François Verster welcomes me to his Cape Town home knowing exactly what I want to talk about. He sets the tone by putting on a hilariously tongue-in-cheek show in the middle of his airy, book-packed living room. Hauling out the Emmy he was awarded for “A Lion’s Trail” (2002), he begins, with a mischievous smile, to screw the customised name plate, which bears both his name and the film title, onto the glistening golden statue. Apparently the nameplate has just arrived by overnight mail. “Look at this,” he smiles wryly, handing me a piece of paper that reads, in huge letters, “How to Assemble Your Emmy Award.”
It becomes clear over the course of our afternoon discussion that having won an Emmy is important to Verster for the attention that such a popular award brings, both within his own country and to South African documentary as a whole, but that he would rather talk about anything else. He does seem genuinely touched, though, that a huge billboard was posted in his home town which read, “Son of Bloemfontein wins Emmy” while the (South African) National Film and Video Foundation put up a banner announcing the award outside their building.
So, while he never demurs so much as to indicate this explicitly, it seems clear that for Verster, the award’s meaning lies in what it means to other people. He seems to wants to change the subject, so of course we talk about a hundred other things. I do want to say, though, “Go ahead, François, don’t be embarrassed. It’s just an Emmy. The international documentary community won’t hold it against you.”
Previous and Future Films
The films for which Verster is best known in documentary circles are “When the War is Over” (2002) and “The Mothers’ House” (2005), intimate, often painful portraits of South Africans engaged in a new kind of struggle: no longer the great Struggle against an unjust government, but a daily struggle to survive. In South Africa, his films are hotly contested. How can a middle-class white man portray the lives of working class “Coloured” Capetonians experiencing daily the violent legacy of apartheid? How dare he?
He does dare, though. His most recent film, “The Mothers’ House” chronicles four critical years in the life of Miché, a girl living with Valencia, her emotionally isolated AIDS-afflicted mother, and Amy, Miché’s grandmother, in the Cape Town township of Bonteheuwel. Take this heavy dose of reality from the opening section of “The Mothers’ House”: Miché, 11 years old, is sitting with some of the women of her family in the living room and asks her aunt Renecia what the Struggle was. When Renecia answers, “It was a time when we fought for democracy in this country. Black people, white people, coloured people, could not live in the same place.” Miché looks puzzled, and asks, “Is it still like that?” Everyone present howls with laughter.
While “The Mothers’ House” is a story of a family of women, “When the War is Over” is a portrait of two Bonteheuwel men. Verster follows two anti-apartheid Struggle comrades whose post-Struggle lives have gone in opposite directions, albeit in eerie physical, and to some extent emotional, proximity to one another. Gori, an SA Army Captain, patrols the streets, trying to control the violence and illegal activity of the township, while Marlon is embroiled in ongoing gang warfare. It is a poignant reminder that documentary really is real when Verster points out that he recently attended Gori’s second wedding ceremony and filmed the wedding video, while last year, Marlon was murdered.
Verster is now working on two films, both of which seem to be clear thematic and stylistic departures from his previous work. The “Dream of Shahrazad”, currently in development, will explore the ways in which the West views and has viewed Islam, structured around the story of a Vienna-based Iranian conductor returning to Iran to perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem “Shahrazad”. Currently in production is “Sea Point Days”, Verster’s documentary on the public swimming pool and promenade in Cape Town’s diverse, cosmopolitan oceanside neighbourhood of Sea Point.
Will winning the Emmy help with funding? While Verster believes that the Emmy has probably opened doors to important European and American broadcasters, he still seeks local broadcaster support for the Sea Point project. At the time of writing, the SABC had not yet agreed to participate, despite its having shared the Emmy for “A Lion’s Trail”.