To experience the violence

Interview with Khalo Matabane

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Khalo Matabane, as your work is not very well known yet in France, and as filmmaking is not that accessible to a lot of black populations, could you explain how and why you came to cinema?
The cinema phenomenon is not something I really understand ; I never said to myself I want to make films. I never watched or enjoyed other films so much that I wanted to make one. I grew up in a rural area. My grandmother was a really incredible storyteller. When I finished high-school, I could have been a doctor or a storyteller, a musician, a painter, a photographer. But I was terrible at all of them. I could have been a novelist. If I were asked what my first love is, I’d say to write novels, like Orhan Pamuk, and win the Nobel Prize for literature! Film is something I stumbled upon because I had no other options really. I don’t mean to degrade it, because I know people speak highly of it, but I never watched television and I never watched films until I turned sixteen. So cinema has had very little influence on me. I’m not like one of those people who grew up in Europe or New York and who say, when I was six-years-old, I saw Casablanca and it blew my mind. That never happened for me.
But there is often an event of some kind that triggers the desire to do something.
Yes. When I think about the films I saw at a later stage, when I was studying, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing had a huge impact on me. But that’s such a cliché, because it had a huge impact on Barack Obama, or almost every black person in the world I know! That film had maybe the most significant impact on my life ever. For me, it was a combination of – if you think about it in those terms – what black cinema should be. I can’t even really put a finger on it, but it had a deep impact on me ; that and Costa Gavras’ film Z. Perhaps that was the trigger, but I find it difficult to pinpoint precisely, because I don’t take filmmaking seriously. I never have. I love films. I like a lot of films. I collect films, but I’ve never looked at life, I’ve never understood life through film. For me it’s a medium of expression. But I think that the significance of film in my life at this moment is declining ; there was a point in my life where I thought I could make a difference, where I thought I could make an impact and I now know that’s nonsense. The other day I was reading an article on Ken Loach, and I thought to myself, how many people in the world have really been impacted by Ken Loach’s films – films I really love ? I’m not talking about other filmmakers, and lefties who run NGOs, but how many people ? E.T. has probably touched more people than Ken Loach’s films. I think I’m in that space… I don’t know. I’m thinking about my life, about what film means in my life… I’m in that stage where I’m like in transit. I’ve got identity problems of my own ! And I’m starting to dislike most films that I see. I think that there are filmmakers who are really militant, and who are trying to make a point; there are filmmakers who do entertainment ; filmmakers who try to combine the two ; then there are the « super cool » filmmakers who just shoot images that are just so super cool ; then there are all the « spiritual » directors that the West is now into, all those Asian filmmakers, most of whom I really dislike, who are selling all this Asian peaceful calmness and spiritual transcendence while their countries are completely corrupt and people are being messed over and jailed, but you don’t see that in the films, because the West is so lost that it’s looking for a pool in which they can wash and purify themselves, which this cinema offers them. I miss films like Do The Right Thing. I saw Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke ; I was blown away. It’s probably one of my favourite films of all time. That and some of Michael Haneke’s work, like Caché (Hidden).
What is particularly striking for us in South African cinema is you filmmakers’ way of thinking about yourselves and the way in which the violence inherent in the apartheid regime has been turned on each other. This is particularly clear in your latest film State of Violence. Ramadan Suleman’s first film, Fools, was also very much about this black-on-black violence perpetrated within the community, when people were expecting an opposition between black and white people. What really struck me in your filmyou’re your questioning of this violence still present in the individual, and the notion that the political process will only advance if this issue of violence is brought to the table and addressed. Would you agree with that ?
I don’t know… Someone who really likes my work said to me this week that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say about the violence. I have never actually been opposed to violence. In most instances I think it is necessary, but I think that the problem with it is that it is like a rolling ball : you can’t stop it. With a new film that I am trying to make, one of the gangsters told me something that I found really interesting. He said to me :  » Khalo, the problem with being a gangster is that you might well identify your enemies and steer clear of them, but then someone, who you never expected, whose bread you took one day in prison, might come and stab you and kill you for it five or ten years down the line.  »
I think that what happens in the film is that, by the time the protagonist recognizes that he should actually ask forgiveness from the mother, the damage is already enormous. I could criticize that they don’t make up at the end, that it’s so pessimistic, but I think that it’s quite interesting because you have a society in which, because of apartheid, violence has become the daily norm. People’s outlook, their perspective on life, their idea of solutions, of doing things is violence. Violence has become the very fabric of this society. In South Africa, you can sit in a restaurant and a guy will come up and say,  » Why are you looking at my girlfriend ? », and it will become an issue and you can get stabbed. You can also see it in white South Africans, their angst, their road-rages, their readiness to be violent ; it’s not just only black. White South Africans were in the army, they went to fight in Angola… so, because of the nature of this society, everyone is carrying this cross of violence. But when you read the newspapers and listen to the commentators, most South Africans try to make violence non-political. They reduce it to crime, to barbaric invasions, saying things like  » there are these barbarians who are invading us, who are uncivilized « , and claiming,  » we are the bearers of civilisation, we have families with kids, we take them to school, we are nice people and if only these barbarians didn’t exist in South Africa, it would be such an amazing country… Let’s get rid of the barbarians « . And the barbarians are mostly black and male. And therefore, because they don’t place it in a historical, political or socio-economic context, they absolve themselves from being part of the problem. But the history of white South Africans occupying the country and apartheid and everything is part of the reason why we have the violence we have in South Africa. But they don’t see the relationship. They have a selective memory; the violence becomes abstract. And I think in a way, for me, I wanted to deal with that. I wanted not to make it a crime thing where a BMW gets stolen, but to say if you don’t deal with the path, if you don’t deal with what has happened… The country might well say we have forgiven and we have moved forward, but the scars live with the people. They live in their hearts, in their memories. They remember. They remember their beloved people who were killed, they remember that they were promised a better life, and it doesn’t matter what the government says or does, because the only weapon that masses have is their memory. And I think that how we deal with that memory will determine the future of South Africa. I’m not talking about how we deal with the politics. The politics are easy. But the memory that people carry, and I wanted to deal with that.
You’re referring to the abstraction of violence in society today. Is that the reason why you show this violence so much, so frontally in your film? Aesthetically speaking, is this choice meant to force the viewer to integrate this dimension of real violence ?
I wanted the audience to experience the violence, because I’ve been held up at gunpoint. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been violated and therefore I wanted it to feel live, I wanted it to feel like a mood. I didn’t want to be intellectual about the violence. I wanted the audience to feel the same thing that I felt when I was violated. I didn’t want to be smart. I didn’t think about cinema language and codes, I just thought about it from a human perspective. What does it feel like to be violated ?
Your whole aesthetic is, I would say, a bit contradictory. In a sense, as you say, you bring the viewer the real experience of violence ; it’s very head-on. On the other hand, your way of treating the colours is, in my opinion, a very cold way of filmmaking, which creates distance. So you play on these two contradictory approaches.
I never thought of that, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s something subconscious. I never thought of the lighting as cold, I wasn’t aware of that, so it’s difficult to answer.
There is a certain continuity in your different works, and you focus very much on the question of division: the division of the country between different people, the way of marginalizing immigrants in conversations, and here in the State of Violence, the different ways people feel. What, in your mind, is the main question that South African society must tackle ? You mentioned the question of memory earlier…
I think that South African society is very different to elsewhere. I was having a long debate with two people here because I was saying that, in a sense, the difficulties of being a filmmaker in South Africa are the same as the difficulties that the society has :  » Who are we ?  » Firstly  » Who are we ? » given the history of the country, apartheid, the Truth Commission, Nelson Mandela, the compromises, the fact that the majority of black people are poor versus a minority that is so powerful economically. But also  » Who are we ?  » in terms of the continent. For years we were cut off from the continent. Sometimes there is no commonality. We are part African, but we are part European, and part American too.
We like the idea that we hosted the World Cup because we were the first African country to do so. We want other African countries to endorse us in that, but more importantly we want the West to say you did it as well as Germany, or everywhere else. On the one hand, we say we want to empower the majority of the people, who are poor, but at the same time we worry about being vaguely socialist because our relationship with the West might be damaged and we want appreciation from the World Bank, etc. So I think that due to this constant thing of wanting to please everyone, and be different things to everyone, we are stuck in history, in memory, but at the same time we are futuristic. We are part of the continent, but at the same time we see sophistication as London and Paris, not Lagos, or Nairobi, orAddis. We want the anger of Kwame Nkrumah, but we want to shop on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
It’s a dilemma for filmmakers. I think when you look at films that have done well, especially in North America, take Tsotsi for example, or District 9, what’s really interesting about them is that they have portrayed just one dimension of the country. And that one dimension fits within the clichés, the stereotypes of the country. On the other hand, you’ve got other films that have the pretentiousness of Europe, so I can’t watch them either. I think we are trying to find a South African identity in film, a South African aesthetics and I think that it comes out of this confusion ; I don’t think that it’s there yet. But I think that the day it emerges, it will be like a pizza with olives, mushroom and chicken and pineapple and everything, but tastes good. It looks like confusion, but when you taste it… I think that that is what South Africa is. It’s not more olives, or more pineapple, there is chicken too ; it’s just finding the right ingredients.
Yes, and that’s what’s fascinating for us too, as we look at South Africa. It’s a new democracy with a great constitution. Achille Mbembe describes it as  » Afropolitanism  » : a new way of being in the world, not only in your country, but connecting with the whole of Africa, and also the rest of the world.
Yes, but in South Africa, you have a President who, on the one hand, talks about democracy and aspirations such as not nationalizing the mines, etc., and at the same time talks about the traditional, has many wives. You have this clash between cultures, tradition, modernization, the future… all this stuff. During apartheid it was easy : the perpetrator was white, the victim was black. And the world understood it that way. Now the country’s become sophisticated. But even though Europe is fascinated, I don’t think they get it. I don’t think they have come to understand what the country is, this search to find, for want of a better word, the soul of the nation, to say we have this history – Thabo Mbeki did that speech  » I’m an African « , which I think is the closest thing someone came to tying to capture what it means to be not so much African, but rather South African – this pain, this tragedy, the identification with genocide in Rwanda on the one hand, but with Davos and the World Bank on the other ! South Africa’s relationship to so-called Arab Africa is interesting ; I couldn’t even get a direct flight to Tunisia ! So I think that there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be dealt with, the country’s going through that search, but then most countries are. When I was in Paris this year, I kept on thinking to myself that sometimes, just because societies understand themselves and their history, doesn’t actually mean that those societies are great. And I was telling my editor, who is French, on the phone that my biggest observation as an outsider in France was that in a way, the society – I’m not saying everyone – is searching for the purity of being French in a modern world. They won’t recognize that the dynamics have changed : immigration, the new generation, the power of American imperialism. So the society is in denial of the fact that the world has shifted, that the centre cannot hold, and doesn’t hold. So, in a cab, you come across these Moroccans or Algerians who are so pissed off living in France, but they can’t go to their countries, because their countries are much more fucked up than France is, so you have these very complex dynamics that are happening in the world. So I kept on thinking, what is really interesting about South Africa is that somehow you need a country that will say, in a funny way, as my friend said in Story of a Beautiful Country,  » let’s butcher the memory of the country « . You need to really start again. When you have Indonesia or Iran searching for the glory of an Islam from the 14th century, the French going back to the time of Napoleon, or the South Africans going back to the time of Shaka… In the world that we live in today, how do you balance the fact that you have to hold onto those memories, but also have to adapt ? French society can no longer behave the way it behaves. Every society has been bastardized. I went to Ghana and I went to a Ghanaian restaurant and they served fried rice with an indigenous dish and I asked whether they’d always had this and they said no. I realized that it was the influence of the Chinese, so now all of a sudden they have fried rice. So I think it’s a question of how you balance these things. That’s why I don’t really talk about cinema because for me, cinema comes out of that human experience. Cinema cannot be the determining factor and life second. I’ve never understood that. In terms of South Africa, you can hear on radio for example, how confused society is. They had a thing the other day where a radio journalist apparently saw a black cabinet minister throwing litter on the ground. She stopped the car and started do a live report about it. The minister denied it, but what was interesting was that the white people said  » how can a minister do that, he’s supposed to be responsible  » and the black people said,  » this is a continuous campaign by white South Africans to make black people look bad, to make black leadership look bad « . After sixteen years of democracy ! Even dropping litter becomes a political issue. You can see it in the movies. White South African critics will tell you this film is great and black people will disagree, and black people will tell you this film is great and the white critics will say it’s crap, because psychologically as a country we are different. We are so divided.
But you tackle this. It’s the opposite of the denial you were talking about regarding France.Yes, but psychologically we are so divided, we see differently. In South Africa you can say the smallest thing and it’s racially divisive. There is something in the country that hasn’t been addressed. Filmmakers are dealing with that. This I think is what’s interesting about South African society. I don’t think there’s right or wrong, there’s just an experience.

///Article N° : 10300


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