What was the necessity for you of revisiting the 50s in Sophiatown ?
South Africa is a very young country : 10 years old. As a new country, we try to find our identity : who are we, where are we going ? There are 11 different nationalities. What is the new South-African citizen ? We have been swomped with american images, from Hollywood and TV, our kids grow up with hip-hop etc. Capitalist cultural values. I tend to celebrate this place and this time and this era when we were great, when Black People were experiencing a renaissance that expressed itself in politics, in music, in dance, in culture, in writing. The center of this renaissance was Sophiatown. Now is also a moment when Black People try to define ourselves, in different circumstances of course. A new South Africa has been born. I think of Marcus Garvey : » A people without knowledge of their History is like a tree without roots. » We have great heroes, great stories, inspiring people in our history and we have an inspiring decade. I try to spotlight this era.
Sophiatown had a strong relationship with Harlem at that time. Is it still the case ?
The fifties were just after the Second World War. A lot of Black People joined the army, and they got a world view, with movies, jazz, clothes, etc. South Africa was opening up to world influence. Mandela was politicaly influenced by the resistance of Gandi. There were lots of influences but particularly as you said with North America. Since gold was discovered at the turn of the century in Johannesburg, Black People came from rural areas to work in town : there was a working class and this urban life was very similar to America, even in the struggles : America in the 60s had a bus boycott, in the 50s in South Africa we experienced a defiance campain where people would not carry their passes, desobey laws, get on buses in white areas etc.
Henry Nxumalo, the journalist of your film, involves himself in political analysis : is it what you would say to South African People today, to be more involved politically ?
That’s my problem, Olivier : I’m a political animal, having been born in an ANC family in exile. I can’t run away from this monkey on my back. The reason why I chose Henry Nxumalo to be the caracter of the film is that he became « conscientised ». He had no political inclination : he just reported the facts. He says to his girlfriend : « I can’t ignore what’s happening around me anymore ». He already went to the Second World War and it had opened his eyes. A lot of these journalists when they started had a moto : live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse ! It changed towards the end. As apartheid was voted into power in 1948, it all started in the fifties, when the situation became really mean. By the end of the fifties, we knew what apartheid was about : these guys are brutal and fascist. The whole romanticism died. It was so brutal : people were unable to cope. It was new. There had been colonialism before but not so brutal as apartheid. 40 years of darkness. It took everyone by surprise.
Drum lasted a long time. Did these people continue to work together ?
Yes, they did but a lot of the original Drum journalists died or went into exile. Drum carried on, became continental, with offices in Ghana, in Lagos, and it was a political magazine reporting about all the anticolonial struggle which was happening. In South Africa, it lasted until 1974 and some of the good black journalists still came through Drum. Now it’s a silly magazine which has nothing to do with the original Drum.
You prefered to focus on the story of one journalist rather the story of the magazine itself.
You can’t tell the story of Sophiatown in one film. I hope that South-African writers, playwriters and filmmakers are going to refer to Sophiatown a lot because it’s a place of such rich history, culture, texture. What attracted me was the place. Henry Nxumalo could be sitting in the morning with Mandela, with gangsters in the afternoon and with women in a shebeen at night. They reported about everything that was going on. He was the most interesting vehicle to see this place. His personnal internal journey was very interesting. Originally, my idea was to make the film about three friends : Can Themba, Henry Nxumalo and Todd Matshikiza. At the end Todd Matshikiza put on a famous play in the music hall that went to London, it was almost a success story, Henry dies and Can goes to exile. But it was too much for 90 minutes.
Why Taye Diggs for the main role ?
I didn’t choose him. He was an imposition of the producers. Drum is a three countries coproduction : Germany, USA and South Africa. They were not ready to go with an unknown South-African director and an unknown South-African cast. To protect their investment, they wanted a known lead. I could accept that. I think he did a really good job, I really do. He said himself in Toronto at the film premiere that a South-African should have had the part, which is true : obviously, South-African actors have more a naturalness about themselves if they play their own history. But I think it works as it is.
How do you feel in this way of doing cinema ?
It’s a choice you have to make. When budgets get above a certain level, a committee comes in. We went above this certain budget. I believe that the contradiction between money and art is inherent in filmmaking. As in South Africa we still cannot fund fully our own films, a coproduction is a compromise. At the end of the day, the Americans come with their conditions. I feel I learned how the system works. I don’t think I want to do it again : that’s the lesson I learnt from it. But I also learn that, as a filmmaker, if you go the American route, you have to pay your juice. It’s up to me : if I want to make a big budget film, these are the conditions ! Then I should make smaller stories. I’m writing at the moment a film about Winnie Mandela. I know that an American is not going to play Winnie Mandela. Now, it’s going to be a big film. Are we able to raise the money in South Africa ? Does it means we can’t tell Winnie Mandela’s story ? That is one of the greatest stories on the african continent ! How do we tell it ? These are challenges that face us.
Was it your choice or the producers that the film looks like an American black film of the fifties ?
It was my choice. To be fair to them, the biggest battles were in casting, and that from the beginning. Not only did they want Taye Diggs to play the role but they wanted other non-South-African actors to play other important characters. I had to fight. To give them credit, they let me do it my way. The film was designed by four people : myself, the D.O.P., the production designer and the first assistant director. We spent months before the shoot, looking for the locations, planning the shots, how it was going to look, etc. That was the creative force of the team. Editing too : I had director’s cut, they had final edit. There were a few disagreements in the final film : my cut came to about 110 minutes, there was one scene that was cut out, and two scenes had been shortened, but otherwise
It remains your film.
The music plays a big role. How did you choose it ?
I always wanted the music to be a caracter in the film, because Sophiatown was linked to sound. All the great musicians came from there. This was a time where they were mixing traditional african music with jazz, an amazing musical place where they created a special music called marabi. It’s a celebration of south african music.
The film is based on a true story : you had to research a lot. Was it difficult ?
It took about ten years of my life : researching, reading, meeting people, talking, developping the script, raising money
How is it now in South Africa for Black filmmakers ?
We are the first generation of Black filmmakers in the History of my country. It is still easier for white filmmakers to raise money in South Africa because Whites still owe the means of production. The majority of films is done by white South Africans. We are not blaming the past anymore and we take our destiny in our hands. We have a great opportunity in South Africa, that other filmmakers in Africa don’t have, like funding, infrastructure, very good crews, highly developped commercial industry, wonderful locations, cheap rent. Let’s stop claiming. Government has got a lot of problems to solve : aids, housing, unemployement, but still puts money into the arts. We are very priviledged. Let’s make films !
When does Drum come out in South Africa ?
On the 29th of April, with 42 copies.
What is your feeling about Fespaco ?
This is my second time at the Fespaco. I was first here in 1999 with my documentary film The Life and Times of Sara Baartman which won an award. It’s great to be here. But to be honest, its frustrating and a bit disappointing. We hear this attitude which says : « ah, it’s Africa, it’s Ouaga ! » but I don’t think that’s good enough ! I think particularly for screenings : we spend a lot of time and effort to prepare our films properly and it’s screened in the wrong format, so that you can see the microphone in the frame and you go up to the projection room and you see that the projectors are old. Fespaco has been running for 19 years : at least, we could fix that part. I know Burkina Faso is a very poor country and I can understand anything else but let’s present the films correctly. This is a premiere festival : there is nowhere else where we could go. Fespaco has a tradition. Let’s fix this, at least ! We travel a long way to present our films and I think we need it. This is a great platform for african cinema : we should be proud of the quality of projection. This is something that the organisation committee should look into.
With the strong presence of South Africa this year, the big gap between anglophone and francophone Africa seems to swallow.
Yes, I hope so. With the film from Angola, we had five films from the South in competition, and that’s big in ten years. The gap is closing. The South is coming with a different aesthetic, bringing something new to african cinema, making it richer and more diverse. These are very interesting times.
What kind of new aesthetic do you bring to african cinema ?
I don’t think it’s an aesthetic in itself. What is african cinema. Up to now, it has been francophone cinema which has a certain aesthetic, formed by the relationship with France and its support. It is too soon to speak about a South-African aesthetic. Filmmakers should make films, tell stories and critics will be able to look back. We are in the middle of our own history, without objective view.
///Article N° : 5734