as a coloured woman in South Africa. I don't see myself as a coloured woman, I see myself as a black woman, but in the context of my country I am still a coloured woman, and that is a very specific thing. I would like to make films about coloured people, but funding bodies do not necessarily think that's important right now.

Natalie: It depends. If you have an agreement with one of our television stations, then obviously there are certain rules you have to follow, you can't just exploit everything that is going on. Foul language for instance is completely unacceptable for television. That is the only kind of restriction there is, also for stuff like pornography. If you have a real good story that you are trying to bring across, then obviously they will fund it and broadcast it on TV. I heard there may be obstacles if you are a woman, but I have never encountered things like that.

Yunus: I can't honestly answer that question, I had it easy. My documentary was coproduced by the BBC, I had a bag of money, the best cameraperson, the best producer, the best editor. As a first time filmmaker, I had it fucking cushy. I am not struggling black victim, if something I had it too easy. But it's about the world too, it is starting to realise South Africa has got more to say than this NGO bullshit: these people are interesting, they are sexy, we don't always have to feel sorry for them.
Willem Kerkhoven
From 17 till 28 November, some of the films at the Cinema South Africa festival are also shown in Nijmegen, Eindhoven and The Hague. See the agenda.

Films at the festival by these filmmakers:

Vincent Moloi: A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle; Night Sweepers; Men of Gold, Luting
Carmen Sangion: The Lovers; My Name is Jacob
Khalo Matabane: When We Were Black; Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon; Story of a Beautiful Country; Chikin Biznis
Natalie van Root: Mr Devious, My Life
Yunus Vally: The Glow of White Women

Tebeho Mahlatsi also was a guest of the festival. Unfortunately, there was no room in the tight schedule to interview him. His films at the festival: Meokgo and the Stickfighter; Yizo Yizo 3; Portrait of a Young Man Drowning

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Sites bij dit artikel:
Rialto - Short introduction to the festival in English

Rialto - Cinema South Africa (in Dutch)

Site dedicated to Mr Devious

Biographies of South African filmmakers - South African International Documentary Festival

article in Dutch on Cinema South Africa at the Africaserver-website

hyperlinks index Africaserver

hyperlinks index Africaserver

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