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American Film Showcase: 'Connected' in Cape Town

 A screening of Tiffany Shlain's Connected at Encounter Documentary Film Festival of South Africa

From the moment I found out I was being "deployed" to Cape Town, South Africa to screen my film Connected for the US State Department's American Film Showcase, to the moment I left, it was like watching a scratchy piece of film footage transforming into reality. I have always been fascinated by South Africa, from reading about the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela's courage, to learning, while in production on Connected, about the resonant African philosophy called Ubuntu, which means "I am what I am because we are."

In the fantasy version of my life, I would prepare extensively for this trip by reading a series of books and watching documentaries about South African history. In the reality of being a working mom with two little kids while in production on a new film, I barely made it to the plane. Really.

Regardless, it was a hugely profound trip for me. Following are some freeze-frame impressions from my adventure.

Rainbow Flags

The plane touches down after a layover in London to cap off a 30-hour journey. Rachel Gandin Mark, the Showcase's project administrator from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has already arrived and is there to greet me. We drive to Cape Town, passing freeway signs declaring "Mandela Parkway" with dozens of rainbow flags that signify Mandela's "Rainbow Nation." And just as we arrive at the hotel, through the clouds and the rain, an enormous rainbow stretches across the sky.

Working Mothers

At the hotel, we meet Cynthia Brown, the Public Diplomacy Officer from the US Consulate, who hands me an official folder with the State Department embossed seal on the cover. I'm living my spy fantasy with the James Bond theme playing in my head. Cynthia then gives us a briefing on the events of the next several days. Mandisa Zitha, head of the Encounters Documentary Film Festival of South Africa, meets us for lunch. She is a stunning South African woman, my age, and we quickly bond over having two young daughters. She then tells us she had an emotional evening the night before, when she announced at a screening that she was leaving the festival because she didn't feel like she had enough time for her children while running such a big event. I get it. These are the same conversations I have with my working-mom friends back home. These are the things that bind mothers all over the world.


Mandisa gives us an intellectual tour of post-apartheid South Africa, the racial and ethnic makeup of the country, and how the term "coloured" in South Africa is still common and refers to an ethnic group that traces its ancestry to Europe, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. (I later learn that "Cape Coloured," in genetic studies, has the highest level of mixed ancestry in the world.)

In terms of filmmaking in South Africa, Mandisa tells us that Cape Town has an increasingly modern infrastructure for international film productions, and while that is good for the local economy, she and her community are working to promote creativity and expression among local filmmakers as well. Since documentary films reveal the issues a society is struggling with, many of the films selected for the festival address post-apartheid South Africa from many different lenses.

At the end of our lunch, I ask her more about the idea of Ubuntu, and she talks much more in depth about the idea and how it speaks directly to the themes of human interconnectedness that I explore in Connected. I learn how Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a book, "A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed."

18 Percent Online

Dave Duarte and Max Kazin, a brother-sister duo who are both technology entrepreneurs, host a dinner for me, as part of a monthly salon they conduct entitled "27," representing the number of years Mandela was incarcerated. Charismatic, funny and quick-witted, they keep the evening flowing at a hipster joint called Frieda's, whose walls are adorned with vintage mannequins.

When I ask what the monthly dinners are intended for, David says they are just for "weird people." "I love weird people," I reply, partly because I've always felt like one, and partly out of an effort to maintain an intercontinental connection. Rachel quickly realizes my misunderstanding due to his thick South African accent and lets me know that Dave actually said "wired people." Of course, David and I fall into laughter-mine I a little too hard, the kind of deep belly laugh that only jetlag can induce.

The entrepreneurs tell me about the tech community and how only 18 percent of South Africans are online. Their goal is to get to 80 percent in five years. We talk about many things: how the community helps to ensure inexpensive access, how they can make sure people aren't online too much, and how to reach township residents who currently lack access to a quality education system.


Rachel and I want to visit a township, but we don't want to go on a "tour," of which there are many. Max, from the "27" dinner, takes us to meet her good friend Salvation, who lives in Mandela Park, a township near Cape Town. It's definitely humbling to visit a hillside city of shacks with no running water and scant employment. Salvation's home is a room just big enough for a couch and a TV, which is showing American professional wrestling-which, according to my hosts, is huge in South Africa. While there is no running water, everyone has cell phones. I wonder if they are part of the 18 percent?  I talk to Salvation, her friends, her cousins and people that go in and out of the shack. She tells me she is scared for her safety here. I feel helpless for her situation, as I interview her holding her sweet two-year-old daughter. I also think of our "townships" in the United States.

Tiffany Shlain interviews Salvation in her township for her future documentary


The premiere of Connected is packed even though it's on a Sunday night, people stay late into the evening for a deep conversation about technology and the things that connect us and disconnect us. The next morning, I head out to workshop I am to give at the film school. Even though I'm feeling faded, the room is brimming with energy and eager minds that wake me up. And those minds keep filing in. By the end, there are over 150 people in a room that normally holds 75. The energy is pumping. We have a passionate discussion about the viral video KONY 2012, and then I share with them the new way I am making films-with people over the Internet through videos from their cell phones, in what my film studio and I are calling "Cloud Filmmaking."

I tell them how at the moment people from all over the world are sending in video clips, putting their hand on their heart for a new film we are making called Engage. I ask if I could film all of them for the film. There is a resounding "Yes." The room is so packed and I am not very tall, so I stand on a chair with my iPhone, but I still cannot get clearance. A seven-foot tall man approaches and offers to be a living tripod...and the shot begins.

It is such a powerful moment: A room packed with people, young, old, black and white, all wanting to tell stories, all feeling their heartbeat.

After the class, I speak to many filmmakers, one who tells me he is making a documentary about Ubuntu. He is using the same fighter planes used for surveillance during apartheid to film hundreds of people overhead spelling out Ubuntu.   

Third Act Climax

As I write this report of the trip, I am currently finishing the edit of the short film I had been telling them about, Engage, which will be out this fall. The shot I took there with them is bursting with so much emotion and speaks so perfectly to what I want to say in this film. It is the climax shot. Here's the link:

Nelson Mandela once said, "Films are a powerful tool for fostering understanding and tolerance in the world."

I now understand Ubuntu in a whole new way.

Honored by Newsweek as one of the "Women Shaping the 21st Century," Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, and co-founder of The International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences.