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Keeping it reel

The story of the late Onkgopotse Tiro, a black consciousness student activist at Turfloop University (now University of the North) and a teacher at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, where Tsietsi Mashinini would lead a contingent of students on June 16 1976, is virtually unknown.

The house in Dinokana, Zeerust, where he grew up, was an overnight stop for many a border-crossing freedom fighter, but now stands in a state of disrepair, although Ronnie Kasrils, when he was minister forestry and water affairs, planted a wild olive tree there in his honour in 1999. During the Truth and Reconciliation amnesty hearings, nobody came forward to claim responsibility for his murder, hence this brooding documentary by Steve Mokwena called A Blues for Tiro.

A Blues for Tiro commemorates the short life of the black consciousness leader, climaxing with his gruesome death at the age of 29 from a parcel bombing in Botswana in 1974. “How I got to know about Tiro was in matric in 1985,” says Mokwena, a former Morris Isaacson pupil who is now the head of programming at Soweto TV. “At that time there was a lot of turmoil at the schools and I was the president of the SRC. The principal, Steve Monyemerathoe, who was there during the 1976 uprisings, reminded us that it wasn’t the first time that this had happened and then mentioned Tiro. But at that time his story just stayed in my subconscious and had no use in a practical way.”

After the Sharpeville massacre there was very little in the form of mass protests against apartheid. The South African Students’ Organisation (Saso), an exclusively black students’ organisation, emerged out of this vacuum and by 1971 had adopted a radical position by rejecting Bantu education and adopting the Declaration of Student Rights that included clauses about the right to dissent with university instructors. After making an incendiary speech at Turfloop during a graduation ceremony the following year Tiro was expelled, subsequently becoming Saso’s permanent organiser.

As one of the progenitors of the black consciousness movement and a peer of Steve Biko, it is surprising that few photographs of Tiro exist. As someone who gained notoriety prior to the advent of television in this country, film footage of him is also non-existent, an obvious hurdle that Mokwena had to circumnavigate. His task was made even more difficult by his desire to make the film a journey with Tiro, “rather than one that talks about him in the past tense”.

Bonginkosi Ngwato, a spoken word artist also known as Prophet, acts as the conduit for Tiro’s memory by performing a series of poems and dramatic monologues throughout the film, channelling Tiro’s rage as his spirit roams deserted city streets in the dead of night, seeking answers for his brutal murder.

While Mokwena does his best to make A Blues for Tiro an entertaining film, incorporating his own painted versions of Tiro portraits as a background, some interview scenes and by inserting haunting cutaways of the soft focus of city lights, ultimately much of the film comprises shots zooming in on newspaper clippings and talking heads. Many of these were Tiro’s coterie of friends who went to Botswana to identify his body and saw first hand the effect of the blast. “It’s a blues,” Mokwena replies incredulously when I quiz him about the darkness of the film. “I knew the title before I made the film— it’s not about the limelight, it’s about acknowledging our historical imagination of people whose lives changed ours.”

Other films showig at the festival:
Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr Hunter S Thompson
Directed by Alex Gibney (US, 2007)
Hunter Thompson’s wild-ride kind of journalism, which he called “gonzo” and to which he added much personal perspective and invective, has inspired many young writers yearning to break free from the constraints of traditional “objectivity”. If only they could match his drug intake. Then again, as this rather over-long documentary makes clear, he himself didn’t. After a brilliant kick-off with his book on the Hell’s Angels and its extraordinary follow-ups, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thompson basically went into a long decline from the mid-1970s until his suicide in 2005.

This decline was obviously fuelled by drugs and drink, though the documentary is too polite to say that in quite so many words, instead blaming his problems on the onset of big-time fame. It is an engrossing biographical piece, using personal recordings, videos and archival footage, such as rare images of a young Thompson on black-and-white TV in the 1960s. Even when he’s campaigning to become the “freak power” sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, Thompson comes across as a rather shy, self-effacing person — at least until the drugs kick in.

Perhaps that’s why he took them in the first place. There is candid and insightful testimony from many people who knew him: his ex-wife Sandi Conklin; fellow-writer and “new journalist” Tom Wolfe; 1972 liberal presidential candidate George McGovern; conservative Pat Robertson, who was then Richard Nixon’s aide; and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, the publication that gave Thompson the space that made him what he was as a writer. The readings from Thompson’s work, which form the voice-over, are delivered in the dulcet tones of Johnny Depp, who played the Thompson character in the movie of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and later paid for his odd funeral, where his ashes were fired into the sky by a cannon. Gonzo, the documentary, is fascinating, fun, and in the end rather sad. Still don’t know how Thompson got to be a “Dr”, though. — Shaun de Waal

Lakshmi and Me
Directed by Nishtha Jain (India/Denmark, 2007)
India, much like South Africa, has an ever-increasing wealth gap that often sees those in the upper-income bracket living in high rises overlooking the slums in which their domestic workers live.

Lakshmi and Me is one of those straight-from-the-heart doccies — no special effects, no Hollywood celebs and no orchestra to manipulate what the viewer should be feeling. It’s plain, simple and poignant.

Director Nishtha Jain comes from a fairly well-off background. She’s a single woman living in Mumbai and she can afford a daily domestic (Lakshmi), who she follows around for a few months to give us a look into the life of a desperately poor woman living according to centuries-old traditions.

What’s enjoyable about Lakshmi and Me is the way Jain is forced to examine how she relates to Lakshmi and the more Jain learns about her, the more the lines between employer and employee become blurred as they become more involved in each other’s experiences.

Domestics in India (and no doubt across the world) are hardly treated as human beings and when Jain’s narration kicks off with, “I think I’m a good employer. I don’t beat her, I don’t cut her salary when she breaks something,” you realise that this documentary is ultimately going to force you to examine how you relate to the people who work for you. For that reason alone, it’s well worth watching. — Sukasha Singh

Joy Division
Directed by Grant Gee (UK, 2007)
Director Grant Gee is no stranger to the world of music, having directed a number of music videos for bands such as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Blur, The Kills, Gorillaz and Tom Waits. But it is his 1999 documentary, Meeting People is Easy, which followed Radiohead on their 1997 Ok Computer world tour, that brought him the most attention. That is until now. Gee’s documentary Joy Division — which looks back at the trajectory of the cult, post-punk band — is an absolute masterpiece. This is without a doubt the film that this seminal band have deserved for a long time. Gee’s documentary traces the band’s history from a bunch of disillusioned angry young men in 1976 to Ian Curtis’s suicide on the eve of the band’s first American tour in May 1980. He makes use of extensive interviews with the three remaining band members: Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, as well as band manager Rob Gretton, designer Peter Saville and now-deceased Factory Records boss Tony Wilson.

These are supplemented with a number of interviews with periphery players and great footage of the band live. Fans of Meeting People is Easy will recognise Gee’s distinct style, which often consists of substantial layering of images and the use of text from press clippings. However, the most striking visual element is the way Gee gives a sense of space to the Joy Division story, subtly using buildings and their relevance to the band’s trajectory to carry the narrative forward. The end result is a film that places the viewer smack bang in the middle of late Seventies Manchester. It provides a crucial understanding of the band and its music, which is too often written off as miserablist post-punk. — Lloyd Gedye

Bomb It
Directed by John Reiss (US, 2007)
Bomb It is a frenetically edited feature-length whiz through the global graffiti scenes, starting in Philadelphia, the apparent birthplace of the art form.

In this film, which boldly tries to encapsulate the history of graffiti and make a political case for it, the myth of spray-can art’s New York origins are immediately shattered by the introduction of Cornbread, a little-known progenitor of the form who even did time for painting on an elephant in a Philadelphia zoo.

Produced and directed by John Reiss (who has also made a film on rave culture), Bomb It is extensive in its sweep, briskly covering various styles (such as freestyle graffiti), even featuring interviews with Cape Town veterans like Falco and Faith 47 who shed light on the dynamics of pursuing the form in the developing world. It is brimming with entertaining anecdotes and insightful quotes by pioneers such as Stay High 149, Pink and T-Kid, but is disingenuous to the anti-graffiti lobby who are simply buried under an avalanche of non-stop self-righteous rhetoric from writers who even paint on private property. — Kwanele Sosibo

Zulu Surf Riders
Directed by Andre Cronje and Carlos Francisco (SA, 2007)
This is a 50-minute look at a burgeoning black surfers’ movement at the KwaZulu-Natal south coast town of Umzumbe. The film’s principal protagonists are Cyril and Meshack Mqadi, twins who grew up being discouraged to swim in the sea by various relatives who fed them a variation of old wives’ tales.

After spending half the documentary repeating how they were not allowed in the ocean, we eventually move on to the part where they are taught how to swim and are given surfboards by a benevolent local family, encouraging an entire generation of surfing hopefuls in their hometown.

The film is dreary as a result of lackadaisical editing and unexciting footage, which consists mainly of guys walking to the beach or kids being taught to catch waves paddling on the damp sea sand. What it does have going for it, is the enthusiasm of these young fellows. — Kwanele Sosibo.

The 10th International Encounters Documentary Festival takes place in Johannesburg at Nu Metro, Hyde Park, until June 29 and in Cape Town at Nu Metro, V&A Waterfront, from July 3 to 13. Visit or Tel: 021 465 4686

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