/ 11 December 2008

Somewhere over the rainbow

Jihan El-Tahri’s documentary of South Africa’s recent history, Behind the Rainbow, answers and poses many troubling questions. What concerned me though was why the film’s action starts in the mid-1970s.

”I hesitated a lot,” says El-Tahri. She had considered 1955, the year the Freedom Charter was adopted. And 1960 had its allure: it was the year of the Sharpeville massacre, the year 17 African countries got independence and the year the ANC was banned.

She settled on 1975, a crucial year in Southern Africa’s history. The fall of the Salazar regime in Portugal reverberated in the country’s colonies, resulting in the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

Oppressed people everywhere took note. When Samora Machel was inaugurated as the leader of Mozambique, people in Johannesburg and elsewhere celebrated, albeit differently, by rioting. Change that had seemed so far away suddenly drifted into tantalising closeness. Locals started believing, ”we can do it too”.

El-Tahri argues that while most monumental dates in South Africa seem to be followed by breaks ”there is a continuum from 1975 up to 2004”.

This latest project shows her love affair with liberation movements. ”How is it that when they come to power, suddenly the country is crumbling? For me, as an African myself [she’s Egyptian], I really want to understand where that comes from. You can’t tell me that people who give their entire lives to struggle just wake up one morning and become somebody else. I can’t believe that. I won’t believe that.”

About political excesses El-Tahri observes that some struggle heroes were smuggling money into their countries ”by the truckful” and could simply have snitched some.

Perhaps I ought to have stressed that they occasionally did. Metaphorically, at least. In the struggle against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia in the 1970s, for instance, Zanu-PF’s combatants on the front sometimes complained about how the party bosses lived the good life while at times the footsoldiers went for days without food. In fact, most of the hierarchies so glaringly replicated in post-liberation Africa began as little, harmless comforts, only enjoyed by the leaders.

Behind the Rainbow began four years ago, ”right after the 2004 election”. The project was funded out of El-Tahri’s pocket, with support from 11 global broadcasters, including the SABC, Dutch broadcaster ITVS and Australian broadcaster SBS.

She says it cost R4-million. I whistle, rather naively, at the sum. She waves me away, pointing out that it took four years of film work, hiring of equipment and paying six staffers.

Her research data is contained in a bulky 700 pages and has every significant detail about the country from 1910 to 2003.

”Every single day of every single year I recorded everything that happened from 1910 to 2003.”

While she bought some of the archive video footage (for about R55 000 a minute) she explains that most of the video footage is her own. The recent split of the ANC means the filming will resume. A somewhat definitive version of her film will come out in April next year, when the movie is taken to Europe.

With this amount of research the film could have ended up unmanageable, bearing a sprawling narrative. But, guided by the question ”Where are moments of crossroads where something happens that completely changes the course the country is going?”, she was able to record the significant moments.

Being an outsider obviously helps, a point she regularly brings up. In fact, all her major projects have the outsider’s view. She has made an award-winning documentary, Cuba: An African Odyssey, one on the Angolan war against the apartheid forces and one on the House of Saud. Parts of the Angola film have been censored by the Luanda authorities.

Some have read pro-this and anti-that elements in her recent work but she is quick to say that she doesn’t care about the personalities involved. ”Whoever is president is not my concern. It’s not an issue for me. I am Egyptian.”

When I ask her what her next project is she says she is reconsidering the profession. ”I am not sure I can do this kind of thing with integrity anymore. The amount of time and money needs a commitment beyond anybody’s desire.”

She says what the broadcasters normally want is flimsy, entertaining films and the days when documentary filmmaking was an entry into debate are now gone.

Still, broadcasters are the only people she will work with: ”I only work with mainstream broadcasters who will broadcast my films. If you want to be heard you have to be in the mainstream. I don’t want to be in the ghetto of the film festivals.”

About Behind the Rainbow she says: ”There is nothing objective; it’s my story. The angle is mine, the choices are mine.” Yet, that’s not entirely true. Her story is South Africa’s story. For that reason it deserves to be seen, if only to spur debate about what the work may not adequately address.

Behind the Rainbow is showing at Cinema Nouveau