« Taboo and unspoken things »

Oliver Schmitz on "Life, Above All"

Interview with Olivier Barlet
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Compared with your previous film Mapantsula and particularly your recent works like Joburg Stories and Highjack Stories, this film is very much based on identification with the viewer. It adopts a classical form and the film is linear. You use sepia to achieve a chromatic harmony in the film. What was your aim, as director, in adopting this kind of cinematic approach?
First and foremost, the book Chanda’s Secrets, written by Allan Stratton, is a story through the eyes of this young girl. It’s her subjective view. Which means dramatically that you are with her most of the story. You never leave this perspective, so you have a choice of breaking the time structure, or of going with her from A to Z in a long line. It’s a difficult route to take because the danger is that, because it is so linear, you might lose your audience in a kind of predictability of the telling. I have always been wary of this kind of telling. But I think what happens – and I hope this is true, that the reactions to the film are an indication that it works – is that the movie moves into a pacing and a timeframe which demands space for things to develop. I think it works in this case because there is so much that is unspoken. Silence plays a very important part in this film. Hence the choice to work in this way. I naturally tend to a different, more dynamic structure, but I made this choice based on this book, based on this story. It may be hard on the viewer in the beginning, but if you let yourself go on the journey, I found that it is very emotional in the end and the sum total of this clearly appears to have an affect on the people watching.
The notion of secrets is interesting. Would you say that today, in South Africa, people’s lives and the country’s development are marked by the unspoken? The film is very much about AIDS, but perhaps we can apply this generally speaking?
I think so. I think that there are a lot of unspoken things and AIDS is symptomatic of that. There are cultural things that are unspoken, or racial things that are unspoken, difference, exclusion, inclusion; these have played a very important part of the stormy life of South African culture and its search for identity. Unspoken qualities, the inability of a traditional culture to deal effectively with the new problems confronting it, the search for other meanings and other solutions, and hiding behind these even when you know that they are not effective or are not working because they are socially acceptable and carry you through to a certain point, are at a huge cost clearly, as the young girl discovers. So, she is forced to join in and at some stage realizes the absurdity, this young mind unclouded enough to maybe act on her natural instinct and impulse. So yes, the question of taboo and unspoken things is much bigger than the issue of just AIDS. I’m very reluctant to call it an AIDS film because that makes it much smaller than what it really is, I think.
It’s interesting to consider the question of AIDS in South Africa with regard to what we are talking about. Thabo Mbeki had an incredible attitude to AIDS. With Jacob Zuma, a new wave, new approaches appear to be emerging. Do you think things are really changing, or is the question of shame, and everything you show in your film – which does not address the question of the State’s action – is that likely to change, or is it still important to make movies to trigger that change?
I think it’s very important to put pressure on. I’m not an AIDS activist, but I know many people who are and they’ve done brave, fantastic work. In terms of activism, I think that that pressure needs to be kept up. It’s very easy to make a statement about fighting the war against AIDS and maybe in five years time we will see the consequences of that statement and whether it’s true or not. So a statement is just a button that works to make a machine function, or not, so I think it can initiate something, but pressure, whatever form it takes, needs to be maintained. All I can do as a filmmaker is to try to make a story which emotionally affects an audience, and maybe that has an effect. I’m not presumptuous enough to think that I can change the world, but making a movie which is very emotional, about one family confronted with this whole tragedy, could maybe have an impact because it’s not judgmental, it’s not blaming anybody, so nobody has the excuse to become defensive about what the film is saying. The South African Minister of Culture and the Delegation were at the screening yesterday and for me this was most interesting as they obviously have to deal with issues of policy and politics around all major issues in South Africa, so they have an opinion and a point of view and a strategy and all that I’m left with there is the raw emotion, with the fact that they were very affected by the movie. For me, that’s the most important thing. Somebody in the delegation said, « We will leave no stone unturned, please tell us, we will do everything we can. What should we do? » I think that is a good reaction, which one can build upon. That’s all I can really say. So yes, I think one can take actions that can have positive consequences.
In your film Hijack Stories, the idea, to put it briefly, was to show how difficult it was to speak of a « Rainbow Nation » at that time in South Africa.
Yes, you’re right. That’s a good way of summing it up!
How would you briefly summarize this film? What is it important to show of South Africa today, because you have always made works that are about the current situation.
I don’t know. Obviously it’s a book, but I spend a lot of time thinking about what is working and what is not working in South Africa, and it affects me, even if I’m living in Berlin. I get upset if I go to South Africa and realize that this thing called the Rainbow Nation, which I criticized, didn’t go any further. I wish it had gone further, because I don’t think it’s really developed to create a new South African identity. So the consequences of the politics of recent history, and past history, are all playing a part, and some of it is a destructive part on what is now the future of South Africa. But I think what gave me inspiration here as well is the fact that I now have a daughter, who is adopted, who is six years old. She has made me a better person I think as a human being, because children demand and affect you in profound ways you cannot imagine before. I think what other fate she could have had, what alternative life without an adoption. It’s made me think more about children in South Africa, and researching this story and seeing how many orphans there are because of AIDS alone and the consequences of the decisions of the generation before, the effect, the damage and the trauma, is incredible. So it has a huge emotional impact on me which I have internalized and I think that’s why the story was so important for me.
One thing that struck me in the film was that there are nearly no white people in the picture. The separation between communities is still very clear today and this comes over very strongly in the film.
Well yes and no. The movie takes place very much in an African community and when it leaves that African community, it goes straight into another African community. Twenty kilometres down the road from the place where we filmed is a farming town which is still a very white farming town and the worlds don’t mix very much. If we’d set it in the white farming town, we’d have seen black South Africans and white South Africans, but it doesn’t play a role in the story. And it’s very possible and plausible for a youngster like this to travel through all these elements in the story without making contact with a white person once. Yes, of course, if you think about it, you realize wow, the two worlds have not really mixed very much. This is true. And maybe more so true in small towns like this. Everybody keeps to themselves and the whites there do not mix or understand the African culture. They keep separate. It’s a shame, but it’s the reality.
May I ask you a slightly provocative question? It is very striking that, in South Africa, lots of white filmmakers make films showing only black people. It’s not something we really understand here because we aren’t familiar enough with the situation. How do you see this question, from your own point of view, and from that of the industry in general?
It’s very hard for me to speak for the industry in general. I know this debate and discussion will always appear and I think that a lot of young black filmmakers steer the debate in this direction, as a criticism. Quite honestly, I am not sure what to say about this debate. Most of my work now is in Germany, making German movies, with German stories and German actors. Nobody questions me doing that.
But as things are so separate in South Africa still, how is this considered when you are on location shooting, how do the people themselves see this?
You know, I can only speak for myself and I have a history and a reputation. People have seen the movies that I’ve made and clearly there are enough people who appreciate and like the movies that I’ve done that they give me some respect. They see that I give them respect in return, that I take my job seriously and try to tell a good story, that, by and large, I am not an exploitative filmmaker who is trying to make some quick money. I wish life was that easy, but it’s not! It’s always a struggle. You know, I spend very little time thinking about this. If I get a book like this and I read it and think it’s a fantastic story I want to make it and I’m very aware that I’m a white person. So for me it’s even more important to try and make sure that it is right in its specifics and not to take easy decisions which are wrong decisions I think, like translating a project into the English language under the assumption that more people will see it. For me, that’s an exploitative decision. Or using Hollywood actors to sell the story. Again, I think that that’s an exploitation decision. So, you know, I can get hit over the head as many times as you like in South Africa for being a white filmmaker, I cannot change that! So I try and concentrate on the question of whether I can make a good movie or not. My next project is a German movie that I’ll make next year. But I know that all my life experience, even if I am just a white South African in the grander scale of things, my whole life experience has been to make films in South Africa, and somehow this informs me, even with stories like this, to apply myself to observe as closely as I can. That’s all I can say about this question really. Everything else is dialectic.
Do you think it would be more difficult for you to make this kind of movie in South Africa today if you were black?
Well, the money to make this film came from Germany. But it’s not impossible to get the money from South Africa. The film funders have supported projects about AIDS issues. I think I would have had different pressures on me as a black filmmaker in South Africa to be either provocative or politically correct maybe.
Yes, because the community’s reaction in the film is hardly very glorious.
Yes. So maybe there would have been pressure to be politically correct and I would have a different perspective on the story. But there is a film by a black filmmaker on the subject of AIDS and children that was released last year in South Africa with a lot of funding from the government and funding for distribution as well. So maybe this is an interesting comparison.
Do you mean the film Izulu Lami by Madoda Ncayiyana?
Yes, My Secret Sky. The film funders would not give me money for my project, perhaps because they already had this story on AIDS, perhaps because I’m a white director. Either way it’s ok; I don’t expect that they would spend their small resources on me. But this debate will no doubt continue.

Cannes, 20th May 2010///Article N° : 9507

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