American-born filmmaker Laura Gamse came to South Africa and set about making THE CREATORS, an extraordinary documentary which has recently been awarded the Best Documentary prize at the National Geographic's All Roads Film Festival.
Step into the lives of six artists sculpting South Africa's future from the fragments of a tumultuous past. Born into different areas of the formerly-segregated country, the artists each re-craft history - and the impacts of Apartheid - in their own artistic languages. How does creative expression traverse the divide?
View the trailer here
The featured artists are:
Faith47 is a graffiti activist painting murals in the forgotten townships surrounding Cape Town. She transforms decrepit walls with messages from the South Africa's freedom charter, including, "The people shall share in the country's wealth." Through her twelve-year-old son's eyes, we see the glaring contradiction between the ideal and reality.
Mthetho: Mthetho’s absentee father left behind a single CD, which Mthetho listened to growing up. Soon discovering that he could sing Pavarotti’s arias by memory, he used his talent to support his family. After his mother died from AIDS, Mthetho fell into crime. His face bears a long scar from the gang violence he is trying to escape, using his voice as his only tool.
Emile: As an MC, b-boy and breakdancer from the seminal hip hop group Black Noise, Emile united a generation of youth during the fall of apartheid in the tumultuous eighties and nineties. Emile now practices more subversive activism in his community, creating a conscious culture through breakdancing workshops and competitions.
Warongx: Warongx is the band made up of two Afro-blues musicians from the rural Eastern Cape: Wara and Ongx. Despite winning first place in a national music competition sponsored by Africa's largest music production company, Ongx washes dishes at an AIDS shelter to pay the bills. Though Warongx's dreams have been shattered, they continue to play for their community, sustaining Xhosa culture and traditions through their music.
Blaq Pearl: The younger sister of Mr. Devious, a hip hop activist killed amidst gang warfare in their hometown of Mitchell’s Plain, Blaq Pearl is a spoken word artist and performer. She teaches creative writing in the same prison where her brother taught before his untimely death. Her brother's murderer, released months after the trial, lives in her neighboring town.
Sweat.X is a radical black/white duo from Soweto and Pretoria - arguably polar opposite locations in the world's most polarized economy. Sweat.x exemplifies the growing population of South Africa that is tired of stale, didactic activism, and uses performance art to imagine something new. As they venture into the heart of South Africa, the duo begins to realize that they know less about their country than they had imagined.
Laura writes the following:
“I am from the US, but I've lived in South Africa since January 2009. I just moved back two weeks ago to format The Creators for the Nat Geo All Roads festival. Now that I'm here I'll stick around for the SF Docfest and the Margaret Mead Festival in NYC. Sadly, there has been a lot more interest in the documentary outside of South Africa than inside. We screened at Encounters and the National Arts Festival, but getting the word out was an uphill battle. Luckily a few great people have emerged in Pretoria and at Rhodes University to show the doci in less formal settings - cafes, township community centers, etc. I would love to do more of that. Initially we applied for funding from the NFVF to project the film in various informal locations - on the sides of buildings, in rural areas, even on the side of a big white van our cinematographer owns. Unfortunately the NFVF wasn't into it, so screenings like that will be restricted to venues that already own the equipment. As a result a lot of people won't get a chance to see the film - and those are really the people that The Creators was made for, and by (the crew is all South African, besides me, and the artists are mostly from Khayelitsha and the Cape Flats).
I was initially drawn to South Africa after hearing about the censorship of theatre and music during apartheid. I thought those must be some seriously amazing songs, to get such government attention. I also saw parallels with the western world's media consolidation - fewer groups than ever before now own the mass media, and as a result most of the world's best diverse music and art gets weeded out. I read about the protest art movements in South Africa and it seemed like it would be the one country that would remain immune from the western pop empire. The subcultural networks necessary to overthrow apartheid, and communicate messages within songs and street art that escaped the notice of the censors, didn't die in 1994. I wanted to see how they evolved since democracy, and how they were addressing South Africa's modern issues.
Finding the artists was difficult. Like most places, you don't just turn on the radio and hear great music all the time. I asked everyone I met, went to open mic nights, toured all the galleries. Faith47 was one of the first artists to get into the project and she really helped direct the flow. We decided together that each artist would have creative direction over their segment of the film - an idea that was a blessing and a curse in the end. We traded the fluidity of a single, linear plotline for the more realistic (but more fragmented) multi-plot style. I say more realistic because I think the diversity of people and perspectives is one of the really inextricable characteristics of South Africa, and the world. We each go through life with these naturally ego-centric perspectives, but in reality we rely on each other in a way so much more complicated than the human mind can comprehend. I think that's why you get such simplistic stratifications as racism and segregation around the world, and why it's important to disrupt our schemas with non-linear art. One can transcend the solitude of individual consciousness through certain dances, certain songs that bypass the formalities we adapt to in social, rational interactions. So in a way, a documentary about that transcendence should be an amalgamation of different times and perspectives. Because any living thing is. John Cage describes this better than I can:
"...there was a difference between oriental thinking and european thinking, that in european thinking things are seen as causing one another and having effects, whereas in oriental thinking this seeing of cause and effect is not emphasized but instead one makes an identification with what is here and now....[W]hen one says that there is no cause and effect, what is meant is that there are an incalculable infinity of causes and effects, that in fact each and every thing in all of time and space is related to each and every other thing in all of time and space. This being so, there is no need to cautiously proceed in dualistic terms of success and failure or the beautiful and the ugly or good and evil but rather simply to walk on 'not wondering' to quote meister eckhart, 'am i right or doing something wrong?'"
So that's a long explanation of why the documentary is a multi-plot, and why we thought it should be creatively directed by the artists who feature in the film. For example, Faith47 wanted her piece to be shot in 16mm, and be completely visually-driven with very little dialogue. Ongx Mona of the band Warongx wanted his pieces to be more musically-driven, and he's naturally more humorous and political, and that came out in his sections of the film. In the end, we feature about six different artists (give or take, we dip into and out of other artists' lives in between) and it becomes a lot of conflicting and contrasting perspectives to take in at once. But I think that diversity should be explored rather than homogenized.
Libby (Faith47) recommended that we include several amazing artists, including Sweat.X, Kudzani Chiurai and Emile Jansen. Sweat.X and Emile are in the final film. Though I wish Kudzani could have been a part of it, he kind of dipped out of the process when I mentioned that I wanted the film to be intimate and immersive. I still love his work and I think the doci would have been all the more interesting with him as a part of it. Emile Jansen and Sweat.X are near opposites, in terms of political inclinations and sensibilities, but to me that makes their perspectives all the more interesting.
I met the band Warongx through friends of friends, and was blown away by their music and lyrics. They're a phenomenal band that has so much to say, but got trampled on by Gallo Music, which gave Ongx first place in their 2007 music competition and awarded him by taking the rights to his first album, Ibuyambo. He still hasn't seen the profits from his own album, and Gallo wouldn't let us use the album's songs in our film.
All throughout the two years we filmed, I kept hearing these rumors about an opera singer who grew up in Hermanus with one Pavarotti cd, and listened to it again and again until he taught himself how to sing in Italian. The problem was, I had no idea where to find this guy. I heard all sorts of stories, including that he had a scar stretching the length of his face from gang violence. Finally I got word of his first name - Mthetho - and my cinematographer and I drove out to Hermanus and literally just walked the streets of the surrounding township asking everyone if they knew of an opera singer named Mthetho with a scar. Finally we ran into Mthetho's friend's cousin, who introduced us to his friend, who threw a braii in our honor and we eventually got connected to Mthetho. It was such luck, and it's something that could have never happened in Cape Town with all the walls and barbed wire dividing neighbors from each other. (For a while, we toyed with the subtitle, "Your neighbor is a faceless monster" - because you pass these phenomenal people on the street every day, and have no idea who they are.) The Creators tries, in its limited way, to address that.
The film was originally funded by the Fulbright grant in 2009. Unfortunately, in October my master harddrive was stolen with all of our footage. I had half of it backed up, but there were gaping holes in the story. I applied for about a dozen finishing grants in 2010 (including the NFVF, twice) and got rejected from all of them. I ended up doing freelance work for nonprofits, begging from family and friends and selling my camera to buy a cheaper kit. The silver lining was the fact that we never would have met Mthetho had that footage not been stolen (and the whole production flushed down a spiral of despair that left us walking the streets looking for characters). At this point I've finally come to peace with the theft, but at the time it was very difficult to take.
On the subject of funding, at the moment I'm applying for the All Roads Seed Grant from National Geographic, which is headed by an amazing community of people who believe in supporting indigenous and underrepresented stories and cultures. I know they are interested in supporting more South African stories in the future, and I would really recommend the All Roads Film Festival. They were unbelievably open and supportive, which is not something you run into everyday in film.”
To apply for the All Roads Seed Grant, go here. The next deadline is 15th December 2011.