« I really do believe in that kind of films »

Interview with Darrel James Roodt on Zimbabwe by Olivier Barlet

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You showed your last film Zimbabwe yesterday at the Market here at the Cannes film festival. You’ve made Hollywood-type films and now you’re doing kind of very sincere, very simple movies. Is that a big change? Did you want it that way?
You know, you get bored with big films, because there is so much politics involved in terms of the making, over the raising of the money… Sometimes it can be very frustrating. Then, recently (I mean the last three or four films I made on my own with a very little amount of money), I had a very small crew of maybe two or three people collaborating. This is so much more liberating. So you learn a lot as a director as well. It’s a real challenge and that’s more complete, because there’s only you to blame for what goes on, you know! This can also be a problem, because with not many you can only do so much. In South Africa, there’s a lot of groaning and moaning about making films, because making a film is too expansive. They’re very expansive, and it’s very difficult to raise money to make films in South Africa. So, I sought to prove people that with no money you can still go make a movie if you really believe in it.
Is that connected with DV8? Because these people are really doing ground work!
Yeah! I think DV8 was the original inspiration for this type of film-making. But even then, they were talking in a million of ranges; you know, possibly to make films with no money. And ironically, if you make a good movie you can sell it for a lot more and get to make a lot more of this kind of films! So I’ve made a couple of these little experimental films now, and some haven’t made huge returns. But they travel around the world and one day, one of them will stick. And it’ll do very well, and then we can make films forever without worrying about raising money to make them! (Laughter)
I saw Meisie at the Durban film festival, which is also that kind of film, I would say a « social chronicle ».
fYes, exactly! And there’s something beautiful about that as well, because if you want to raise money to make a film like Meisie in South Africa, you’ll never make it. If I asked over 2 million rands or even a million rands, people would say « Mmmm… » So if you just go with two people, you go and make a little movie, that’s fascinating! That’s a chronicle, a moment in time with a certain group of people, and there’s something beautiful about that. And like I said, you could make of few of those chronicles of people’s lives. One of them is going to break out and be famous and make all the others famous. For example, in that village I shot Meisie in, there are about 400 people. I could make a film about each of these people, and it would be amazing. And one can do that, if you really want to carry out that kind of low-budget project! One day, I probably will do that, I’ll just disappear to nowhere, go and make fifty films in the least! (Laughter)
How is it going in South Africa: is it really possible for you to find a market for those films? Because in South Africa, you have big structures to show films but it’s, let’s say, mainstream…
Yeah. Those films are not likely to be released in cinemas. You see, they can release it and see what it does. We don’t even have an audience going to see these films. However, there’s television. It’s shot on DV and ironically, it looks much better on television, it looks beautiful. You can see the difference. So, I don’t mind television, television is fine…
Do you bring this kind of movies more easily to the public television SABC than to the private channel M-Net?
Yes, SABC is for a greater public, it is government-sponsored so it’s huge. It has a big audience. M-Net is a pay-channel. I’ve just done a show for them; a TV-series called Ella Blue, which has just finished showing. I thought it was a really well-done show, very well-written, a very interesting story. No one was interested; people just want to watch Desperate Housewives… (Laughter)
Let’s get back to Zimbabwe. How did you manage to bring the story together? How did it work?
Well, there is this woman who then worked for an organization called International Organization for Migration. She once phoned me and asked: « Can you please come make a film in Zimbabwe about migration to South Africa and its problems? I’ve got money for a five-minute film. Will you come and do it? » There are a few thousand ways to make a picture. So I said « It’s going to be a movie. Just the two of us, we’re going to go and make the movie! » And we had this idea in mind, we just picked local people, we’d travel through Zimbabwe and that’s what the movie became. There was no screenplay, no structure. I just kept shooting; it was so much fun and so interesting… And the footage is probably better than the movie; it’s interesting for that’s really unstructured. Trying to find a structure afterwards was quite difficult, but interesting. I learnt a lot as a director doing unstructured stuff and trying to find the moment of truth. Even as a director, I learn so much doing this kind of film.
But you had an intention; you wanted to deal with the question of migration…
Oh yes! That was the message. I think the form does fell ultimately because it was very message-driven. So I was aware the whole time away I should be aiming. I could have made the form I wanted to make, like Meisie. Even though there’s a message in it. For me, it’s more poetic and there’s no structure in Meisie. It’s just happening as it goes along because no one was trying to impose a message on it, thus I think there is a bigger message that comes out of it, ironically. But it was interesting: I saw two people today who saw the film yesterday, yound filmmakers : they were really inspired by it. You can actually guide them with a PDF 1:50, out of focus, and make a movie that’s compelling. That’s also what I was trying to do in South Africa, to tell people: « Hey! Stop moaning about trying to make films, just go and make films! » I’m a big fan of that philosophy.
How do you work with Black people ? I know your wife is Black, so you are integrated in this relationship… But how does it work?
I don’t think so. Of course, there must be, there has to be some kind of suspicion about a white guy doing something in another culture etc., but my argument about that is, if you want to make a film about Jesus-Christ, do you have to have lived when Jesus was alive? The answer is no! If you have an informed opinion about a culture, or a time or a place, you can make that movie. I don’t understand at all the language they speak in the film, which is Shona, however, we know when there’s a truth and when there’s not. For example, there’s a truth when they repeat in themselves or when they’re stumbling, because you’re watching carefully. When you’re operating the camera, you’re listening very intensely… Besides, at any given time, I say to the actors « this is your story as well as mine. Be aware of what’s happening all the time. You must tell me every time this is incorrect! » One of the actors would say: « What she’s saying is not this and that… » It’s a strange way of working, but also an interesting way of working.
Do you think that the people in Zimbabwe who can watch the film may be more aware of the situation?
No, no! I think they’re acutely aware but however, there is no media in Zimbabwe. There is a state-run television show; they have one soap that runs for half-an-hour every day, and the rest is just very low… You know what I mean. So the people in Zimbabwe have seen this film already, they watch it six, seven, ten times because it’s the first time in ten years that someone’s tidal voice is speaking for them. That’s quite interesting, quite moving to see how much it means to an ordinary Zimbabwean, fighting the system. They can identify that. Zimbabwe is far from even a good movie. However, it’s an interesting form in a certain place and a certain time. I think if you make a lot of interesting movies, for example about the situation in Zimbabwe, it’s a great body of work. It’s hard, but it’s interesting.
How do you see the future? Will you keep this direction ?
You know, when you’ve been making low-rent films for a long time, you really yearn to get back behind the crane, the camera and the Dolby-stereo… But you can’t help saying « Once more! » You kind of miss that. You do miss the home-making thing. I’m attached to two or three very big films, which hopefully may be successful because thanks to the money I make from those, I can live on for a couple of years to make this kind of film. I really do believe in these films. If a film like Meisie had been just 10 % better, it could have broken out… But it’s a learning experience!

Transcription : Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7684


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