What’s it about?
Perspective is a Documentary Filmmakers’ Association (DFA) initiative that aims to provide insight into the documentary filmmaking process for those filmmakers who are struggling with their ideas and how to approach the creative process of crafting a film from inception to final product.
Filmmaking, storytelling is intuitive, but filmmakers are sometimes insecure, not prepared to trust that intuition and may often wonder … am I doing the right thing? So, as a way to help ourselves through our insecurities and sometimes lack of training, we have devised this plan that allows us to watch documentary films and to speak to the makers of those films about their processes. At the same time, this interview and review process can serve as a resource for all documentary filmmakers who look for help and ideas when they are making their own films.
We would like to move beyond questions around content only and probe the craft of filmmaking through understanding creative and technical decisions – which are always tied up with content.
We hope that you find these interviews interesting and useful and keep coming back for more.
All writers for Perspective are DFA members and write on a voluntary basis and when they have time. This means our postings will have no regular schedule, but we are encouraged by the fact that we love to watch documentary films and will make time to do so, leading to a publishable interview after each viewing and interview.
I was asked to facilitate the screening of Sylvia Vollenhoven’s latest documentary film project, Project Spear, when the original facilitator was unable to attend. The subject matter sounded complex, so I asked for a preview copy of the film before the screening to familiarise myself with the content and issues. While the subject matter is complex, I find the the film presents the information in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Achieving this must have taken real commitment and focus and makes me feel a sense of awe when I think about much less information and less complex matters that throw me into confusion.
I am also encouraged that Sylvia and the team on Project Spear chose to explore South Africa beneath the Rainbow in the way that they have. It is unusual for South African documentary filmmakers to reveal the dark underbelly of South Africa without wanting to immediately add a positive spin, too. It is as if documentary filmmakers are making films for The Department of Economic Development and Tourism and not for South Africans, who need to know the truth about their country.
WHERE DID YOU FIND THIS STORY AND WHY DID IT INTEREST YOU?
It’s a story I was following in the Noseweek publication for a long time. Having covered Southern African events from my time as a cadet journalist in 1976, through the tumult of the 80s to the dawn of democracy in the 90s I know from first-hand experience how difficult the handover process was. The Rainbow Nation magic is a fantasy we sell to the world. This is the kind of story we need to know to remind us how vulnerable our democracy is and how zealously we need to guard our freedoms.
WAS YOUR APPROACH THAT OF FILMMAKER OR JOURNALIST AND COULD YOU EXPLAIN WHY YOU THINK IT WAS THE ONE AND NOT THE OTHER?
I am a journalist who has been using film – the broadcast media in general – as well as print to tell my stories. I don’t think journalism and filmmaking are mutually exclusive pursuits. I am a storyteller with my primary training in journalism. But I am also a writer (both fiction and non-fiction). So while I respect the demands of different platforms I don’t consider myself to be too bound by a specific medium. The future is understanding how stories can cross over the boundaries of genre and discipline successfully.
HOW DID YOUR WORK AS HEAD OF FACTUAL CONTENT AT THE SABC INFLUENCE THE CREATIVE DECISIONS YOU MADE IN THIS FILM?
I was at the SABC for 12 years. For most of that time I was an on-air anchor and producer (documentaries mainly) as well as executive producer (Morning Livemainly). It was only for the last two years that I was head of the Factual Genre. My time at the SABC gave me an opportunity to be the Southern Africa coordinator for the International Public Television organisation INPUT. Being exposed to broadcast filmmaking innovation from around the world for ten years and attending the annual screening conferences where Television excellence was the only item on the agenda, was an invaluable learning process for me.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE DRAMATISATION COME ABOUT?
I looked at an INPUT documentary from Norway called The Oil Game. The filmmaker found a way of telling a story that would ordinarily be considered too wordy for TV and not filmic enough for a documentary. It was about corruption in the oil industry. The storyteller had to share reams of research in order to make it understandable. So they used a theatrical space that was extremely well lit, a sparse but imaginative set and actors to play out various scenes to help with the endless voice over. It worked very well and made for compelling viewing. So together with the team we adapted the idea for our own use.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH ANOTHER DIRECTOR ON THE DRAMATISATION? DID YOU LEAVE IT ALL UP TO HIM, OR DID YOU WORK ON IT TOGETHER?
Basil and I spent many hours with the film crew talking through how we can adapt the ideas from The Oil Game. It’s very easy for me to work with Basil because we’ve collaborated on all kinds of TV productions and we co-authored a theatre play (a one-man show performed by Basil) that premiered at the Grahamstown Festival. We often fight, but it’s purely professional. We have complementary talents that ensure great results when the creative tension subsides.
THE DRAMATISATION IS AN ELEMENT THAT WILL WORK FOR SOME AND NOT FOR OTHERS. WAS IT AN IDEA THAT SAT WELL WITH YOU FROM THE START, OR DID YOU HAVE TO BE CONVINCED OF IT?
I knew right from the start that I could only tell this story for TV if there was an innovative dramatisation. If you remove the dancers it becomes a boring piece, a lengthy piece of current affairs that few people will watch to the end. But it was difficult to make it work … to achieve a balance between having fun with the dramatisation and maintaining the integrity of the story. Some people have told us the dancers are too distracting, but I bet you those same people would switch channels if they were not there. I try not to take myself too seriously as a storyteller because I honestly believe that no story is so dire that you can’t lift it with some humour. Ask Shakespeare.
THE DRAMATISATION IS EFFECTIVE FOR ME BECAUSE IT’S NOT LITERAL, BUT MORE SUGGESTIVE. WHAT INFORMED THE STYLE?
The style evolved out of our brainstorming sessions. But in the end the Director of these segments, Basil Appollis, brought his extensive theatre expertise and individual flair to the table.
DID YOU KNOW FROM THE OUTSET THAT YOU WANTED THE FILM TO HAVE THIS ESPIONAGE FEEL TO IT, OR DID THIS DEVELOP WITH THE MAKING OF THE FILM?
The espionage feel also came out of the creative collaboration between myself, Basil, the DOP Richard Wicksteed, and the assistant cameraman Ryan Seddon. During the rehearsals and shooting, Basil’s experience of working with youth theatre helped us to fine tune it.
I IMAGINE THERE MUST HAVE BEEN SO MUCH INFORMATION THAT YOU HAD TO SIFT THROUGH, YET THE STORY THE AUDIENCE GETS TO SEE IS CLEAR AND EASY TO UNDERSTAND. HOW DID YOU SEPARATE THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF IN THIS STORY?
By agreeing on a story focus or logline and then developing a three-act structure that accommodates the five segments of SABC documentaries. Then sticking to the structure no matter what. We also built into the script right from the start recaps and repeats of story elements so that you don’t lose your audience in a story that is essentially very, very complex. You have to be much stricter with investigative stories. It’s easy for a storyteller to succumb to the temptation to include lots of info just because it happened and just because you took the time to unearth it. But I have always been attracted to clean, simple storytelling because it has so much more power.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO DO THIS SIFTING PROCESS WITH THE RESEARCH AND HONE IN ON THE SPINE OF YOUR STORY?
All in all, between the time of beginning the research until the shooting script, was about a year. But seeing as though one does not work on these things full time, I would say it took about three months of research, writing, pre-interviews, rewriting and researching some more. I’ve read about six books (mostly on corruption) as part of this research.
PROJECT SPEAR SEEMS TO SUGGEST THAT CORRUPTION IS INHERENT IN SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT AND THAT WHEN THE ANC TOOK OVER FROM THE NATS THEY INHERITED THIS CORRUPT WAY OF RUNNING THE COUNTRY. HOW DOES THIS TIE IN WITH HOW YOU VIEW THE MATTER?
This is only one story. I’m an optimist. For every Project Spear there are a thousandProject Everydays that we never get to see because things are working well. It is the nature of the mainstream media to chase the unusual, the stories about things going wrong. That’s just how it is. But it doesn’t mean that South Africa is going to hell in a hand basket. Not quite yet. Things seem worse than they’ve ever been because there is a lot more openness and it has become almost impossible to conceal grand scale corruption completely. But my money is not on the politicians. It’s racist to believe that black politicians would handle political hegemony and the endless power that ensues with more integrity than white politicians. My faith is in the ordinary South Africans who have proved during extremely difficult times in our history that we love this country far too much to stand by and watch it being destroyed by greed.
AS SOMEONE WHO IS PRIVY TO A LOT MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU CAN FIT INTO A 48 MINUTE FILM, WHAT DOES THIS STORY SAY ABOUT OUR GOVERNMENT AND THE FACT THAT THEY ARE ALLOWING APARTHEID VILLAINS TO RUN OFF WITH SOUTH AFRICAN MONIES – MONIES THAT COULD BE PUT TOWARDS SERVICE DELIVERY AND GENERALLY PROVIDING A MORE COMFORTABLE STANDARD OF LIVING FOR THE MAJORITY OF SOUTH AFRICANS?
It says that this government does not have a clue of how to redress the historic imbalance in this country. It says that they probably succumbed to the Madiba inspired atmosphere of reconciliation (and maybe even some real pressure from Mandela himself) by first signing a deal to recover the money and then deciding to do nothing about the billions stolen by the former government. It says that during the negotiations and handover of political power all kinds of deals were done on top of and under the table. A lot of the money in question is in illegal foreign accounts or should simply be returned by the banks who can afford to pay back their loans. This country is an unsustainable economic powder keg. All that’s happened since 1994 is that a few of the disgustingly rich people are now black. But the gap between the rich and the poor has increased. What I’ve seen clearly from investigating this story is that when people are allowed into the inner sanctum of the truly wealthy their democratic ideals are reduced to rhetoric. When you point out the problem you become the enemy. South Africa has always been in the grip of a small but powerful economic elite. What is going to happen here and in other parts of the world – this is a global problem – is that social change and upheaval will happen despite governments and politicians looking after their short-term interests.
THERE’S NO RESOLUTION TO THE INVESTIGATIONS IN THE STORY – ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE WAY THE FILM ENDS?
We deliberately told the story in this way. We pose the questions and explore the problem and then the audience is made to realise that there is no solution. We are storytellers not Tarot Card readers. I don’t know what is going to happen here, but I know that when there is such an imbalance, we will face even more social upheaval than we did in the past to redress the imbalance. And that kind of chaos is good, much better than pretending that the Rainbow Nation Magic is going to pull us through.
I IMAGINE THERE’S A LOT OF CORRUPTION IN THE HALLS OF POWER (PAST AND PRESENT) – DO YOU THINK FILMMAKERS SHOULD BE EXPOSING MORE OF THIS OR SHOULD WE LEAVE IT TO JOURNALISTS?
We’re all in the business of telling stories. We have a duty by virtue of the professions we’ve chosen to use our craft for the good of humanity. I have always focused on stories that deal with issues of democracy and human rights. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But storytellers should not be limited in any way. Often a more artistic (less journalistic) film is more hard-hitting on Television because it is a powerful, emotional medium.
HOW DID YOU PUT TOGETHER THE TEAM THAT WORKED ON THE PROJECT WITH YOU?
Basil and I have worked together for many years. Richard and I are working on a non related project about my Bushman ancestry. We have a very special connection and I enjoy his creative vision. I have not lived in Cape Town for about two decades so finding a crew here was difficult. The last time I worked in the city I was a print journalist. The Editor, Eileen de Klerk, came highly recommended by a filmmaker and friend. For the rest I had to rely on my scanty network in the Mother City to put it all together.
SYLVIA ADDS …
Of the countless documentaries I’ve made and stories that I’ve done as a journalist,Project Spear was by far the most difficult story to do. We now face the uphill battle of convincing the SABC who since commissioning the film seems to have gotten cold feet, to screen it.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE SABC WOULD COMMISSION A FILM AND THEN NOT WANT TO SCREEN IT?
I can’t second guess such an enormous and complex place. But my instincts tell me that it was commissioned in all honesty. But after the final cut was delivered it was shown to some senior people who are afraid. I have lived through a climate of fear before in this country where we stop ourselves even before Big Brother reins us in. This is so similar to what I experienced as a journalist having to use all kinds of tricks in white newsrooms to get my stories into print in the 70s and 80s. But this time it is more dangerous because the situation is potentially much more volatile than the struggle era. The stakes are simply higher. From the disgruntled workers going underground to dig out the wealth that fuels the growing gap between rich and poor to the cutthroat boardroom games – everyone has so much more to lose. And in this macro reality freedom of expression and the media is seen as an expendable commodity. The irony is that when the rulers today talk about the greater good (aka national interest) their rhetoric is as hollow and cynical as the puerile communist threats of the old regime.
Project Spear is scheduled to be broadcast on SABC 2 on Sunday 4 November at 21h00.
At the time of publishing this interview, we can only wait and see.
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith
Here be Dragons is a feature-length documentary film about lawyer George Bizos SC by DFA member, Odette Geldenhuys.
His life story is remarkable – from the teen that left behind Greek village life to escape the Nazis with his father, to the only South African human rights lawyer who has practiced as such for more than 50 years. Now almost 84, he still works at the Legal Resources Centre in downtown Johannesburg. Intimately the film explores his life, not only George as Mandela’s lawyer, but also George the gardener and storyteller. It reveals his humour despite tragic injustices, his humility despite having shaped the destiny of South Africa, and how the law became his sword to slay the dragons.
The film contains exclusive footage illustrating the friendship between George Bizos and Nelson Mandela, capturing the simplicity of life and the comfort that a life-long friendship brings at the end of long illustrious lives.
HERE BE DRAGONS IS A MOVING AND INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF GEORGE BIZOS. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO MAKE A FILM ABOUT HIM AND HOW DID YOU GAIN SUCH CLOSE ACCESS TO HIM?
The initial and ultimate motivation for making a film about George Bizos differed. I was initially interested to find out about the real person behind the public persona; to find out about what makes him tick, how does he keep on going despite the overwhelming challenges. While some of this is revealed in the film, another motivation developed along the way, namely to explore the difference between law and justice.
Some years ago Bizos and I were colleagues at the Legal Resources Centre. I was in its national office and structurally / hierarchically his superior. During the first week in my post, I introduced myself to him, and quickly added, “I know I can’t be your boss, but you have to keep time sheets of the work you do”. He never adhered to my instructions. But I think coming from the same social justice background, he trusted my motives for wanting to make him the subject of a documentary film. He never asked to exercise any editorial control; and patiently waited for the final cut.
YOU REVEAL GEORGE BIZOS IN HIS LIFE ROLES AS A LAWYER, A FRIEND AND A FAMILY MAN. HIS SIMPLE WAY OF LIFE AND INTERESTS CONTRASTS WITH HIS REMARKABLE ACCOMPLISHMENTS, SHARP MEMORY AND INTELLECT. THESE NUANCES ARE FINELY BALANCED IN THE FILM. HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHAT TO USE OR DID YOU HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF HOW THE FILM WOULD LOOK?
I did not shoot the film in terms of a structure or an outline, and accordingly we shot a lot of footage. I also had access to a sizeable family archive, there is much in the archives of the SABC and the National Archives, and as a result I had a substantial amount of material to work with. The greatest praise goes to sympatico editor, Tonia Selley, who worked the material. She worked through all of the shot footage, because she believes to have done otherwise, would be to dishonour the subject. Once she had grouped the material according to seven broad themes, she cut various free-standing sequences within each of the themes. Choosing from these, our first rough cut was 2 ½ hours. With pain, joy and the input of others, we got to the final 86 minutes.
YOU MAKE USE OF SEVERAL DIFFERENT VISUAL RESOURCES – FROM MAPS, ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE, CARTOONS, TO OLD FAMILY HOME VIDEOS ETC. DID YOU GATHER ALL YOU COULD AND THEN DECIDE WHAT TO USE OR DID YOU HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF HOW THE FILM WOULD LOOK?
At the outset, I had two guide rules for the look and feel of the film: firstly, no talking heads interviews; and secondly I wanted to place Bizos in his wider social context. Often documentaries about professionals are as dry as their professions and their portrayal is somewhat one-dimensional, okay, maybe two-dimensional. [From this point onwards, I want to refer to “we”, as from edit stage it was a 100% collaborative effort with Tonia.] We wanted to give a sense not only of Bizos as an ordinary person, but also place him in the wider social context of the times. So for example while he does not listen to popular music; at the time he was working on the legal aftermath related to Steve Biko’s death, Peter Gabriel’s song Biko was a popular hit. At the outset there were key devices we wanted to use, such as Biko and Brenda Fassie’s Black President, but we did gather quite a bit and played around in the edit to see what would work.
I ENJOYED SHORT INSERTS SUCH AS THE ACROPOLIS CAFÉ SCENE, AND GEORGE BIZOS’ CONVERSATIONS, BUT FOUND SOME SCENES FROM A DRY WHITE SEASON SOMEHOW REMOVED ME FROM THE CHARACTER. WHAT GUIDED YOUR DECISION TO INCLUDE FOOTAGE FROM THIS FILM?
The excerpts from A Dry White Season are used as punctuation. They introduce certain content that reflects my POV. If the film had used the device of voice over or a presenter, those are the kinds of points that would have been made in voice over or by the presenter. On a more arcane note, when the producer of A Dry White Season was in South Africa for research purposes, someone – and it may have been Nadine Gordimer – said to her that she needs to meet George Bizos as he is the kind of lawyer to be portrayed in the film. We do not know whether her choice to cast Marlon Brando as the human rights lawyer, was made before or after she met Bizos. But there is a physical similarity between them, don’t you agree?
THERE IS MINIMAL GUIDING OF THE VIEWER IN TERMS OF VOICE OVER OR TEXT, AND EVENTS SHIFT BACK AND FORTH. DID YOU NOT HAVE CONCERNS ABOUT AN INTERNATIONAL OR OTHERWISE UNFAMILIAR AUDIENCE GETTING A BIT LOST?
Here be Dragons moves from Greece to South Africa and back, without an information strap advising the audience that they are now in the one place or the other. However, what was for us more important than in what place we find ourselves, was the thought or theme or idea represented by the scene. The film is also mainly chronological. But what links one scene to the next, is not necessarily that it followed chronologically in Bizos’ history, but there is a word play, a linking theme, or a visual link. Please excuse me if I sound defensive (I probably am), but I feel strongly that creative documentaries are not primarily educational tools. Therefore I do not believe that a creative documentary must teach the audience everything about the subject by way of voice-over and repetition. I further feel that it is important not to underestimate the intelligence of the consumers of creative documentaries.
I FOUND THE INTRODUCTION AND THE CONCLUSION VERY TOUCHING. HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON THEM?
As with the rest of the film, these two sequences presented themselves to us. The opening sequence not only immediately introduces the audience to George Bizos the unaffected, ordinary person, but it is symbolic too. It references birth (emerging from the waters), it references the ocean which is the journey he took as a child to get to South Africa, and it references the mythical dragons which live at the edge of the ocean in ancient maps (and in turn, the dragons reference the unknown, which is where Bizos went when he left Greece as a 12-year old). As I said earlier, quite unintentionally the film is quite chronological, and so it ends with him today – still working, still slaying the dragons on behalf of those who are vulnerable. It is quite remarkable, that now, at almost 84, Bizos is at the Marikana Commission, representing the families of men who died in the massacre. It fills me with utter humility.
IN RETROSPECT, IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD ADD OR CHANGE?
I know what I would not have changed – my editor, Tonia Selley. For the rest, I guess, each documentary film has its own rhythm and logic; and I have valued the entire experience.
Here be Dragons will be broadcast in two parts on SABC 1 on:
Tuesday 23 October 2012 @ 21h00 and
Tuesday 30 October 2012 @ 21h00
Interviewed by Kate Alexandra Wood
In 2011 South African university lecturer, Sean Davison, made the news when he helped his aged cancer stricken mother to die. Izette Mostert’s first self-funded documentary film, Saying Goodbye, explores the situation Sean found himself in and tries to understand why he did what he did. Even though the story takes place on two continents, it is an intimate one that takes us into Sean’s home where we meet the people close to him and get a sense of the kind of person he is.
There were numerous challenges that Izette had to contend with during the process, but, when you watch the film, you will see that she was able to put together a coherent story.
If a person is convicted of attempting to murder someone, they’ve attempted to take somebody else’s life. They have attempted to kill somebody and the will or attitude of the victim is irrelevant. And that’s the marked difference between an attempted murder charge and assisting suicide charge because this charge has been recognised by parliament and it’s been recognised internationally that a very important component of the crime, is the wishes of the victim.
ROGER LAYBOURN, BARRISTER
HOW DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT THIS STORY AND WHY DID YOU THINK IT WAS AN IMPORTANT STORY TO TELL?
A mutual friend and colleague of Sean’s introduced us. She told me about him and said, “You can make a film about this.” I was a bit sceptical as so many people say this, but when I met him I realised, I WANT to tell this story.
WHAT ABOUT MEETING HIM, MADE YOU WANT TO TELL THE STORY?
The way Sean told me about the moment he helped his mother to die. It made me think about myself in a situation like that. When I thought about him being on trial for murder, it just didn’t make sense and as a journalist and documentary maker I thought I have the chance to show people, let them feel, what he experienced when he saw his mother suffer and die.
I’m trying hard to be objective but this is a universal story and we all have dealt or will be dealing with situations like this somewhere along our life paths … As his story was current I thought it apt to tell his story as soon as possible.
DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIFIC STANCE ON EUTHANASIA THAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO TELL THIS STORY?
Well, I’m pro euthanasia and was pro euthanasia before I made this film. And I’m not sure if I would’ve made the film if I was against it. I tried hard not to let viewers feel I’m telling them what to think, but rather that I am giving them facts – about one very specific case – and would like them to think about it. If people walk away and feel euthanasia is wrong, I’m okay with that. I hope people walk away and understand why Sean did it.
WHY DIDN’T YOU USE TEXT FROM, OR SHOTS OF SEAN’S ORIGINAL DIARY?
The original diary is copyright protected and since his arrest and during the trial/court case – when I was doing the majority of my filming – was evidence that could not be used or could incriminate us. His diary was also typed on computer and not hand written, therefore visually not as exciting as written documents. I’ve used parts of his book and the original living will which I thought could add more.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS CLEAR WHERE YOU ARE TAKING US GEOGRAPHICALLY. E.G. THE FIRST TIME WE SEE SEAN AND HIS BROTHER IN THE GARDEN TOGETHER, WE DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE. WE CAN WORK IT OUT LATER, BUT THE VIEWER DOES START TO WONDER. DID YOU CONSCIOUSLY DECIDE TO LEAVE THE LOCATIONS UNIDENTIFIED? WHY?
I did not think the locations were that important. I’ve left out geographic pointers as well as titles – you’ll notice I did not title Sean, his wife Raine, his brother or sister. The only three times when I thought/felt location was important, was a) the court case in New Zealand, b) at his mother’s house where she passed away in New Zealand, and c) being back with his family in South Africa at the end. I do not think where and when he spent time with anyone made a difference to his story.
YOU HAVE SOME INSPIRED ABSTRACT SHOTS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM, E.G. THE CLOUDS ACROSS THE MOON AT NIGHT – HOW DID YOU KNOW WHICH SHOTS TO GET?
It was a difficult story and an incredibly difficult edit. I believe directors should work with editors – to help them with perspective – and I did not have the opportunity or finance to allow this. I had to edit this myself. There is no way to show pain, suffering, dying, and emotional turmoil. I had to think of emotive shots which I got after the interview cut. Nothing else but wind, earth, air, sun and sky could translate this. I had to allow for something that is not South Africa or New Zealand – something that any person can relate to.
ARE THOSE REAL STARS IN THE NIGHT SKY, OR AFTER EFFECTS?
Yes, they are real!!!! Namibian night sky … without a tripod and on a chair!!! Very very basic, but effective.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN THE ABSTRACT IMAGES THROUGH TO THE END?
Yes, I can truly say, this was the most difficult piece I’ve ever edited. I was too close. As director, and as friend. I was too involved and had to put a lot of effort into working with the variety of footage: from actuality TV style programmes from New Zealand to South African interviews done before I came on board.
DID YOU HAVE A SHOT LIST BASED ON YOUR TIMELINE, OR DID THE SHOT LIST DEVELOP ORGANICALLY THROUGH THE PROCESS? SO, DID YOU SHOOT INTERVIEWS, THEN EDIT, THEN GET ABSTRACT SHOTS TO COVER?
I did one main interview, then decided on cutaways, e.g. dancing with his wife, hiking on table mountain.
Then only did I manage to get an exchange going with New Zealand TV, an actuality programme similar to Carte Blanche / Special Assignment. I had to use what they gave me and afterwards I spent a bit of time on texture / abstract shots in order to cover topics that could not be covered with reality.
SOME OF THE SHOTS FROM DIFFERENT PLACES AROUND THE WORLD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BE VERY SIMILAR STYLISTICALLY. HOW DID YOU BRIEF THE CAMERA PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD?
This was done in the edit. I did not have any influence on anything filmed outside of the borders of South Africa.
The funeral was done in 2006 by amateurs.
The New Zealand footage, i.e. the court case and the interview with his sister, was done in 2010. I only started filming in 2011.
The interview with his brother Fergus, was also done before I came on board.
In those cases, there was no briefing at all, which made the edit challenging as I had to keep the documentary consistent.
HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO MAINTAIN STYLISTIC CONSISTENTCY?
I think by keeping it simple. I do not have complicated edit sequences. It is fairly chronological and plain. Not as filmic as I wanted it to be, but I had to work with the content and build around that. Although this had limitations it was the only way to keep it consistent. I would see this as a very factual, journalistic type film. If I had the opportunity to do ALL the interviews and filming myself, it would probably have been more visual with longer breathing sequences.
DID YOU HAVE TWO CAMERAS IN COURT WHEN THE JUDGE WAS READING THE SENTENCE?
No. I was not present in court. This is courtesy of Chris Cooke from New Zealand TV – he had one camera present, positioned close to the judge. The entire procedure was half a day and I ended up changing the structure of the real events to make sense to the viewer.
In reality they read the sentence on arrival (when the camera is on Sean looking nervous as he thinks about the reality of a 14 year prison sentence). Only at the end of the procedure, does the judge give her deliberations (this is when the camera is on the judge). So basically, I intercut the proceedings and it looks like there are two cameras present.
WERE YOU ABLE TO MAINTAIN YOUR COMPOSURE DURING THE INTERVIEWS? HOW DID YOU PREPARE FOR THEM TO STOP FROM CRYING DURING EMOTIONAL MOMENTS?
No, I cried. I couldn’t help it.
I think Sean practised ‘telling his story’ without breaking down and crying in preparation for his court case so much that he could maintain his composure. In fact, I was worried about this as I thought it would make the viewer less sympathetic towards him.
DID YOU EVER BECOME MORE THAN JUST THE FILMMAKER IN THIS STORY?
I think I’m more of a friend now than the filmmaker and I think this happened shortly after the first main interview.
SEAN RETURNED TO SOUTH AFRICA JUST OVER THREE WEEKS AGO AND TODAY THE FILM HAS ALREADY BEEN FINAL MIXED. WHAT TECHNICAL PREPARATION DID YOU DO FOR HIS RETURN ON THE SECOND OF MAY? DID YOU HAVE YOUR TIMELINE FINALISED WITH SPACE LEFT FOR THE RETURN?
Everything was done, edited and ready. I started transcriptions of interviews during my December holiday and did most of the editing between January and April this year.
After his arrival I did three things: I couriered the footage for my exchange in New Zealand, edited the final shots of his arrival, and took it to final mix!
WHAT IS THIS EXCHANGE YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT? AND WHO WAS IT WITH?
After I did my main interview with Sean, he was assured that his family and story were safe in my hands. With that trust established he then put me in contact with Chris Cooke, who makes presenter driven actuality style programs for New Zealand TV. I had seen online that they did an interview with Sean’s sister Jo, in 2010. She did not live in New Zealand anymore and I could not travel to the east to interview her, so I asked Chris for that interview and court footage, in exchange for cutaways of Sean’s family and Cape Town.
I thought it was incredibly generous that New Zealand TV said YES. So I got the court case, interview with his sister, Jo, and the snippet at his mom’s old house, which was also filmed in 2010.
In exchange they got cutaways of Sean at work at UWC, his family playing in the park, his family at a braai, Sean and Raine dancing, hiking with the dogs on table mountain, leaving South Africa for New Zealand from the airport, arriving back after the sentence, and general SA / Cape Town establishing shots.
A good exchange as neither of us could travel due to the high cost. What I found sad was that it was much more difficult to negotiate with local broadcasters around footage. I had exclusive footage of the trial and our local broadcaster was not interested in including that in their story in exchange for their footage. I had to pay per second for that.
HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE AGREEMENT WITH NEW ZEALAND?
It was an email exchange and happened quickly and smoothly. No huge contracts and paperwork required. I asked, they said yes, we agreed on our needs and what would be sent. And that was it.
WHY DID YOU GET THE ARCHIVE FROM E.TV AND NOT FROM THE SABC? WHAT WAS THE DETERMINING FACTOR IN THIS INSTANCE?
Nothing in particular. I saw the actual bulletin from e.tv and when I enquired about footage and pricing, e.tv’s response was quick. At that stage my film had been accepted for Encounters and I had to make arrangements for buying the archive within 5 days.
HOW MUCH DID THE ARCHIVE COST AND IF YOU WERE WORKING WITHOUT FUNDS, HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO COVER THE COSTS?
I paid just over R1 000 for the 38 seconds of archive – a manageable amount, paid by myself. This is for South African Film Festival rights and only for one year. So should I want to broadcast locally I have to pay again and it will be more!. And if it goes to an international film festival, I pay again, and even more. As I do not have a broadcaster attached yet, nor confirmed submissions for overseas festivals, I’ll cross those bridges when it happens.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO MAKE THE FILM?
I met Sean in April 2011. I started filming in May 2011. Last day of filming was 1 October when he left for his trial in New Zealand. Then again when he arrived back on 2 May in 2012. So I was on the production for a year.
WHAT LIMITATIONS DID YOU FACE DURING THIS PRODUCTION?
I did not have any funder, grant or investor. People were so generous with their time and equipment.
I did not have control over 50% of the footage, filming, or interviews. So in the edit, I had to make do with what I had and as Sean was under house arrest during the edit, I did not have any opportunities to re-shoot.
Due to budgetary constraints I then had to edit myself – over weekends or late nights, which I would not recommend at all!
HOW DID YOU FIND PEOPLE TO FILM AND INTERVIEW SEAN DAVIES’ SIBLINGS AROUND THE WORLD?
Jo, his sister, was living in New Zealand at the time of the interview and I managed to get New Zealand TV to exchange any New Zealand footage and interviews for South African footage of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and interaction with his wife and children. They had a broadcast the day after his trial at the end of October 2011with these shots from me and, according to our agreement I could use Jo’s interview and the court case in my documentary. A win-win situation.
The interview with his brother was done during a South African visit before I came on board. I bought the footage from the filmmaker.
DID YOU EVER TRAVEL ABROAD FOR THE FILM YOURSELF?
Saying Goodbye premieres at the Encounters Interational Documentary Film Festival this June.
8 June at 20h30
17 June at 19h30
23 June at 18h00
12 June at 20h30
17 June at 18h00
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith
There are a number exciting films coming out of the Encounters International Documentary Festival this year and, judging from the festival booklet, a real feast of fine South African documentaries. One of these is DFA member Khalid Shamis’documentary feature The Imam and I. It’s a complex and refreshingly honest portrait of the famous Muslim anti-Apartheid icon Imam Abdullah Haron, who happens to be Shamis’ grandfather. Shamis, born in London to a South African mother and Libyan father, was trained in the UK and Middle East as a writer, director and editor. He settled in South Africa in 2005 and set out on a journey to Cape Town to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps. He chatted to his friend, Dylan Valley, about The Imam, challenges and honoring the legacy of an icon.
THE IMAM AND I IS ESSENTIALLY ABOUT THE MEMORY OF YOUR GRANDFATHER, ANTI-APARTHEID STRUGGLE ICON, IMAM HARON. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MAKE THE FILM?
The answer’s in the question, Dizzle Dazzle, or is it a trick question? Well the Imam has always been a part of my life and has inspired me in many ways. Since I had a grounding in filmmaking, I wanted to use this medium to tell his story – or my story – about him, or a story about us, or my version of his story, or something like that. Anyway, I guess if I was a painter I’d want to paint his picture, or if i was a writer … well, you get my point.
I GET THE SENSE THAT IMAM HARON, LIKE MANY STRUGGLE HEROES, ISN’T GETTING THE CREDIT HE IS DUE. WOULD YOU AGREE?
Hmmm, yes, I would to some extent. He was awarded an Officer of the Order of the Disa in 2004 by Ebrahim Rasool and I heard that they wanted to name a road after him. Not sure if that equates to credit where credit’s due, but I always somehow felt that if he was properly credited by this country, his country, then this film would have been made a long time ago by someone else.
YOU COLLABORATED WITH TALENTED YOUNG ANIMATOR, SHUKRY ADAMS ON A SHORT ANIMATED VERSION OF THE FILM ENTITLED THE KILLING OF THE IMAM. ANIMATED DOCUMENTARY IS STILL A NEW CONCEPT – WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS ROUTE AND WHAT WERE THE CHALLENGES?
I wouldnt say that it’s a new concept for documentary (Waltz With Bashir and Walt Disney’s Our Friend The Atom spring to mind), But I guess it’s a new concept for documentary in South Africa. The Killing came out of the longer film and was supposed to fill gaps for places I was unable to find archive material for and I didnt want to go the reenactment route. So, to make a film about a specific person who isn’t around anymore, you kind of want to see that person move and act on screen. The cover of the book of the same name was an obvious starting point and reference for me.
The challenges are the same for many, if not all filmmakers – time, money and a cohesive story, but within budget and within six weeks. I think we all did a good job and yes, the least I would say about Shukry Adams is that he is talented. And young.
YOU ALSO WON A SAFTA FOR THE KILLING OF THE IMAM SHORT DOCUMENTARY FILM, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WIN? WHAT DID YOU SAY IN YOUR ACCEPTANCE SPEECH?
It was a good feeling to win. I didnt expect it at all and it is a good honour to know that my grandfather’s story is being recognised in this way. I’m proud that I can honour him somehow – he was a cool guy.
When I was given the award, I looked at it and said that my daughter would love it. I didn’t mean to be demeaning, it’s just that my immediate thought was that it’s something she’d enjoy playing with – she’s 9 months old. She doesnt like it.
HOW LONG HAS IT TAKEN YOU TO COMPLETE THE FULL LENGTH VERSION? HOW DID YOU FINANCE IT?
Imam and I has been a six year project. It’ll be finished by the beginning of June. I say that every year but this year it’s for sure because I’ve booked the online and paid the deposit! It’s an indy project so I’ve financed it mostly myself – about 75%. Bits of monies arrived here and there from family and other individuals when most needed. IKON and Rainbow Circle Films via the SABC helped with The Killing and then the NFVF came in with post prod money. The finance thing is a sore point in places and could be a huge discussion. Not sure if this is the time or place.
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY RESPOND WHEN YOU TOLD THEM YOU WERE MAKING THE FILM?
They have all been very supportive and happy from day one. Let’s see how they react when they see it!
I’M SURE THEIR RESPONSES WILL BE NOTING SHORT OF WHAT YOU SET OUT TO ACHIEVE. HOWEVER, MAKING A FILM ABOUT A FAMILY MEMBER CAN BE REALLY DIFFICULT. WHAT WERE SOME OF THE HURDLES WITH BEING SO CLOSE TO THE SUBJECT?
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
Thanks for pulling out the big ammo Dylan! There are many hurdles, but not so much hurdles as issues. It took a long while to get some of my family to really open up to me about very personal issues and an even longer time for me to open up about my own issues with them and with myself. So, I guess six years was the right amount of time for this. That’s my justification for taking so long, anyway. Being so close meant that for a long time I couldn’t see a story, or I would be confused as to what story I wanted to tell. There is so much that I filmed, edited and scripted that hasn’t made the cut. As an editor, I can easily lose whole sequences in other people’s films, but in my own it’s hard to let go.
WHEN CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT TO SEE THE IMAM AND I?
It’s premiering at Encounters this year and it’s showing at TheDurban Film Festival and the Tri Con. I’ll find any excuse to shove it down your throat. I’ve lived with it for this long and now it’s your turn to deal with it.
HA HA! SPEAKING OF WHICH – WHO DO YOU THINK WILL ENJOY THE FILM? (I DID)
Er … can I answer that in about a month’s time?
Catch Khalid presenting The Imam and I at Encounters in Cape Town at Nu Metro Waterfront on Saturday the 18th and Thursday the 23rd. He will be in Johannesburg at The Bioscope on Tuesday the 21st.
Interviewed by Dylan Valley
It was not without a little trepidation that I ripped the plastic seal on Miki Redelinghuys and Kyle O’Donoghue’s film, Wellbodi Biznes. I had seen it at Encounters 2011 and found it powerful – the kind of film I wanted others to see. At the same time it’s an uncomfortable film to watch as you, the unsuspecting viewer, are unprepared for the difficult truth of an under resourced and struggling maternity ward. I did want to study it a little more carefully and I had to draw up my interview questions for the two filmmakers. So, I boldly stuck the dvd into my drive and watched the film up close and personal on my computer monitor.
They handled a difficult subject with sensitivity and below they give us insight into their process.
A GOOD PLACE TO START WOULD BE FOR YOU TO EXPLAIN HOW YOU FOUND THIS STORY, OR HOW IT FOUND YOU.
KYLE (K): I’d been doing a lot of work for UNICEF shooting in Africa and expressed my frustration to their communications officer that we came across such important stories for longer documentaries, but we were limited to shooting institutional news pieces. The opportunity presented itself to make a longer film in Sierra Leone so we seized the opportunity. I first went on a research shoot to see where the story might be – it was predetermined that it would be about the free health care initiative, but we wanted characters and a real story. In Bo Town I was struck by the human drama in their maternity ward and was immediately drawn to Dr Koroma as a character. I went back and told Miki this was where we could make a film in a contained environment that captures the complexity of the situation.
MIKI (M): As Kyle explains, the story followed on from other work he’d been doing in the area. The hard part was to find the story within the situation. We were both intent on not telling an Afro-pessimistic story, within trying circumstances. So the story emerged when we could find that glimmer of hope. What is central in the telling of this story is finding the light in a dark situation, when we met Aminata, we realized that she was the light. Her strength of character, her smile that fills an entire room …
WHY DID YOU AGREE TO DO THIS FILM?
K: Hmmm? Not sure really. Seemed like a good idea at the time, especially since we had a promise of part funding from UNICEF so it wouldn’t be wholly on spec. It was also a nice opportunity to make a vérité style film in another country in Africa. Given hindsight I would have still agreed to do the film, but perhaps have been more mentally prepared for how hard it was going to be.
M: The subject matter lies very close to my heart, so I was keen to tell a story that would raise awareness about the unnecessary suffering of women in childbirth as well as preventable infant mortality.
Sometimes we spend so much time thinking about making films, so when Kyle approached me for this film I didn’t really think, I was just keen to get out and make this film. I also enjoy working with Kyle – we work well together without ego issues and in general agree ethically and creatively on what works.
I AM OFTEN CONFUSED BY HOW PEOPLE USE THE TERM VÉRITÉ. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY VÉRITÉ – DO YOU MEAN OBSERVATIONAL AND WITHOUT INTERVIEWS?
K: By definition vérité would be completely observational without interviews in a sort of Kim Longinotto or Maysles Brothers style. For me it has always been aspiring to a vérité style. In other words, as far as possible allowing the scenes to speak for themselves and create narrative. Our constraint is that often we do not have enough time to be total purists and so we have to do short interviews that get pieces of narrative that will help us along in the edit. I guess when I say vérité I mean aspiring to make a documentary that reads like a feature film. Does that make sense?
M: In essence vérité means truth. That’s how I interpret it and apply the principle of pursuing truth when approaching a film. On a purist level this could mean not interfering and just filming things as they unfold, but I don’t believe this is truly possible – one’s very presence is an interference, thereby adding another layer to the truth of the situation. We cannot be flies on walls, because we’re not flies. Simple.
YOU START WITH AN INTRODUCTION THAT CONTEXTUALISES THE STORY AND THEN YOU DIVE STRAIGHT INTO THE UNCOMFORTABLE REALITY OF MATERNAL DEATHS. IT’S POWERFUL, BUT IT COULD ALSO TURN PEOPLE AWAY FROM THE FILM. WHY DID YOU STICK WITH THIS SCENE SO EARLY IN THE FILM?
K: This was once of our main debates during the edit. Before we embarked on the film we both decided that we did not want to portray a typical picture of terrible conditions in Africa – the hopelessness and swollen belly cliches that we all too often see. It’s just too easy. However, the reality was that we were dealing with a very difficult situation, with death and heartache that people working in the hospital experience on a daily basis. It strengthens Dr Koroma and Aminata’s characters hugely when you realise right at the start of the film what their reality entails. Without this backdrop one might misconstrue their reactions to women in the film as uncaring. We wanted to show heroes against an uncompromising and horrifying situation – the early death does this.
M: We decided that we wouldn’t shy away form the reality of life and death in a maternity ward in Bo Government Hospital. Watching the film isn’t nearly as hard as it was to be there filming it, which isn’t nearly as hard as living that reality. We decided to take the viewers straight into that reality so that everyone is clear on what the situation is, what the odds are on a daily basis, and what’s at stake. Personally I find the entire film very hard to watch and I’m always amazed that people don’t leave. But there was no other way to tell an honest story.
PART OF THE POWER, WHICH IS MORE LIKE KNOCKOUT POWER, OF THIS FILM IS HOW CLOSE THE VIEWER GETS TO DEATH WITHOUT BEING SENTIMENTAL. WE’VE SEEN IT IN TV DRAMA SERIES, BUT WE HARDLY GET TO DEATH AS IT HAPPENS IN REAL LIFE. IT IS UNBEARABLE TO WATCH – WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO FILM?
K: We knew it would be rough, but I think ultimately we were unprepared for just how hard the filming would be. It’s one thing to imagine being the uncompromising doc filmmaker tackling difficult situations head on, and quite another thing to actually be there. Miki bore the brunt of the difficult filming – being a woman she had access to the labour ward. One experience stands out: I had been filming in the ward with Dr Koroma and Miki had gone off with our fixer to film in the labour ward. When I was done, I saw her emerge and knew immediately that something was wrong. She told me she had just filmed a birth where the baby died. There were times when we wondered if we could really go on. I could not have made this film with anyone else and especially someone I was not friends with and did not know. The mutual support was key.
M: The problem is when you are filming you don’t really know what the outcome is, sometimes even while you’re filming you don’t realise what you’re actually capturing until halfway through. The incident with the death at birth that Kyle mentions was incredibly disturbing. The baby was born with a chord around his neck and initially I was filming thinking it would be okay, then I realised that things were going wrong and withdrew from the room as I did not feel comfortable filming this. I was also very emotional and left the hospital for a while. I discovered when I returned that they had managed to resuscitate the baby after I’d left.
On the other hand, the scene where the women dies happened so quickly, I did not actually realise that she had died. I thought I was filming her being stabilised before an operation and afterwards it dawned on me what had happened. Things happen so quickly, that often one just responds to a situation and only when you are halfway through it do you realise what is really happening. I think we were also in a state of semi-shock a lot of the time and coping mechanisms kick in.
What was really important was that Kyle and I could support each other emotionally as well, and if one person needed a break, the other could continue. If one of us lost hope, the other would encourage.
K: The other important thing was knowing when to leave the hospital and take a break. There was one air-conditioned Lebanese owned restaurant in Bo which served real coffee and rotisserie chicken and this was our retreat when the going got tough.
DID YOU HAVE DOUBTS ABOUT CONTINUING TO DO IT AFTER A FEW DAYS OF FILMING?
K: There were a few occasions where we would have like to have packed it in and just left Sierra Leone. The story did not seem to be developing and we were slow in getting scenes in the bag. But no, I don’t think we ever seriously considered quitting – you just have to trust in process and keep going with the belief that the story will reveal itself.
M: I did often wonder what I was doing there, what I was hoping to achieve. It made me question the power of documentary filmmaking in general and I did start feeling very despondent. The situation seemed so much bigger than our film could ever hope to capture. I questioned the effect of the film, the value for the women involved, the value for the cause. I felt like running away from it many times, but never quitting. I don’t really know the answer yet.
IF YOU DID HAVE DOUBTS WHY DID YOU CONTINUE TO FILM?
M: Once you’re committed mentally to a story, you can’t just drop it. I kept hoping to find an answer
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING A TWO-DIRECTOR TEAM? HOW DID YOU DECIDE UPON THE DIRECTION OF THE STORY WHILE FILMING?
K: Miki and I have worked together on a number of vérité style docs including Brass Boys (IDFA Kids & Docs 2008) and Congo My Foot (Best Short Film Tri Continental 2009). We both direct from behind the camera and have a pretty intuitive relationship in the field. There is never one person directing – it’s a collaborative process where when one person has the camera the other keeps an eye for where things might be going. Often we split up and shoot independently.
M: I think we work well together. I think all films are collaborative – you just need to find the right people to collaborate with. Sharing ethical values is important, agreeing creatively a lot of the time helps, and being able to find things to laugh at. I think it would have been hard for either of us to make this film alone.
WHAT DID YOU SHOOT ON AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FORMAT?
K: We shot in XDCam 1080i. No reason aside from this is what we have. HD, because there is no reason to not shoot in it anymore.
M: My camera was stolen so I used whatever Kyle had on offer.
HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING WITH THIS FORMAT? IT SEEMS TO HAVE HANDLED THE LOWLIGHT INSIDE AMINATA’S HOUSE VERY WELL.
K: Truthfully, we could have done with better low light performance, but the camera, a JVC HM100, held up pretty well. The nice thing about HD is that you can push it a little further in post before it falls apart.
M: My first shots were all over-exposed and out of focus. I struggled with the JVC camera, I think my hands were too big and I was used to the Sony Z1, but it got better. Kyle was very forgiving and kept politely urging me to go to auto.
HOW ARE BIG HANDS SUITED TO THE SONY Z1?
M: The JVC is a smaller camera than the Z1 by probably about half, so the controls can be tricky and small.
This was a joke and my way of apologising for struggling a bit with Kyle’s camera after being used to my own. Cameras are very personal. It’s a tool and a friend – you need to know it to be able to get the best results. Your relationship with the camera needs to be seamless, so that your technical understanding of it requires no thought while you’re working. It needs to be instinctive. Like a real pianist no longer thinks about where the notes are, instead you use the tool creatively because you instinctively already know where everything is and what it can do.
DID YOU UNDERSTAND THE SIERRA LEONESE? HOW DID YOU NAVIGATE THROUGH THE FOREIGN ENVIRONMENT?
K: The Creole is pretty easy to understand. It’s an English based Creole so one understands I would say 40-50% of what is going on – enough to be able to respond to what people say, which helped a lot. We also had an infield translator.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE SHOT BOTH HANDHELD AND ON LEGS – IS THIS CORRECT? OR YOU HAVE A VERY STEADY HAND. WHAT MOTIVATED THE SHOOTING STYLE?
K: The character driven scenes were all hand held and then we would shoot cutaways around the ward on legs. Legs were important for not getting too close to the patients and respecting their space.
M: I think we generally went with what the situation required, trying not to make rules.
HOW MANY DAYS DID YOU SHOOT?
K: I think around 10.
EVERYONE SEEMS SO COMFORTABLE WITH THE CAMERA, ESPECIALLY THE TWO MAIN PARTICIPANTS – HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THIS?
K: I think it comes from firstly having two very engaging characters. Secondly, taking the time to talk with people before you start shooting even though this can be frustrating as we were short on time. It also comes from having shot a number of observational films I think, and knowing how to read a character to get the best out of them. Knowing when to walk away from a scene or to step back and give the character room to breathe (again, difficult when time is of the essence). I joke with Miki that for me it is a bit like shooting natural history films – that you have to be patient and slowly move towards your target, retreating when necessary and sensing the right time to get the shot.
M: I think its about trust and respect. We explain what we would like to film, but then allow the characters to guide us on where we are and aren’t welcome and then you sense it from there. It’s important when filming documentaries to think of it as people’s lives and not a story. Think all the time of how what you’re filming will impact on their lives and treat that with respect. Lives continue after cameras go and what remains is more important than what you take away.
HOW COMFORTABLE WERE YOU ABOUT FILMING SOMETHING THAT WAS SO INTIMATE AND AT TIMES ALSO DEVASTATING?
K: I try not to think about it while I am there. There is always time for meltdown when you get back. I think we both had strong convictions that it was an important film to make and this allows one to trust in the process and not to think about it.
M: I was often very uncomfortable and questioned our right to be there. But then I would be reassured as we built relationships with people and I felt welcome. We always spoke to each and every person we filmed, explaining what we were doing, asking whether they did or didn’t want to be filmed and respected that choice. Sometimes, I believe, you are also giving people something by filming them, there is a certain recognition. It was a very hard shoot though, on many levels.
WHEN YOU USE THE WORD RECOGNITION, DO YOU MEAN THE AUDIENCE RECOGNISES THE PARTICIPANT’S STORY?
M: I mean that when someone records your life they are giving it recognition.
I HAD A CHUCKLE WHEN I HEARD MIKI’S VOICE AND THEN THE DOCTOR RANTING OVER HER VOICE ABOUT NOT HAVING HAD BREAKFAST AND NOT GETTING TO SEE PATIENTS WHO HAD BEEN WAITING A LONG TIME. WERE THERE MANY SITUATIONS LIKE THIS ONE WHERE THE DOCTOR WAS FRUSTRATED? IT PROVIDES GOOD CONTENT.
K: Unlike other films I have worked on where you have a choice of scenes I think we used every scene we shot in Wellbodi Bizness. So the Koroma meltdown was the only one we shot.
M: You forget about all the scolding scenes we didn’t include! They were repetitive, though. Dr Koromo is constantly venting his frustration at the lack of support. I felt for him about breakfast though – I also lose my temper when I haven’t eaten.
WHY DIDN’T YOU FILM THE BIRTH OF 15 YEAR OLD SATHU’S BABY?
K: We had to leave and had been waiting for days for it to happen. She was over term and Dr Koroma kept saying he was going to do a Caesarean Section, but then he would be called away to Freetown or something else would come up.
M: We were sorry to miss that. We met a lovely young German doctor who was doing research and who was hoping to start a birthing clinic in the area. We told her about Sathu and she ended up assisting Dr Koromo with the birth after we had left. I think she tried to give Sathu emotional support through this terrifying experience and gave us feedback on how it went.
WAS IT PART OF YOUR PLAN THAT KYLE WOULD EDIT THE FILM?
K: Not part of the plan necessarily, but it was always a strong possibility. I have edited all the films we have made together, and it seems such a natural part of the process. It was also, budget-wise, not possible to hire an editor.
M: I can’t edit.
WHY DID KYLE EDIT THE FILM, I.E. WHY DIDN’T YOU CHOOSE AN EDITOR WHO WOULD BRING A FRESH EYE TO THE STORY TO EDIT THE FILM?
K: We both felt very attached to the story and a strong sense of wanting to make it in a particular way. While we were shooting there was an edit process of sorts going on already and this transferred into the suite. There was also content that I would not have felt comfortable allowing anyone else to see. It was funny. We kind of locked ourselves away for a month and did not show it to anyone – very unsure that we were on the right track and that people would even want to watch it.
M: The edit is key in how the story is told and Kyle was best suited to capturing the nuances of this story, having been there.
On practical terms there was no budget for an editor – we both worked on the edit without budget. I would work on structuring or content cutting the next scene while Kyle was busy on a scene, that way making the workflow faster. Because we were both there, no time is wasted explaining or getting to know the material, etc.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE ONE OF THE DIRECTORS EDITING THE STORY? WHY WAS IT THIS WAY?
K: We both edited the film in many ways. We would look at selects and discuss how the next scene should be cut. I would do an assembly and then we would work together shot by shot to craft a scene. Many days we would only make it to 1pm and just call it quits. Working with the material was very hard. I would get into my car and realise how tense I was and have to just breathe and calm down before driving home. The most important thing about the way Miki and I work together is that we know when to hang on to something personally – like a favorite shot or piece of dialogue – and when to let it go. A certain amount of tussling went on in the edit when we didn’t always agree, but a well-timed cup of tea sorts out most problems. I really like this way of working but it requires a great deal of mutual respect or it can fall apart.
M: I think it was fine. Kyle bore the brunt of the work and did a great job. I think my strength lies in structure and he could put things together in a poetic way, so in a sense I could be a semi-objective eye to a scene he had cut and figure out where to go next – we would feed off each other, which I think is really great. He’s also really fast in making decisions and I tend to ponder and procrastinate, so this way I was just forced to make decisions and move on, which was the best way to handle this film – instinctively and decisively.
THE WAY YOU HAVE USED B-ROLL TO TAKE US AWAY FROM THE DISTRESSING SCENES AT THE HOSPITAL WORKS VERY WELL FOR ME. THIS DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK – SOMETIMES I FIND THAT THE B-ROLL HAS NO RELATION AND FEELS LIKE IT DOESN’T BELONG TO THE STORY. WHY DO YOU THINK IT WORKS?
K: This was something we decided on very early on and so we made a point of shooting the visual scenes away from the hospital as crafted scenes themselves. Each of them tell you something about Sierra Leone visually which adds to the story. In many ways we worked just as hard on the b-roll sequences as the narrative sequences. We also wanted to have something visually aesthetic to take us away from the dark and gritty scenes in the hospital.
M: We wanted the film to feel like a film and not a report, all things happen in a context and the context is very relevant.
HOW MUCH INTERFERENCE WAS THERE FROM UNICEF IN THE FINAL OUTCOME OF THE STORY?
K: We were very fortunate in that they were happy with the film as it was, and were frankly very surprised given that it shows the difficult reality rather than the fluffy donor films about Africa we are all used to.
M: No interference really. Kyle edited a short advocacy clip according to their specifications, so this film was really up to us.
THANKS KYLE AND MIKI FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL RESPONSES THAT WILL GIVE READERS LOTS TO THINK ABOUT. IT’S A BEAUTIFUL FILM AND I HOPE MANY MORE PEOPLE DO SEE IT!
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith
Glitterboys and Ganglands is acclaimed writer, Lauren Beukes’, debut documentary on the Miss Gay Western Cape competition in Cape Town.
I was privileged enough to work with Lauren and Matthew on this documentary. We had a fairly tight deadline by the time Lauren phoned me and I think the fact that I edited during the day and Matthew sometimes at night made it a varied product. The edit is a combination of all our efforts and work, and in the end, every single person who walked into the edit suite gave input.
While Lauren was on tour for her book Zoo City, I caught up with her via email.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO DO A DOCUMENTARY ON MISS GAY WESTERN CAPE? WHY DID YOU WANT TO TELL THIS STORY?
LAUREN (L): We have a list of dream projects and one of them was a documentary on Miss Gay Soweto, but that hasn’t run for a few years. We got wind of Miss Gay Western Cape – which is the biggest in the province – at a moment when we had the spare time and resources to do it. It was pure serendipity.
YOUR THREE MAIN CHARACTERS ARE REALLY SPECIAL, BUT ALSO VERY DIVERSE. IT WAS INCREDIBLE THAT THEIR PERSONAL STORIES DOVETAILED SO NEATLY WITH THE BUILD-UP TOWARDS THE MISS GAY WESTERN CAPE EVENT AND THE OUTCOME. HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THIS?
L: As a long-time journalist, I’ve learnt that the stories find you – it’s all about finding the right people. I was able to interview all the girls at one of the events running up to the big night and I chose the three people who seemed to have the most interesting stories (and a fourth who was moslem, but also hadn’t come out to her parents yet – so after we discussed it, we decided rather not to feature her as one of our main stories). The way it turned out was again, pure serendipity. It just so happened that one of our girls won, one lost (badly) and one was a surprise top five!
THE ENTIRE DOCUMENTARY WAS SHOT AND EDITED IN QUITE A SHORT PERIOD. WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE?
L: I was lucky to work with experienced and brilliant editors, Izette Mostert and Matthew Brown (who edited the pageant scenes). When you came in, we had the core story down, but it sagged in places and just wasn’t working in others. You brought your 15 years of experience to bear to make subtle tweaks and rearrangements that made all the difference. A good editor is able to instantly see what’s working and how to fix it without stepping on the story.
We did have major issues with audio syncing using the Canon 7D and eventually our long-suffering and very tolerant assistant editor, Dene McLeod. had to manually sync the entire thing.
YOU ARE A HUSBAND-WIFE TEAM, HOW DID THIS WORK? WOULD YOU SAY IT WAS AN ADVANTAGE?
L: We’ve worked together for the last five years at the now defunct Clockwork Zoo where Matt was director/producer and I was head scriptwriter and occasional director. Look, it always helps when you’re sleeping with the boss! In all seriousness, our working relationship plays off our strengths. We push each other and probably give each other more grief than you would a co-worker you weren’t married to.
ALTHOUGH IT’S A LIGHT HEARTED FILM THAT KEEPS YOU SMILING, YOU TOUCHED SOME HEAVY SUBJECTS LIKE POVERTY, RAPE, HOMOSEXUALITY AND HIV and AIDS. HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO KEEP IT POSITIVE AND NOT BE DRAGGED DOWN BY THESE HEAVY ISSUES?
L: By letting the subjects speak for themselves and, of course, choosing great subjects in the first place. The pageant is just a wonderful thing: a celebration of who they are (or choose to be sometimes). So really we just filmed what happened in a way that was both respectful and fun and let it veer into the darker moments naturally. It was about sharing their stories without dwelling on the darkness and always picking up the mood after.
YOU ALSO EDITED ON THE FILM – HOW DID YOU FIND SHARING THE EDIT SUITE?
MATTHEW (M): It was actually pretty cool – I didn’t have to cut the content so much as the music theme pieces. I like to work on my own, so we took turns during the day or I worked at night. But one of the challenges was the way we had shot sound and picture separately and the syncing software was a complete lemon. I lost weeks of my life that I won’t get back through trying to sync the sound.
THIS IS NOT A COMMISSIONED DOCUMENTARY – HOW DID YOU FUND IT AND WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE?
M: We were very lucky that Okuhle Media agreed to invest in the film and gave us financial support from an early stage. We managed to keep hard costs down as much as possible to allow us to break even sooner. We also signed the distribution rights to DCD Rights (a distribution company) from London and we’re hoping for some solid sales.
AS WE ALL KNOW, YOU ARE ACTUALLY A FICTION WRITER! WHY DID YOU DECIDE ON THE DOCUMENTARY GENRE AS YOUR FILMMAKING DEBUT?
LAUREN: I’ve been a lot of things, but always first and foremost a storyteller. I was a freelance journalist for 12 years, a TV scriptwriter for five and I’ve been writing books for six. It was a natural evolution. It’s about finding great stories and telling them in a compelling way. Journalism was the best training ground I could have asked for in fiction writing or documentary directing. I had previously directed episodes of the animated series, URBO: The Adventures of Pax Afrika, but making a documentary was a return to my journalism roots.
WHAT DID YOU FIND THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF FILMMAKING IN COMPARISON TO WRITING FOR A MAGAZINE OR A BOOK?
L: Not being able to rearrange quotes to make them fit where I wanted them! In journalism, you can move a quote to a different part of the story where it will have the most impact (in context, of course), but in documentaries, you have to keep it in scene. We had the most amazing quote from Eva about how she wanted to get into genetically modified (GM) foods in her biotech studies and that GM foods, like being gay, is something that is misunderstood, that people fear, but it came up early in the shoot and there was just. no. way. to. make. it. fit. You and I must have tried twenty variations and eventually we had to give up. I’m all for killing all your darlings (and mostly you never notice when they’re gone) but that one hurt.
WHO DO YOU THINK WILL ENJOY THIS FILM?
L: Really, and I know this is a glib answer, everyone. I think some people might watch it for the spectacle of seeing men in heels and evening frocks, but what they’ll ultimately come away with is, as Eva so beautifully summed up, the idea that, “we’re here and it’s normal and we’re lovely.”
YOU’RE A BUSY WOMAN, HAVING WON THE ARTHUR C CLARKE AWARD FOR SCIENCE FICTION FOR YOUR BOOK ZOO CITY AND NOW YOU’RE JET SETTING ON A PUBLICITY CAMPAIGN. HOW DO YOU MANAGE SUCH A SCHEDULE?
L: I have a very supportive husband who makes me turn down a lot of fun stuff that would be very time consuming to focus on the big projects, a brilliant nanny and friends and family who keep me down to earth.
Interviewed by Izette Mostert
Rina Jooste’s Jammer As Ek So Bitter Is (Sorry If I Seem Bitter) won the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) for: Best Director of a Documentary and Best Overall Documentary in 2011. Jammer As Ek So Bitter Is explores the silent violence of peer pressure and how it manifests in the lives of four teenage girls. The girls tell their stories openly which shows that the team won their trust to elicit such frank retelling of their stories. The stories are both fascinating and disturbing which makes it difficult to watch at times.
HOW DID YOU FIND THIS STORY?
My partner Nadiva Schraibman approached me with the concept of doing a documentary series on the violence in our schools. She was editing a research paper for the Justice and Crime Prevention NGO and decided it needed to be presented through television or film in order to reach the public since research papers gather dust. Since the subject matter of violence in our country is close to my heart and I am constantly doing research about it, we wrote a proposal for a four-part series. Incidentally, shortly after we wrote the proposal, the SABC put out a brief for a documentary series focusing on Human Rights, it was open for suggestions. I decided to submit the proposal under the heading of Youth and Human Rights. SABC commissioned two of the four proposed episodes, one on bullying in primary township schools and one on peer pressure and its manifestations amongst teenage girls in white suburbia.
I usually have my characters lined up when I propose or plan a documentary film. In this instance I did not have characters, only the concept. It was extremely hard to find teenage girls whose parents were prepared to let them speak on camera about very personal and hard hitting experiences. I tried various avenues without success. My bedroom is always littered with books, magazines and newspapers and out of desperation I started reading a leisure magazine one night to try and switch off before going to bed, I opened the magazine at an article about the very subject of the documentary – the peer pressure on teenage girls and the manifestations thereof. The next morning I located the author of the article, Heidi Chester, who was a drama teacher at the time and had dedicated her drama studio to the plight of teenagers who needed help. We were both so excited when we realised that we were working on exactly the same subject. She was wonderful – very cooperative and facilitated the filming of the teenagers. Through her I met with possible characters and started spending time with them, did the club circuit over weekends and hung out in malls. Heidi arranged the legal and administrative arrangements with the parents and this is how we located the characters, which was the most challenging part of making this documentary. Heidi herself became a character through the role of facilitating the process and feeding us with lots of content. The documentary would not have been possible without her help.
WHY DID YOU MAKE THIS FILM AND WHO IS YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE?
Predominantly parents, educators and the youth from age 13 and older.
We live in a very violent society and this has become the norm. However, I don’t think it is normal – I grew up in a protected environment during the 1970’s and 1980’s in white suburbia, where I was blissfully unaware of the other side. My childhood years were wonderful, protected and free of violence, but it was false and fabricated to suit apartheid policies. Today we live with the legacy and damages of apartheid, which will take generations to heal. There is also damage in white society, despite us having been the fortunate few previously, and I wanted to address one of the many challenges faced in white middle class society today, not as a legacy of apartheid, but as a microcosm of what is happening in our South African society at large – moral decay and more for various reasons that are briefly mentioned or touched on in the film.
Parents and educators are often in denial and by making this hard hitting documentary, I wanted to highlight these shocking events taking place around us in our schools and society at large. I hope that the documentary is an eye-opener for parents and for teenagers. It should be a reminder and create awareness of what is going on around them and hopefully encourage them to seek help if they identify with the characters.
It wasn’t accepted at any of the many film festivals it was submitted to. Heidi Chester uses it at workshops that she presents to the youth, and I am looking for an organisation or support system that will present it to schools and youth organisations so it reaches a wider audience.
WHAT SABC STRAND WAS THIS COMMISSIONED FOR AND WHEN WAS IT BROADCAST?
SABC 1 put out a brief in 2008 for a documentary series on Human Rights. We produced the documentary in 2009 and it was broadcast in March 2010 on SABC 1 in the doccie slot and again in April 2010 on SABC 3’s Special Assignment.
WHAT WAS THE COST PER MINUTE (CPM) FOR THE FILM? WHAT CHALLENGES WERE THERE WITHIN THE BUDGET?
R5 000 p/m.
We work within our budget and I make sure that we stay within and make it work for us to the best of our abilities. We negotiate fees with our crew and have loyal and supportive crew that we work with.
WHEN YOU SET OUT TO MAKE A FILM, DO YOU HAVE A STRONG POSITION ON THE TOPIC?
Yes I have very strong opinions and feelings about the topics and subjects of my films, including future films in planning. I need this opinion in order to portray a message of substance, and it’s this passion for what I do and believe in that drives me. However, I always aim to remain neutral and not judge the characters and subject matter. I also want to look at various viewpoints and then decide how to present mine. So sometimes a film could be open-ended, but I always try to leave my films open to dialogue and debate.
DID YOU HAVE A POSITION ON THIS FILM?
My position on this film was the fact that I constantly think about and question the violence in our country – on all levels of our society, from high income to low income citizens. It has spread throughout in different forms and through different platforms and in different manifestations.
I knew about the challenges faced by white youth specifically, but needed to do much more thorough research in order to get my head around it – which I then did. I took a position and knew what message I wanted to portray in the film, which I believe I succeeded in with the help of my brilliant editor CA van Aswegen, and the rest of the team.
The message I wanted to convey was making people aware of the peer pressure faced by teenagers in South African society today and warn them of the related manifestations. And to illustrate that the challenges faced by youth could be found in all social strata across the racial divide, it is not exclusive to any group.
WHO DID YOUR CAMERA WORK? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HER?
Natalie Haarhoff. We decided to use a female cinematographer since our characters were all female. We never worked with Natalie prior to Jammer As Ek Bitter Is, but we knew her work and how brilliant she is and how she has the ability to capture strong messages through her choice of visuals. We needed someone with a sensitive nature and without an inflated ego as we believe there is no room for this when one works with real people with real problems. We found this in Natalie. It was an excellent choice since she did not only do great detailed filming, but was also sensitive towards the subject matter and non-intrusive behind the camera.
We filmed very damaged, traumatised teens and they were comfortable with me, but bringing in a camera person and sound person can influence the flow of interviews and filming. Both Natalie and sound technician, President Kapa, understood this and with their sensitive and non-intrusive attitudes, I believe we succeeded.
In making films of this nature, the supporting crew such as camera and sound also have a big role to play by understanding the sensitive nature and being aware of this whilst working with the characters. It is also my responsibility as the director to protect my characters and I have an ethical responsibility in this regard that I take very seriously.
YOUR IMAGES LOOK VERY DETAILED AND RICH – WHAT CAMERA DID YOU USE?
Sony V1. The characters also took personal handycams with them to parties and events and we integrated this footage into the film.
IS THAT A DOLLY SHOT AT AROUND 10’37” – HOW DID YOU DO THAT SHOT BECAUSE IT HAS BUDGET IMPLICATIONS IF IT IS A DOLLY SHOT? (AT THE SCHOOL, THROUGH THE WALL WITH CHILDREN DOWN IN PLAYGROUND)
We borrowed feature film footage from Bakgat 1. CA’s company produced the film, so it came in very handy. We had limitations on filming at schools – we did get entry into a school, but our visuals were not that great.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE TEAM YOU WORKED WITH AND THAT SUPPORTED YOU THROUGH THIS?
My partner Nadiva Schraibman approached me with the concept as explained before, and she took the role of producer. Nadiva decided to use cinematographer Natalie Haarhoff for both the episodes. We had never worked with her before and hoped that she would be available and willing to work for the SABC rate that was low by her standards – and she agreed. It was a wonderful experience for all involved and the start of a new professional partnership with Natalie.
Nadiva always works with sound technician President Kapa and fortunately he was available for both episodes which ensured quality and consistent sound levels. Janno Muller from Onkeysound was also Nadiva’s choice for the audio final mix – again for both episodes, which was an excellent choice. Since then we always make use of his services.
Fortunately for me, my editor CA van Aswegen, whom I grew up with as a documentary filmmaker, was available. We understand each other so it was a great experience to work with him again. We all know how much the editing of a documentary film contributes to the final product, and he understands my messages and knows how to help me get there.
Producer – Nadiva Schraibman
Cinematographer – Natalie Haarhoff
Sound Technician – President Kapa
Audio Final Mix – Janno Muller
Editor – CA van Aswegen
WHY DID YOU INTERVIEW ARYNA’S MOTHER IN HER BEDROOM? IT FEELS TOO INTIMATE FOR ME – WHAT WERE YOU HOPING TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS PLACING, OR WHY DID YOU PLACE HER HERE?
It was an intentional choice to interview her in her bedroom. It is an intimate film since the characters opened up so much and revealed so much of themselves, it was part of a stylistic choice.
THIS IS BOTH A DEPRESSING AND A COMPELLING FILM. HOW DO YOU COPE WITH SUCH INTENSELY NEGATIVE SUBJECT MATTER? DO YOU GO FOR THERAPY, OR ANY KIND OF DEBRIEFING?
Very relevant question. Yes most of the films I work on are depressing subject matter and I deal a lot with traumatised and damaged people. I make a point of being aware of this situation at all times and try to take time out to gain perspective. I have a brilliant homeopath who knows what remedies I need to help me cope – her role is that of therapist. My sister, also a homeopath, offers similar support. I have a very supportive group of friends and family, and the special man in my life also offers a great deal of support and understanding.
I exercise by walking my dogs and doing yoga which helps with stress release. I follow a very healthy eating plan and overall healthy lifestyle, I love nature and find that the combination helps me to cope. And then most importantly, I love nothing more than making documentary films – I am always on a mission with a story that needs to be told and documentary film gives me this outlet, so the passion and love for what I do makes it all worthwhile.
HOW MANY HOURS OF FOOTAGE DID YOU HAVE? WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU COULDN’T FIT INTO THE FINAL CUT THAT YOU WOULD REALLY HAVE LIKED PEOPLE TO SEE?
We filmed in a very structured and focused manner and had about 12 hours of footage for a 48-minute cut. We filmed over eight days.
It wasn’t a kill-your-darlings edit really, we managed to use most of the footage that we planned to use and it was relatively easy.
WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE AS THE DIRECTOR? DO YOU FIND THAT ON DIFFERENT PROJECTS THE DIRECTOR NEEDS TO DO DIFFERENT THINGS? AND WHAT WAS REQUIRED OF YOU, BY THE CHARACTERS PERHAPS, IN THIS FILM?
I prefer to do as much research on the subject matter myself, in this way you can really familiarise yourself with the topic and thorough research to me is key to a good film – it shows in the content. I did most of the research myself as well as identifying and choosing the characters, which was the most challenging part of the film. I then spent as much time as we had available with the characters – getting to know them as well as them becoming comfortable with me, which allows for better interviews and getting quality content and opinions from the characters.
After very thorough research and spending lots of time with the characters I then planned the filming. It never works out exactly as planned, since we work with real people and real life situations. I often have to plan my shooting schedule around characters’ availability or around events and activities to film, as well as budget allowance for shoot days. I prefer to do this myself since I know what I need from whom and when. I also prefer to communicate with my characters myself since we form close relationships, and I need them to trust me. I then plan my shot list according to my schedule as well as the interview questions that forms a large part of the filming. This takes a lot of time since it informs most of the content of the film and ensures that I am well informed during the interview. Once I have the shooting schedule, shot list and interview questions ready, I have a meeting with the producer and cinematographer to finalise the shooting style and detail. Since I am not a cinematographer, I rely on expert advice from the cinematographer, hence the importance of using someone reliable and whom I can relate to and vice versa. The relationship the director has with the crew is very important, but the ones you have with the cinematographer and editor are very important and shouldn’t be underestimated – they make a huge difference to the final product.
I try not to interfere with the cinematographer. If I trust them, I leave them to do their work. I ensure that they are properly briefed and do check rushes and double-check that all we need has been captured. In this way, we empower each other and I find I get what I need and ask for.
I don’t work with a script, firstly because I don’t know how to write a documentary script and secondly because I believe a documentary where I follow characters and tell their stories is a work in progress. I follow my shot list and do thorough interviews, but often things come up and we add a shoot day to cover for unexpected events or happenings around the film. I am very flexible in this regard as long as it can contribute towards the film and I remain within budget. I work in a very organised and structured manner – my filming is planned very thoroughly and I know exactly what I want, but I am always open to suggestions and advice from the team.
I am also present for most of the editing of the film. I have long discussions with my editor to make sure he understands where the story needs to go and what message I want to convey. I also collaborate with him before we start filming to ensure I follow the style we choose and stick to it. I often communicate with the editor during the filming period to ensure we are on the right track and bounce ideas around, ensuring a quality product. After edit I also do the briefing for audio final mix as well and the approval thereof.
All in all I am very hands on with directing my films, from inception, idea, proposal, pitch, research, filming, editing right through to final mix and delivery. In the case ofJammer As Ek Bitter Is it was also a hands-on experience from start to finish.
WHAT DO YOU THINK A FILM CAN DO FOR THE PEOPLE IN IT?
Often films of this nature are a cathartic process for the characters, giving them the opportunity and environment in which they can open up and talk about their experiences or issues. It sometimes brings them closer to healing or accepting. I have had various experiences with characters, but mostly of a positive nature.
In this instance it did bring healing to Aryna and Naquiska. Aryna commented afterwards that the chance to open up and talk about her experiences helped her deal with them and gave her the final push to move on. She was also happy that she could share her experience so that others could be helped through the story being told. Naquiska also commented that the process has helped her – today she is a medical student at Wits and doing very well. She still wears her black clothes and body piercings but does not stand out so much in her new environment.
I still have contact with both of them as well as Aryna’s mom and Heidi Chester. The girl whose identity we had to protect sadly disappeared and chose not to make contact with me again.
Making these kind of documentary films, a director has a huge responsibility towards their characters and cannot walk away from them once the film is finished. I make sure I communicate broadcast dates as well as film festival dates with characters and any big announcement around the film, which in this instance would include winning two SAFTA awards for it.
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith
The untold story of Afrikaans may seem rather academic and hard to translate to film. Add to this the story of a theatre troupe and their production, Afrikaaps that they use to tell this untold story, and you have quite a challenge ahead of you if your job is to make the film about all of this. Dylan Valley, however, first time documentary filmmaker was admirably up to the task. Together with editor, Khalid Shamis, he crafted a story that entertains, informs and – for those whose dialect is explored – even vindicates.
TELLING THE STORY OF THE MAKING OF A THEATRE PERFORMANCE COULD BE AN OVERWHELMING OR AN UNWIELDY PROJECT – HOW DID YOU MANAGE IT? WHAT WAS YOUR PLAN?
Before I was asked by Catherine (the director of the theatre project) to documentAfrikaaps, I was already on the team as a video maker for the show. That gave me a huge advantage because I was there from the beginning. I think my plan was to always have the camera ready, and shoot anything that seemed relevant.
WHEN YOU WERE ASKED TO DOCUMENT THE PROCESS, WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL THOUGHTS?
Haha! I think my immediate thoughts were, how the heck am I going to make videos for a theatre show (something I had never done before) and shoot and plan a documentary at the same time? But I was ready for the challenge, and very excited about the project.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN HOW THE FILM STORY BEGAN TO TAKE SHAPE IN YOUR HEAD? HOW DID YOU BEGIN TO MAKE SENSE OF YOUR TASK?
I always thought the film would end up resembling The Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders. I’m a huge fan of the film, and I referenced its style and structure a lot in my initial documentary proposal. Because I had around ten characters in my film, I needed to reference a successful musical documentary film that had quite a large cast. The film ended up being quite different from what I had initially planned.
SO, WHAT DID YOU HAVE IN MIND ORIGINALLY, THEN
Buena Vista Social Club on the Cape Flats! With the added twist of the Afrikaans language issue.
DID YOU SHARE THE AFRIKAAPS PHILOSOPHY BEFORE YOU WERE APPROACHED TO MAKE THE FILM, OR DID IT GROW ON YOU?
I was pretty much on the same page from day one. I had written an article with my sister, Greer, about Afrikaans hip hop and the origins of Afrikaans in the Cape just before I met Catherine and Aryan (Kaganof), the dramaturg. The timing was just perfect and we really clicked. I learnt a great deal in the process as well. Some of the history we learnt really blew my mind.
DID YOU SHARE ALL THE POINTS OF VIEW OF THE PERFORMERS AND THEIR DIRECTOR, OR WERE THERE ANY POINTS OF DIFFERENCE? IF THERE WERE, HOW DID YOU APPROACH THIS?
There were no major disagreements. I think everyone brought their own point of view to the table, and everything was mixed together. Catherine was really brilliant in that she didn’t try to impose her vision onto the performers. Everyone had a huge amount of respect for each other, and I think it really came through in their performances and in the film.
I THINK EVERYONE IN THE PLAY HAS A CHANCE TO SAY SOMETHING ON SCREEN – THAT IS VERY DIPLOMATIC. THE INTERVIEW TIME FOR SOME OF THESE CHARACTERS IS VERY SHORT – WHAT INFORMED YOUR DECISION TO GIVE EVERYONE A VOICE?
That was one of the things I was really pushing for in the edit. Being a part of the show, I really witnessed how much of a collaborative process it was. If anyone was under-represented, it would have been a huge error on my part.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO MAKE THE FILM?
All together, I’d say seven months.
HOW MANY CAMERA PEOPLE DID YOU HAVE WITH YOU?
Most of the time it was just myself on camera, and sound as well. For shooting the performances at the Baxter Theatre we had three other camera people.
DID YOU HAVE EXTRA CREW WHEN YOU WENT TO THE KLEIN KAROO NASIONALE KUNSTEFEES?
Yes, it was me and the sound operator Juan Kindo. He actually makes a cameo appearance in the film and shakes Aryan’s hand. He is probably the most filmed sound man in South Africa.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE ON THE HANDHELD, JUMP CUT STYLE?
I prefer handheld in most situations because it aids mobility while shooting and it feels more personal, and if done well can add to the feel of the film instead of giving the audience motion sickness.
I like jump cuts (in moderation) because they don’t hide an edit, so the audience can see exactly where you’ve cut. I really like that for some reason.
HOW DID YOU WORK WITH THE EDITOR – DID HE HAVE FREEDOM TO SHAPE THE STORY, OR DID YOU GUIDE HIM WITH A BRIEF?
Working with Khalid Shamis, the editor, was a lot of fun. It was a very collaborative process. By the time he came in there was a rough brief or structure, but it was very flexible. Together we shifted a lot of stuff around on a drawing board before we were satisfied.
DID YOU DECIDE ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE FILM DURING THE EDIT, OR WHILE FILMING?
I had a structure for the story which I had workshopped with the producers, Miki and Lauren, before the time. I had also met with Khalid and discussed and shared ideas before we started editing.
THE FILM IS RICH WITH MUSIC – HOW DID YOU WORK THE MUSIC INTO THE FILM?
We decided to not have the theatre show dominate the screen time. Instead, we used songs from the show to punctuate different points in the narrative. For example there is a scene in the film where one of the cast members gets arrested; we cut that together with a moving ghoema song in the show that deals with the historically unfair judicial system in South Africa. We had a lot of great music to choose from, so that made it so much easier.
WHO DO YOU THINK WILL ENJOY THE FILM?
I think it appeals to both a local and international audience, as it deals with universal themes. However, I think that young South Africans especially will enjoy it, particularly the ‘coloured’ community as it might reveal parts of their heritage they have never known about. I myself certainly never knew the extent to which the Malays, the Khoi and the San had shaped the language until I started researching this for myself.
WHO DO YOU THINK WILL COME TO WATCH THE FILM?
I’m not sure, but I’m hoping for as many Afrikaans speaking people of all lineages and dialects to come see the film.
THEATRE DOES NOT REACH AS WIDE AN AUDIENCE AS FILM CAN – HOW DO YOU PLAN TO SPREAD THE AFFIRMING MESSAGE OF AFRIKAAPS BEYOND THE MINDS OF THOSE WHO ALREADY BUY INTO ITS PHILOSOPHY?
I definitely want to get it shown at schools, events, on TV and festivals. Basically everywhere! Oh, AND we organize free Documentary Filmmakers Association screenings at ObzCafe every Monday at 7pm, called Doclove Nights. I’ll be sure to screen it there as well sometime in the future.
Interviewed by Tina-Louise Smith