DOX met him in Thessaloniki to talk about his approach to making “The Swenkas”.
I once heard a Japanese kabuki master say that when you act, you should have eyes all over your body: eyes open to everything. Jeppe Rønde’s filmmaking reminds me of this. He inhabits the worlds in which he moves in a very complete, full-bodied way. He is an instinctive filmmaker whose every muscle is attuned to the moment: the revelations, the gestures, the unexpected opening of the heart. “The Swenkas”, the second film of his trilogy based on Faith, Hope and Charity, continues the subject of the lost father explored in “Jerusalem My Love”. It follows the young Zulu Sabelo as he comes to terms with his father’s death and decides whether to continue the ritualized posing or “swanking” done every Saturday night in Johannesburg where he and his friends are migrant workers.
The form embraces African storytelling techniques with a fictional narrator, but it also mirrors the fictions the Swenkas themselves conjure up in their weekly rituals of donning beautiful suits and posing for competitions – pausing to show gleaming cufflinks, beautiful socks, swanky wrist watches.
Jeppe’s approach hovers between the control of a director who wants to shape material into a well-crafted tale and that of the documentary maker who has to relinquish control completely and retain an openness to the unexpected.
“I always have an idea from the outset of writing a script, but at some point something happens and reality just turns 180 degrees and I just have to cling onto that. At the beginning I thought it was a father-and-son story where I could follow the old master Swenka and his son, Sabelo, their relationship and the passing on of knowledge. Sabelo’s father was alive when I started, but then he died and of course that became my story – the loss of a father. Then I felt this doubt from Sabelo that he didn’t know if he wanted to continue Swanking and that’s a good story because every one can relate to losing someone and then feeling doubt: chaos is there- personal chaos, and that chaos opens doors to interesting rooms that have no racial colour or gender. And I’m there with Sabelo and ultimately with the audience.”
Jeppe’s films blur any edges between fiction and documentary. They draw us in like epic stories-but retain an intimacy, an informality that may derive from a refreshingly straightforward urge to ask big and not so simple questions about love, faith, hope. One senses that his filmmaking comes from a genuine need to find reconciliation. There is a redemptive quality in both “Jerusalem My Love” and “The Swenkas” which suggests a belief in the transformative power of beauty.
“It’s been said by many that a film needs to be a stone in the shoe. All art should be like that, but it’s also true that it has to be seductive in a beautiful way, because that’s when you’re most open: like being in love, like falling in love. You’re totally open. You feel at home on strange ground, on faraway ground. Everything is so beautiful. And because you’re open and you want to be no place else but there, you are also receptive – and maybe, even on a subconscious level, ready to be moved to places you didn’t know existed or were afraid of. You’re really searching, and beauty can exist in many ways – in the images, in between the images, in the way of telling the story…”
Jeppe’s use of cinemascope, dolly shots and aerial views, his relish of a sweeping cinematic approach have synchronized fortuitously with the re-invigoration of documentary as a big-screen experience.
“I don’t see a division between fiction and documentary -and that’s what I want to provoke. To me, there’s no difference -none. It’s film. In 1895 when the Lumière brothers made their first film you’d say today it’s documentary -a train is coming. But it was just film at the time. I think there’s only film -there are good films and there are bad films.”
His work is formed from very real friendships with the people he films-whether with the prophets he meets on his quest to re-awaken his faith in “Jerusalem My Love” or the Zulu migrants in “The Swenkas”. There is no safe, objective distance from their lives-he seems to plunge right in, dancing with his subjects, forging a filmic language as he enters their world, a syntax that marries form to content. I wondered how he retained his openness.
“You feel obliged to. With the Swenkas, they’re so dignified and open. In the beginning you think it’s all about outer beauty, the suits and so on, but it’s all about the inner beauty of them when you go through the film and, as I said, that seduces me- like being in love. I’m open and I really want to pass that on. And I do that by really telling their story the best I can, using the language the best I can- and by juggling the stone in the shoe.”
The trust he gained enabled him to structure the film the way he wanted – feeding in the themes he wished to explore. For example, at the end, Sabelo talks with his little son about hope in a way that mirrors an earlier discussion with Mr Dangerous when he was dispirited and wanted to stop swanking. This gives the film a fairy-tale familiarity.
The movement from being controlled by what’s happening to controlling it is a fascinating balance. Jeppe explains it by using the analogy of a mobius (a mathematical model that describes a continuous, twisted, double-sided strip.) “If you have a strip of paper and you twist it before folding it, when you go on top of it, all of a sudden it twists and you’re inside. You think you’re on top and you don’t know when you’ll go under- like dreaming in a way: what is real and what is not real? I’m constantly struggling and I don’t even know if I’m on the outside or the inside of the mobius. But I’m fighting to keep my balance at any given moment, on any given curve.”
How does he know when to take control? “Its all over my body- you can feel the small goose bumps. Then you just need to prepare and start everything and control it or try to catch the essence-to find your balance.”
Jeppe prepares himself for filming through music. He was a musician before becoming a filmmaker and wrote the theme for “Jerusalem My Love” before he started filming.
“…so I had the pace and mood – the structure even within the piece. With “The Swenkas”, I found the music beforehand. When the narrator starts up, a Zulu man, a vagabond in Johannesburg-the music is old country -the whitest of the white and that’s an important counterpoint. I didn’t know if it would work but I had this idea of the myth of black men in white suits. It’s like a study of contrasts. The music always starts me. Whenever I’m in doubt, I always have the music with me. I go home and I’m alone with it. I give it to my cameraman and even while they’re filming I give them headphones so they can feel it. Furthermore, I’ve had the privilege to work with a very musical editor, Olivier Coutté.”
This is Jeppe’s talent. He makes his inner music, his inner journey ours in an easy, intimate way-leading us gently into strange lands until they become familiar.