Lebogang Rasethaba - directing the art of good stories

2015-11-30 14:52

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Film maker Lebogang Rasethaba is concerned with telling “good stories”. Good in all its meanings and permutations. A Good story, one of high quality; a story well made and well told. But also a Good Story, not unlike the one the ANC has been convincing us it has to tell (but perhaps less convenient) – a positive story, an aspirational one.

His film making is a delicate choreography that heel-toes, taps and glides between the two “goods”.

The visual aesthetic, like the topics he chooses to explore, while melodic, are a slightly staccato sequence of seemingly discordant ideas. Like his juxtaposition of panstula and jazz; the death of Nelson Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni shaving his beard; like the future of South Africa’s youth and dance music. This intricate ocular ballet relies heavily on the modalities of rhythm: combining time with timing, substance with style, form with function and cool with considered. It follows that the film maker would fix his lens on music and dance.

. . .

Rasethaba (31) is hunched on a rope-bound bay of hale at the Guga S’thebe Arts & Culture Centre in Langa, Cape Town. Hidden behind a cap and luminous, reflective shades, he’s every bit the “culture kid” popular media has branded him. Perhaps a little too cool, too carefully curated. “You know this guy,” jokes choreographer Jarrel Mathebula. “This guy made me famous.”

The film maker smiles, basking in the attention. He flows with the witticism, quipping a response along the lines of “I can make you famous too”. But a little later, in a more reflective moment, says: “You can’t make someone famous, y’know.” He’s still smiling but there’s an air of discomfort about it. He’s adamant, too adamant; maybe a little agitated. “I didn’t make Jarrel talented. I didn’t help Jarrel. I didn’t teach him how to dance,” he laughs. “All I did was tell his story.”

There’s a crack in the cool. A slip in the surface of slick. Listed at number 25 on Superbalist’s 100 (young South Africans shaping the scene), film is the tool he uses to explore his ideas.

“Film as a medium was used as a tool of subjugation on the continent,” he explains. “It took a while for us [Africans] to relate to the image within the medium and also to generally trust it. Only when people see an image that reflects their idea of themselves will they embrace the medium. That’s why Hollywood was so successful as a film economy; it showed America great images of itself ... Bollywood and Nollywood, the people saw an idea of themselves they liked, and that created trust and affection. [My work is] all good vibes. And people like it because they can relate to it and they like to see themselves as able, creative, enterprising, resourceful, stylish and cool. That’s how I fit in. I understand the power of representation.” So the film maker insists on telling a Good story.

“If we told better stories about ourselves, we would have the most amazing artists, writers and musicians who would approach their work with confidence and pride.

“We wouldn’t feel so shit about who we are or what we are doing. It’s not completely ingrained into our thinking that we are amazing individuals who have every right to be great. We just don’t fully buy it.

“When I made my films, I didn’t think they would be successful films that would feature at international festivals because there isn’t a strong narrative around successful black films in our country ... I’m not talking about propaganda. I am saying one of the ways we are going to buy into our story is if we see more positive affirmations of it and of ourselves in the media.”

Jarrel and Lebogang met when the latter was commissioned to shoot a short documentary on the former’s dance school, the Indigenous Dance Academy (IDA). The choreographer’s corporeal compositions and the film maker’s visual choreography would meet again earlier this year when they collaborated on a music video for the jazz band Sons Of Kemet.

Shot in Tembisa, where the IDA is based, the video sees a pantsula orchestra tap heel and toe to brassy beat.

“Pantsula and jazz aren’t things that people were ever meant to see together,” says Rasethaba. “They both have rich histories with very different cultural and aesthetic values, but framing ideas within a different context can give them new life.”

. . .

In another coupling between music and film, Rasethaba and long-time friend Spoek Mathambo produced Future Sound of Mzansi, a documentary that uses electronic music as a vehicle to explore and interrogate South Africa’s cultural terrain after 20 years of democracy. The feature sees musician and director travel the country over two years. The film opens with a lofty aerial shot panning over the railway lines that stitch through the south of Johannesburg’s CBD. Cut to dancing. Cut to speaking. Cut to fevered, frenzied euphoria, jumping, boom-clash drumming. Cut to rhythm.

“It’s a powerful portrait of the electronic music landscape that is being shaped by young, creative, musical minds ... Lots of other music nations have films like these; we didn’t. When we were doing research, we watched 10 films on the techno scene in London.”

The film was well loved, not only as a music documentary, but as an uplifting narrative.

Blame it on the beats, but several viewers thought “well, despite everything, all South Africans want to do is dance”. Cue happy blacks tap-dancing their way through their sorrows.

In an interview with Superbalist, Rasethaba tries to subdue these ideas.

Interviewer: My takeaway was that there’s so much more happening in South African music than we know about and, despite everything, we are a pretty happy nation that just wants to dance. Nail on the head, or just, like, my opinion, man?

Rasethaba: That’s, just, like, your, opinion, man … I think we are more than just a happy nation that wants to dance. The film is more about a young, resourceful, enterprising, multicultural South African mind-set.

“People took out very different things from Future Sound of Mzansi and that’s obviously something we couldn’t control and also had no intention of controlling,” he explains.

“I never directly responded to what people thought of the film. I think I would go mad. I’m more interested in what the musicians featured in the film think. One of the featured musicians thought Sibot, a white electronic producer, was black. Spoek put it nicely in the film when he said music is and has always been seen as some kind of social unifier … dance floors are some kind of utopia where people can celebrate their freedom. It’s a powerful force in society.”

. . .

Rasethaba followed Future Sound with the historical Prisoner 467/64: The Untold Story of Andrew Mlangeni. The film takes a less hurried pace; still, contemplative. It opens in silence, reflection, camera fixed on the rocky seaside of Robben Island. As foamy waves bash themselves methodically on to the shore, the disembodied voice of Kgalema Motlanthe says: “As individuals, we were like rivulets, which decant into
the main stream. And it’s the mainstream which changes society. Not individuals...”

The once acting president of South Africa is speaking about individual responsibility. About how small, personalised deposits become a greater body of change. And the same could be said of the story. Of how many personal stories contribute
to a larger understanding, of cracking through centuries-old hardened depictions. Creating spaces
in which other possibilities are allowed to exist.

“Imagination deals with potential and creativity brings that potential within some kind of a tangible reach. For me, creativity has always been about bridging the gap between the potential of the future and the realness of now ... I have always thought great artists are measured on how they can take crazy and abstract ideas, and bring them into some kind of realm of understanding,” he says.

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