African film makers focus on telling our own stories

2009-08-06 00:00

FROM the Manuscripts of Timbuktu to the 100 Years of Electric Cinema — a public session during the ­Durban International Film Festival (Diff) marked the centenary of the opening of the first cinema in this country.

The Electric Cinema opened in Durban on July 29, 1909, only four years after the world’s first permament cinema, the Nickelodeon, opened in Pittsburgh in the United States, according to Durban University of Technology’s Mikhail Peppas. The Electric has long since been demolished but it once stood in Pixley kaSeme Street (formerly West Street) — a converted chapel opposite the new city hall then nearing ­completion in time for the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Peppas spoke at the public session along with film makers Zola Maseko and Cherif Keita who both had films showing at the festival.

Peppas said the reason South Africa was so quick to get a dedicated cinema was probably due to an awareness of film making created by the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Peppas described how cinematographer William Dickson had arrived in Durban aboard the Dunnottar Castle together with his huge Biograph camera. Also on board was an eager young war correspondent, Winston Churchill.

The two men would be present, together with ­Mohandas Gandhi, the future Mahatma, at the battle of Spion Kop.

“The battle was filmed,” says Peppas. “Archival material includes the young Gandhi near Spion Kop co-ordinating the volunteer Ambulance Corps.”

Peppas says that three types of film came out of the conflict.

“First was the war film — this was the first war to be filmed. And this country also saw the birth of the propaganda film. The authorities realised that film shot here could be used for political propaganda and turn those who opposed the war in Europe into supporters.” They even went so far as to shoot fake atrocities being committed by “Boers” on ­London’s Hampstead Heath. The war also saw the introduction of the newsreel form that would later grow into Pathe News, African Mirror and Movietone News.

The Electric Cinema was a “whites-only” establishment.

“In 1910, the first cinema for ‘coloured people’ in South Africa opened on the corner of Alice and Grey Streets,” said Peppas. “And it was packed.”

Looking back over a 100 years of film viewing, Maseko felt there isn’t much to celebrate.

“How can you celebrate something you’ve been ­excluded from?” he asked, pointing out that for most of the history of film, black people had been played by whites “blacked-up” — as in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nat ion — or patronisingly portrayed in films such as Gone With The Wind.

“Such films created a racist stereotype,” he said. Adding that in South Africa films aimed at black audiences during apartheid were determined to make sure blacks were portrayed “as hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

Maseko, director of the feature film Drum (2005) starring American actor Taye Diggs, as well as the feature-length documentary Manuscripts of ­Timbuktu (shown at Diff) said that African film ­makers had been involved in a battle to make their own films.

“It’s been a battle, a battle to finally have these tools and tell our stories from our perspective.”

Maseko said he had had to compromise on Drum and hire an overseas actor to star. If you are making films for an American market they want to know who will “open” the film, he explained. They want a star actor. Which is why so many South African-made films have American stars — “or else the film makers come here — like the Clint Eastwood film on the Rugby World Cup — with a cast and crew ­already in place.”

Maseko’s budget for his documentary was 100% South African. “That was extremely ­liberating,” he said. “Not having to explain to ­people why the story is a good one.”

By way of contrast, he said films made in Africa financed by American or European backers come with preconditions. They want to see what they think is Africa … They say we will give you the money but we want it this way.”

His advice to local film makers is to go for small budget films — “under $3 million” — using only local actors and technicians. “Totsi is the route to go.”

Maseko had earlier said Africans should make films concerned with “undoing our history of racism, sexism, apartheid and colonialism”.

During question time, a member of the audience took issue with this and said South African film makers are over­obsessed with the past and should look to other subjects. “We should get past the past.”

Cherif Keita disagreed, cautioning: “Be careful, don’t put the past aside too quickly.”

Keita’s documentary Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa (a companion piece to his earlier Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube), was a piece of ­historical recovery dealing with the life and work of American missionary William Wilcox and his ­pivotal role in the life of John Dube, founding member and first president of the ANC. After it’s first showing at Diff, Gcina Mhlope said Keita’s film is a wake-up call to South Africans to rediscover their own history.

Originally from Mali, but long resident in the U.S., Keita chairs the department of French and Franco­phone Studies, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota.

“I am the least likely person to be telling this story,” he said in an earlier interview with The Witness. “My training is in French and Afro-Caribbean literature and I’m from Mali — all very far from South Africa.”

Keita felt compelled to get the Dube/Wilcox story on record — “I never thought one day I’d be making films” — and he’s passionate about remembering and revering the past.

“There is an African saying, ‘when an old person dies it is a library that burns’. The past is the lens you see through, it will help us look forward to the future.”

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