For a long time I abhorred the media. But when Gavin Hood’s ‘Tsotsi’ won an Oscar that’s when this fundamentalist’s belief system changed. Believe me, everything that you watch on television, in the print, and social media matters. It might mean the difference between realising the duplicity of the promulgation of the Group Areas Act, the legacy of the forced removals, racism in post-apartheid in South Africa, Africa, sexuality, and disability portrayed in African films by filmmakers from countries from that continent or a South African billionaire giving away half his fortune to charity.
As a nation we were just getting our heads wrapped around the idea of free speech, the Rwandan genocide, the African Renaissance, that the Rainbow Nation of South Africa’s democracy was twenty years old and that ‘overnight’ Africa had become a country. I thought that the media was out to get all of us. For example they would post unflattering photographs of celebrities but it was all in good faith, for a worthy cause. That we all would feel less self-conscious about our body image, and more confident about the fact that we were all beautiful on the inside as well as the outside.
They would quote famous people, politicians, and actors out of context. Satirise them on talk shows, television series season after season. Slowly getting the world’s undivided attention, then the general population, and then syndication rights (perhaps garnering an award here or there, or a scandal which would ensure high ratings). Then I began to abhor social media until I watched ‘The Social Network’ directed by David Fincher and that was a defining moment in my life. I had an epiphany. Media and film had roles to play in society especially in Africa. The unknown had become the known (again ‘overnight’ paradigms were shifting all over Africa and social media had become a movement).
Films and reading? There’s dialogue in books. Real books. I read because I love reading, and I love dialogue. So when I’m watching a film I’m really much more interested in the dialogue than the set design, or the props. I appreciate the aesthetics, the work that goes into the production’s design and all of that. Does it really matter how beautiful the actors are? Can they sing? Can they dance? Can they act? That’s what I’m interested in.
But I really got hooked seriously in high school after reading Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (I mean who hasn’t fallen for Holden Caulfield, or wished that we could meet a modern-day version of him, besides falling head over feet in love with his adventures, his ambiguity, and the moral compass with which he navigates his life and why haven’t they made a film out of that modern classic yet, how I wish that ‘they’, a studio in Los Angeles, an executive or a producer has seriously thought about or is in the throes of turning that book into a magnificent screenplay. I don’t have the answer to that question yet though.
Maybe a South African filmmaker will take up that challenge or a Nollywood producer. But coming back to cinema, but African cinema in particular. All the wheels, and the machinery is set in place, into motion and as the world consumes entertainment I watch films because I consider it to be an art form, like poets writing poetry, photographers who take pictures, writers writing books, novelists write novels. If you’re really lucky a lot of people will like what you do and will give you an award for your wisdom, your life experience, and how both of this attributes changed people’s lives for the better, and of course that you have made a positive contribution to society, and to human life.
Films can be painful to watch, especially if they’re made in Africa. We’ve lived in a traumatic society for hundreds of years. And yet damaged people know how to survive. In Africa we do what comes most natural to us. We work with our hands. We’re artists from the day that we enter this unquiet world. And so somewhere somehow we picked up a camera. Nollywood sprung from a wealth of ideas. So did African cinema (which will always be lost in translation). We use our imagination. And we’re transformed by what we create, that creative impulse. Films, they can be educational. But it’s my inner room.
Without films how would we interpret, remain sensitive to the damage control of climate change, global warning, depression, and the global recession that are forecasting right now? How do we keep track of cultural trends, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, and the same goes for people who have children? Faddists, optimists, swapping, changing, making the right choices, healthy choices, correcting your lifestyle, becoming eco-warriors, going green? And how would we know, Television, films and churches formed a large part of the origins of my writing when I was younger.
My childhood was not as bleak as some; I was happy, obedient, kind, patient, loved dogs, tennis and swimming; dancing wildly, joyfully in the sprinkler during summertime with my siblings and got sunburnt on holidays in Calitzdorp, Oudtshoorn, George, Wilderness and Carmel. My mother saw to my extra lessons. My father saw to my education and higher learning. And I was always touched by the mirror images that I saw on the screen of the television in my intimate surroundings, my immediate environment, my estranged and my extended family, my father, my best friend and confidante.
What do churches you might say have in common with the ancient composed core of the entertainment value of our films today? The principles, values, beliefs, norms of contemporary ministers and today’s filmmaker get on like a house on fire and often give rise to an unholy demise; a boundary, a burdened limit that leads to a subliminal dead end, the enquiring gaze of a pupil that is not self-conscious only candid, vital and knowing. Are South African films all touted in the media as genius or given the all thumbs dumbed down, is the public critical enough, or do we shrink back in horror terrified at any criticism as if it would harm our intellect, is what they say relevant, outspoken or politically correct, are we prudish when it comes to overt sexuality or averse to it?
During my childhood in apartheid South Africa I was taught to use every emotional experience (like a scrap of fabric that would be used for and then suddenly materialise into a quilt) that used both the element of anticipation and surprise and that resonated throughout the fiercely grounded essence of my soul to the full. Images that came to be in my hushed dreams, the gravity of it unceasing as the impulse of the superfluous adrenaline of flight, the tidal triangles of love, the swarm of bullies, the budding nature of best friends that came with my growing years on a school playground I seldom found abhorrent.
In church I learnt that the art was not to fail to misbehave, daydream; be disobedient, honour my father and my mother, collect subtle small nothings like the dry, thin-skinned wafer like paper autumn leaves that I crushed casually between my fingertips with my best friend. We were inseparable; played like monkeys rock, paper; scissors every break. Watching films accounting our dark-edged history; Gandhi portrayed by Ben Kingsley, Steve Biko by Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom for example, fringed deftly with racism and prejudice and saints.
I learned that there were paths that I had not travelled, that I had journeyed gently as a child, heavily guarded, and claimed by my parents, protected from harm, hidden from the sight of evil incarnate, paedophiles patrolling the streets in fast cars. The only place I was not protected was in front of the television. I shuffled in every afternoon after school and planted myself in front of the screen not moving an inch except to drink my juice and eat a sandwich. It did not go to waste. I used all the information that I got from the different accents and the clothes, the illnesses written on the bodies, the women’s bodies, done up, coiffed hair, the women’s hair salons, the men’s wisdom from all three channels as teaching examples for my writing.
The tainted, self-absorbed voices from the actors from the different channels resounded in my head as if they were of my own making. Sometimes my pen could not keep up with the internal dialogue. It was as if it was a deluge, a downpour, an unstoppable, unchallenged flood. They put something into motion that could not be diminished, masked, temporary, erased or frozen over time. These were powerful, seasonal shadows that sometimes led gripping, violent, aggressive, brutal lives that could not be dissolved completely by my pen. It left me with a quaint state of mind.
Here I was a fugitive on the run from the justice that was my parents’ burden. I was left drowning in the portrayals, the loveliness of White, Coloured, Black children in black and white, finally erased of colour. I saw couples on the screen settle into their married life and watched as if I was invited in. The end of the rollercoaster ride that came with each film left me strangely bereft, half-born, half-living like the strangled cry of a bird or a night owl or the fisherman’s catch dead; life snuffed out in the dragged net hung over the edge of the rocking boat in the seawater.
South African films taught me life lessons, how to disguise a bellyache laugh in the territorial quiet of the cinema, it taught me how to whisper like a frigid wind through my clenched fingers that disguised my mouth. We should pursue our history from memory, from childhood, from the elders in our community, our next door neighbours, from humorous anecdotes, headlines in the newspapers found in the archives of your local libraries and our own parents’ alarming knowledge from their own life experience.
In defining an African film I believe we first have to define Africa itself and who or what is an African or whose soul aspires to be African before we can talk about films made about the African continent and South Africa. We can’t only do that by erasing every trace of colonialism. It is still part and parcel like a love-knot in a message of our past, present and future. The history of the colonists channels the dissolve of my old unhealed wounds and confusion into hellish lists. It does not easily close doors on the past.
Director John Berry decided for his film based on playwright Athol Fugard’s ‘Boesman en Lena’ to choose American actress and actor Angela Bassett and Danny Glover to play the lead roles. There was a furore over the fact they were neither African nor South African. The serious human focus that is often learned in academia, from gathered intelligence which is kept hidden by those in the know from the human race or by those who are book smart because of being avid readers can often be described as being locked up inside of a box, like an airtight container that has shut in a war of nerves and put a lid on it far away from the unseen public.
The chanting masses who call for service delivery, better homes with window panes, not structured out of plastic sheeting, tarpaulin or tin, youth, who struggle with unemployment gives rise to stories which must be told. The audience is there. It begins here. The future beckons. It is now. African writers’ stories have often been fragmented in Africa since Nelson Mandela was released from prison. They have often not been told, put into words, into a novel language and passed on to the next generation from word of mouth; their voices; thoughts, reflections have often been silent like a blanket of stars in the sky.
In existence but with a voice that has been mute, still, shut out, withdrawn, shut in or shut up. Outstanding individuals who have won international and national acclaim must now act as life-enhancing role models and catalysts for the marginalised, poor, up and coming writers, poets, playwrights and performance artists. I will use the film ‘Yesterday’ by the South African director Darrell Roodt as an example. This is a film that makes us confront the burning global issue of HIV/AIDS however we might feel about it. It makes us resolve to change our conscious way of thinking about people who live in the rural areas of South Africa.
It embodies the breath of fresh air of promising new beginnings, it personalises the relationships she, ‘Yesterday’, the protagonist has with her daughter, her neighbours, the blonde doctor who doesn’t need a translator to speak to ‘Yesterday’. The character is played with a great indomitable strength, humility and a hallmark of patient stillness by Leleti Khumalo. The actress Leleti Khumalo’s gives us an intense portrayal of the struggle, neuroses and the separation anxiety that many women personally undergo without any help from a spouse or a support group in a crisis of both lost identity and innocence in the world around her.
Her husband dies; she discovers she has HIV/AIDS and that there will be nobody to care for her young daughter when she dies. As an actress, she not only rises to the challenge, she defies and sustains the numbed disbelief that people; the ordinary man, woman and child in the street feel towards those who are vagrants, homeless, live at the Salvation Army, a shelter for abused women and children or those people from the location who are poor, live in dire straits and work as garden boys and kitchen girls to support their families and put a meagre meal or bread on the table.
The filmmaker is oftentimes like a bone collector of ancient dug up fossils, a museum curator, collector, seer, estranged from colleagues, contemporaries, peers because of their highbrow level of intelligence and aloofness, through his or her wisdom and experience. ‘Yesterday’ is possibly the only African film that has managed to grip Africans and of course the rest of the world into understanding what the meaning and purpose is of the true African heritage. I feel that we have yet to discover that gem, an undiscovered diamond with rough edges to come out of Africa.
And that will undoubtedly address issues that every human being prioritises in their own life globally in which Africa’s inimitable spirit shines through. African stories should be told with African distributors, African actors, African directors and African financing in mind. We should always be working towards change and progress in those fields instead of looking abroad to international distributors and while appealing to mass audiences evoking sentiment and nostalgia, we deny access and the privilege to our own writers, editors and filmmakers to create.
When we create a world from our own imagination and give it life, it is not only a labour of love that resides there, but also one that will constantly give way to transformation, reforming and the transmission of ideas and inspiration, not only in decades to come but aeons. Reality that is found in Africa can make for lousy, underrated entertainment and although elegant, Americans deliver wooden performances when mimicking a well-known figure in African literature, politics or celebrity. Churches have yet to address the issue of poverty and children that are underprivileged that exists in their surrounding communities.
We see this in mainstream print media as well as cinema. It doesn’t have the same hook to garner audiences into theatre seats or church pews. Churches lack empathy for the most vulnerable; frail, aged, delicate citizens and only reserve it for ones they consider to be important and out of reach and harm’s way. Few practise what they preach from their lecterns and only serve to promote their own opinions which they deem fitting, compelling and relevant. Once again African cinema is lost in translation. Its persona carried throughout like detailed and thorough school homework made up of makeshift, calculated solutions and a teacher’s punishment.
How can we close doors on the past when we do not offer truth as a salutary balm? Without revealing where the blame lies in a racially divided society, the working classes animosity, a deep-seated psychosis, the education of a youthful learner, the politics of the church or a godly community, the funny, the ridiculous, the passionate, the dangerous, the overwhelming threatening, how can we put into the poetic words of the texture of hair, who will lead, who will follow, become a golden, committed candidate who will dare lay his soul bare and become an activist, an advocate?
Whose broken heart will yearn to tell stories, salvage honest truths if we do not realise that the challenge of change is upon us in television series, cinema, films, theatre, church pews and the print, and social media? People have said in the past for an African Cinema to exist we need to tell African stories. Stories that speak in gestures but how do you speak about mental illness, rehabilitation, addiction, alcoholism, female hysteria, mass hysteria, psychosis, hallucinations, the hearing of voices, ancestral rituals, female, and male circumcision in gestures. You ‘show’, and ‘tell’. Which is why it’s not that I prefer books to films.
There’s something dignified about listening to the dialogue. Gestures are powerful, and so is the actor (their journey becomes your journey). You can appreciate the actor projecting their voice, discern an accent while they are communicating an ‘invisible otherness’ from the buried depths of their psyche but for dialogue for interests’ sake you have to depend on an aficionado’s instinct. Dialogue is the overpowering of humanity, the emotional finding a kindred spirit, a personal journey from degrees of intuition, to a lesser degree of intense poverty.
Just by pure chance African cinema is physical, and cultural. It’s spiritual. It’s artful. Sometimes it’s just that. Art.