DOX met them in Cape Town.
The Encounters South African International Documentary Festival was striking in that the entire programme dealt with political themes. The South African programme in particular proved to be the most political and showed the variety of ways South African documentary filmmakers tell the stories of this dynamic country, past and present.
Notable was Brothers in Arms, in which Jack Lewis and Lucilla Blankenberg tell the story of South African Ronald Herbolt who at 21 joined the Cuban Revolution. He remained in Cuba for over forty years and served in Cuban regiments in Angola fighting against the South African military. The filmmakers follow him as he decides where his home is – with his family in Cape Town or with his wife and daughters in Havana.
Also strong was Jo’burg Rising in which Lindiwe Nkuta following a hustler, a car guard, and a street vendor weaving empathetic character portraits into a version of the city symphony. One of the best films overall was Break Boys, Tamsin de Beer’s chronicle of breakdance rivalry in Cape Town’s impoverished Cape Flats. This striking film contains both electric dance sequences and sensitive character portraits.
The most compelling story of the festival, though, was that of Lost Prophets, by University of Cape Town film students Sean Drummond and Dylan Valley. A feature-length music documentary that concentrates on character, the film looks at the current lives of members of Prophets of Da City, South Africa’s first and most influential hip-hop group. Formed in 1989, Prophets of Da City was banned during Apartheid and gained international media recognition for its hip-hop-driven campaign encouraging young South Africans of colour to vote in the first democratic elections in 1994. The members of POC are now scattered between Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Toronto. Their recordings remain virtually impossible to find.
DOX: How did this project come about?
Dylan Valley: We were doing our final project for our honours in film at the University of Cape Town, and had to make a 26-minute thesis project. I had the idea to make a film about Jazzmo, who was a beatboxer in this super group, Prophets of Da City, and who is now a security guard. I thought he would be an interesting character. Then our lecturer suggested that we do the film about all of the members of Prophets of Da City, so we did.
Sean Drummond: Then we came to our lecturers with thirty hours of footage and said, look you can’t do six people justice in twenty minutes. We told them that we were going to make an hour-long film, and they said, “You can’t do it.” We knew we could, but obviously, for a first film, when you say you want to put together an hour and twenty minute film, your lecturer is probably going to say it’s not a good idea! But we already knew that we wanted the film to have a longer shelf life, outside of UCT. We were not really working toward the deadline anymore, but toward festivals.
DOX: Were you aware of Prophets of Da City as you were growing up?
DV: Family friends who were older than us were listening to them and used to play them for me and my sisters. I barely remember that, though, because we were so young. I especially remember the song Never Again that was popular on TV in 1994, during the [first de] elections. When you see it again it triggers something in your memory.
SD: It was nice for us to revisit the music, ourselves, now. Some of the response we have had from people is, “Who are you guys to make this film? You weren’t part of the generation, you don’t know what is going on.” I think it is the other way around. I think we are the best people to do this because we don’t have the baggage that comes with having been part of that generation. We have a fresh perspective.
DOX: Was it difficult to get access to all of the members of POC?
SD: Everybody was open to it. Because we were students, nobody knew where the project was heading, or where we were coming from. So people just let us into their lives. When we arrived with a camera in Johannesburg, people were all over the place, so we couldn’t really schedule appointments or interviews. In the end we realized that the best thing to do was to arrive and to take it as it comes. Everything feels natural because it is natural. We would throw in a question while people were doing their thing, and get a perfectly relaxed, natural response out of them. Even Lance Stehr, who runs a huge record label [Ghetto Ruff] was really accommodating.
DOX: It is an unusual approach to a music documentary, to make a very personal, character-based film that focuses more on the group members than on the music.
SD: We knew we wanted to make a character-based film when we started making the film about Jazzmo. We wanted to look at how the music industry can lift you up and drop you down. As we learned about the group, about the political background, we realized that those things needed to be included in the film. In the beginning, we didn’t know about all of the hectic things they had been through, about the bannings, and how active they had been in the Struggle, about the voting education. We learned all of that as we were making the film.
DOX: How would you describe the climate for young South African documentary filmmakers?
SD: Creatively it’s nice because there is a lot of scope, and there is a lot we have access to now, a lot to explore in terms of South Africa – the past, the people, the cultures. Thanks to Encounters, and all of the festivals, there are lots of opportunities for getting films shown now. But the money is killer. There is no money in South Africa for film, you really have to bleed water from stones just to get anything.
DV: We are trying to build a name right now, to drive our own projects instead of working for ten years under someone, and not doing anything of our own creatively. Even though we don’t have any money, we would much rather be doing it this way.
DOX: What was the budget for Lost Prophets?
DV: It was ZAR 10,000 [about EUR 1,000]: ZAR 3,000 each of our university fees and ZAR 2,000 each of our own money.
SD: It would be great to get a proper sound mix and colour mix on it if we could afford to, but really everything just pulled together. We are not expecting to make a lot of money. As long as people see it and enjoy it, it’s cool.