Festival Focus: People to People International Documentary Conference
For three days this past September, the South African documentary fraternity hosted its peers at the country’s first dedicated documentary conference.
The People to People International Documentary Conference, held at Atlas Studios in Johannesburg, is a joint initiative of Southern Africa Communications for Development (SACOD), the Tri Continental Film Festival and Encounters South African International Documentary Festival. People to People presented a stimulating program of panel discussions, debates and master classes by leading local and international personalities on the financial, organizational, infrastructural and craft concerns of the genre.
The conference primarily aimed to concretize the ephemeral, but often invoked alliance of the “Global South,” and was premised on an apparently common preoccupation with who tells whose story. A central tenet of the conference was to promote “fraternal relations between peoples of the world on the basis of a critical consciousness.” The conference’s organisers noted that there is “a global tide responsible for demonizing and polarizing peoples the world over,” and that “documentary filmmaking in the South can stem this tide.” In effect, the conference also highlighted contradictions within the various––and variously––marginalized voices of this alliance.
The keynote address, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the death in detention of activist Steven Biko, saw scriptwriter and academic Bheki Peterson addressing the impact of Biko’s thinking on “self-referential” documentary filmmaking in the South—that is, filmmaking that uncompromisingly references its own cultures and identities.
In a session chaired by filmmaker/activist Jack Lewis to promote democratic space for the production and exhibition of challenging documentaries, case testimonies were provided of social, political and legislative conditions under which documentary is suppressed around the world. Discussions addressed the banning in India of Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, which dealt with Hindu-Muslim violence; the reticence to exhibition by the subjects of Namibian Simon Wilkie’s Testimony, in which he exposed SWAPO (South-West African People’s Organization) detention dungeons; the withdrawal from release in democratic South Africa of Ben Cashdan’s Unauthorised: Thabo Mbeki; and Michael Raeburn’s Zimbabwe Countdown, on conditions for free expression in Zimbabwe.
The idea of a great global North-South dichotomy came to a head in a session dedicated to the American documentary The Devil Came on Horseback (Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, prods./dirs.), about a former US Marine’s campaign to make aware the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Connie Field (Have You Heard From Johannesburg), the only American at the conference, sat on a panel alongside Dr. Martin Mhando (Tanzania/Australia), Newton Aduaka (Nigeria/UK), Ryan Fortune (South Africa) and Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda (Democratic Republic of Congo/France). The African delegates took issue with the tailoring of the story for mass audience appeal and the necessary simplifications of this format.
Field agreed with many of the critiques of the film, admitting that much of the politics around the conflict, with which the African delegates were familiar, were not delved into by the filmmakers (who, she revealed, had made the film without having traveled to Darfur).
“There were two things I picked up that were key,” she reflects in a post-conference interview. “Other than the fact that the story was told from the perspective of a white soldier, there was the issue of defining it as Arab and Bantu in Sudan, because people said that that’s not what they see and that’s not what’s going on. To define it like that in America creates an enemy out of the Arab, which would resonate.
“The other issue,” she continues, “was the fact that the Janjaweed was put together by the Sudanese government and that there were major oil interests in the Darfur region that the Bantu were living on. That’s the whole perspective it should be put into, and by delineating Arab and Bantu, the filmmakers did not do that. People made the point that if you stand these people next to each other you really can’t see the difference.”
Field, however, emphasized that it was an American film and whatever flaws apparent to an African audience, its effect on the intended viewers is still worthy and important. “The thing I said about The Devil Came on Horseback is that it’s been a very successful story in the United States,” she notes. “The most effective stories are about well-rounded characters; audiences relate to that. Making that character an American also opens it up, especially if he is ‘middle-American’—he was a Marine, he’s not a progressive. In this way, the film exposes the issue of Darfur to a very wide audience, and it helps bring up consciousness about the crisis.
“So there’s a question,” Field continues. “You’re weighing against from whose viewpoint the story gets told, when this story, because of its point of view, makes it more accessible for an American audience, and thereby makes it an issue that the society is more aware of.”
Probed about the problematic nature of such representations, Field allows, “Well, I agree with that, but what we’re faced with is a contradiction. Lots of films get made that way—for example, Blood Diamond; you have to have the Leonardo Di Caprio character. And then there is the difficulty of getting African films seen in America.
“We sit with that contradiction,” she reflects. “Should you never make a Blood Diamond? Should you never make a Devil Came on Horseback? I would say you should make them, and, again, people have to fight for their space, and people here need to fight internationally to get that space so that the perspective can get created and seen. So, though I conceptually agree, I think we operate inside this contradiction.”
Various other sessions at the conference, however, made it clear that not everyone in the South is equally up to this fight and that the contradictions between the hemispheres are replicated among the voices of the South.
The South African delegates, at the helm of the so-called African Renaissance, were challenged about their vaunted role and the implicit assumption of unanimity despite the vastly differing conditions that affect documentary filmmaking in the South—i.e., resource and skills deficiencies, self-censorship pressures and outright repression.
One session in particular, a screening and discussion of the highly contested 1966 Italian film Africa Addio, elicited a whole new controversy. Session chair Jean-Pierre Bekolo, an award-winning Cameroonian filmmaker and academic, provoked the largely young black South African audience with the notion that the film’s patently racist representation of African people in the wake of decolonization seems somewhat premonitory, in light of the continent’s various post-colonial atrocities.
The delegates seemed to ignore this “African” issue and steered the discussion towards black identity issues, citing the popularity of hip-hop and dreadlocks as signs that liberation has been successful in their world.
“When I talk to young Cameroonians,” retorted Bekolo, “they complain that they want roads and electricity.” This dialogue seemed to substantiate Bekolo’s provocation that Apartheid might have been good for South Africa—a sentiment he says is common among other African communities. “If Rwanda, Liberia, Zimbabwe and Darfur are examples of the colonial master project gone wrong, then South Africa’s ‘colonialism of a special type’ is an example of it working,” challenged Bekolo.
Other Africans question the exception that is South Africa’s western development, yet young South Africa prioritizes continental solidarity in a unanimous vision led by itself.
“Black identity is currency now,” said a young commissioning editor for the SABC, the continent’s most powerful public broadcaster.
The session ended before anyone could mention that a significant segment of the South African population also concerns itself more with access to electricity and running water than identity politics.
The wholesale transformation of Southern crises into cultural currency is what sparked the conference to begin with. The contradictions illuminated through three days of often heated debate are significant to this aim and effectively demonstrate the importance of the new-born event and its future.
Arya Lalloo is a filmmaker based in Johannesburg.
Feizel Mamdoo is a filmmaker and the director of the People to People International Documentary Conference.