The perennial struggle of any artist is deciding between the choices that continuously present themselves. We do not simply reflect the societies and cultures that inform our works, we do so in ways in which we consciously or unconsciously select, foreground, ignore, use and misuse the sights, sounds and smells that make up the social fabric around us. It is therefore important that we remain mindful of the kinds of agendas and strategies — even bad habits — that we rely on.
We are not only reporters, but interpreters and social actors. What we tend to take for granted as reality, culture, aesthetics, identity, nation, freedom of speech, human rights and patriotism (to select just some of the notions that form part of the popular discourse of documentary film- makers) are phenomena that are much more constructed (rather than natural or given) and contested than what we would ordinarily like to believe.
As a result, all these notions can be put to a range of very different personal and social uses that range from the humane and enriching to the fascist and destructive.
The same is true with regard to our commitment to, in the now fashionable phrase, “speak truth to power”. Biko suggests in I Write What I Like that “in our continuous struggle for truth, we have to examine and question old concepts, values and systems”. So, if we are (as we should be) compelled to “speak truth to power”,we are equally required to ask ourselves what truth? Whose truth? Directed at which power? Aimed at what audiences? For what purposes?
While we would all like to concur that there is truth and untruth, facts and lies, we do not often acknowledge that our understanding, pursuit and championing of our truths, cultures and rights is informed also by many other factors, such as the class positions that we occupy, the ideologies we hold, the ethnicities and nationalities we are from, the gendered backgrounds we are socialised under, and so on.
Bearing all these variables in mind, we should take heed of the salutary caution that Biko once expressed: “The biggest mistake the black world ever made was to assume that whoever opposed apartheid was an ally.”
In other words, if you hold views that are critical of the post-apartheid South African state today, it does not necessarily mean that your outlook is informed by a perspective that is also for the poor, the homeless, the refugees and other social groups that are marginalised and subjugated in society.
This tension is regularly apparent in the frequency with which artists — and their colleagues in the Fourth Estate — tend always to emphasise the first generation of human rights (freedom of speech and assembly), while remaining silent about second- and third-generation human rights (the rights to employment, housing, education, culture and so on).
I suspect the reason is that second- and third-generation human rights challenge us in more uncomfortable ways since, beyond our virtuous and moralistic positions, they demand the consideration of social and economic contradictions that require us to examine our own class privileges and relative access to power.
One way in which this tension manifests itself is when we do undertake work that explores ordinary people’s struggles to secure the means of life, we tend to follow too neatly the briefs of the donors and broadcasters who fund or commission our documentaries.
It is no wonder then that initiatives and documentaries of this kind have been dismissed as promoting, in Edward Said’s words, “the imperialism of virtue”; they are well intentioned “shock-absorbers” promoted by philanthropic individuals, civic organisations and foundations that, whatever their merits, stop short of deeper analyses and the call for fundamental change.
Bhekizizwe Peterson is professor of African literature at Wits University and a screenwriter. This is an extract from his paper at the People to People international documentary conference this week