In September 2006, South African filmmaker François Verster’s documentary “A Lion’s Trail” won an Emmy for “the most outstanding cultural and artistic programming”.

Sarah K. Adams
Sarah K. Adams is a film journalist and practicing psychotherapist based in the U.S.
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François Verster

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

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“The Mothers’ House” (2005)

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”.

Documentary Filmmaking is Learning

DOX: Can you talk about “Sea Point Days”, which is currently in production?

FV: Because the last three films, especially “The Mothers’ House” and “When the War is Over” were intensely personal, made over multiple years, I felt, with the Sea Point film, that I did not want to go through the same kind of emotional intensity. So I set out to make a happier film which seemed to end up being about the nature, or at least the possibility, of happiness here. But that is also changing in the film a bit. It has become grittier and darker.

The way we structured the film is to be these distant observations on tripod shot on HDV, combined with footage that I was shooting on mini-DV, interacting, meeting-people kind of encounters. I, as the director, encounter these people on the (Sea Point) promenade and the pool, then go between the two (formats).

DOX: How do you go about deciding what kind of film you are going to make?

FV: To me, documentary making is not so much about communicating as it is about learning or exploring. When I make a film, I am not always sure what I want to say. That is part of the reason why I make it.

It is a complex thing, though. It has to do with being a white person in South Africa, and being middle-class and comfortable in a world where I am not actually the one suffering. South Africa is still radically divided along class and race lines, perhaps because under apartheid people were legally not allowed to get to know each other in any real sense.

So for me, documentary is a way of engaging with the country I live in. I want to learn something in the process, and I suppose I have learned more about the world I live in through making documentaries than in any other way. The thing that excites me about documentary is the constant negotiation of that line between “reality” and creative “reshaping”, or interpretation. We might call it “creative crystallization”.

Narrative Provides Understanding

DOX: In terms of this discovery process, do you feel that there are as many revelations during the editing as there are in production?

FV: More. Sometimes it works on a very basic level. You learn things, and you often only understand what is on camera for the first time in the edit suite when you are allowed to look and re-look. You can look at people’s faces and at their emotions. For example, I cannot stare at you now, and look at your eyes and mouth, etc… It would be rude. In the edit suite, though, you can study every single emotion – that is part of the emotional bond with the character in the computer. I suppose you learn a lot more during filming, but often you understand a lot more in the edit.

DOX: So filming is learning, but editing is a process of understanding?

FV: Often you understand things better when you turn them into a narrative structure. It is not because it makes it easily digestible, but by turning something into a narrative you understand it better, perhaps because we work in terms of motivations and things in our heads.

In a way, you do not always know what your film is about until quite late. With “The Mothers’ House”, of course, we knew it was about mother and daughter, and the effects of violence, but the more subtle things, for example the fact that this was about Miché’s life being shaped over four years was clearly there, but to actually put it in that form came very late in the edit.

Grew up with BBC Docs

DOX: When you were beginning to decide what interested you in film, was there a film that changed your mind about what was possible?

FV: The one film that made me feel that something completely different was possible in cinema was “Aguirre (Wrath of God)”. It was also the time when I saw it: I was 18, and the silences, the long-held close-ups, and this idea that completely different ways of storytelling are possible.

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Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Director: Werner Herzog

On a documentary level, we grew up watching BBC films. Because of apartheid we didn’t get to see socially critical films at all, and the critical films we did see were the banned films that were not very creative but very urgent, almost propagandistic anti-apartheid films, or urgent, critically motivated films. So there was no way really of seeing creative documentary in South Africa when we grew up. You saw National Geographic style, BBC history and BBC natural history-type films. So, when I made my first film, I was thinking more about Herzog than about other documentaries.

 


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