Same direction, different journeys
Beatrice Moeller is a Germany-born, Berlin-based film-maker who spent the first seven years of her life in South Africa. She has returned often, and been faced with a changing society.
In 2007, she started work on Shosholoza Express, a documentary film that examines the thoughts and opinions of people who take the Shosholoza Meyl train across the country.
The Shosholoza Meyl is a train service that runs between Durban, Cape Town, East London, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
It is a journey that forces people from many different backgrounds to share the same space for up to 27 hours, and, to Moeller, was the perfect opportunity to interrogate the South African psyche.
What are the themes of the film?
Everyone is equal in the new South Africa, black and white, Indian and coloured. On a train ride aboard the Shosholoza Express, they encounter their differences.
Twenty years after the end of apartheid, nothing is the same as it was, nor is it anything like the way it is supposed to be.
The film is a very special journey.
As all the passengers are on the same train, going in the same direction, they are not all in the same compartments. This idea plays itself out as a strong metaphor for moving forward.
As the film travels through modern metropolises, destitute townships and beautiful endless landscapes, it tells a tale of lasting resentments, inner conflicts and lingering prejudices
What made you come to South Africa? What is your background, and did you always want to make a film?
I spent my first seven years in Pretoria, and my sister and I attended an Afrikaans pre-school.
I had a beautiful childhood in this country, and even though we moved back to Germany and I had to leave so many friends behind, South Africa was always a big part of my life. It had a strong influence on who I am today.
I finished my high school years in Germany and continued my education at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, where I studied design and film.
During my travels back to South Africa I rarely left my “white bubble”, which had surrounded me since I was a small child. There was somehow never the need to look beyond that bubble that I knew so well. In my family there was not much conversation about the life beyond and the struggle that actually went on in this country.
I became fed up with my professional life in Germany, and I knew I had to work on my own projects as a film-maker, and I felt I had to come back. With a scholarship from the DAAD (German Exchange Service) I managed to finance myself. I came back to South Africa and finally started to ask questions: What happened in this country when I was little? Why did my parents decide to come here? What did all the different people go through? What is happening in this country today? How are the people dealing with their wounds of the past? Why is this country where it is today?
Why did you use trains and train journeys to tell this story?
Although all my friends and close family friends advised me against taking the local trains in South Africa, I was convinced by the idea that these trains must actually represent the new South Africa in a very special way, and I had to find out for myself. On some trips, people travel 27 hours on the same train. That means they have lots of time. They can relax, and they have time to think.
On the train you meet all kinds of different people—ordinary people of this country who all have a story to tell, who have time and need to tell their story and to listen to others telling theirs.
Not only does the train reflect on South Africa as a society, its name also has a very special meaning for this country: Shosholoza means “move forward”.
For me, the train is a metaphor: it is the journey of this fascinating country. It hasn’t arrived at its destination yet, but it surely is on its journey to get there.
This film is not only a film about how I see South Africa today. It is also a journey into my past and the need to find out what happened in the time I lived here, and the need to find out why my parents never looked beyond the white bubble they where living in.
Tell me a bit about the film-making process. How did people react to being filmed?
To be able to produce Shosholoza Express, I took train rides to different destinations within South Africa, about 25 times, each trip being about 27 hours long.
This process would not have been possible without the support of the local production company, The Film Factory, in Johannesburg and our production coordinator, Lucia Meyer.
It was an amazing and adventurous process. We had no security problems at all and the majority of the people were more than willing to talk to me. Not only did I ask all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask, I also told passengers my story and why I had all these questions.
It was often more like a conversation than an interview. It was amazing to discover that the people on the train and in general were very happy and willing to tell their story—as if this country has a big need to talk much more about the past and to heal.
How were you treated as a “foreigner” wanting to make a film about South Africa? Do you think you have enough background knowledge to make a film about this country? Were you met with any resistance?
Because I speak Afrikaans and English very well and because of my own history, I believe I have a sometimes subjective, sometimes objective perspective on South Africa. This was very special and helpful and I believe that is why my story has such heart.
It is not that I only wanted to know about these people. I also shared my story with them. I think that made a big difference. People didn’t necessarily see me as a foreigner. They realised that I am familiar with the country and so I could read all the little undertones and “between the line” topics. People were quite surprised that I could speak their language.
What did you learn from making the film?
Making the film was an amazing process for me. I went so deep into South African history and learned about the personal stories that all kinds of South African people are carrying around with them.
I was and still am amazed, fascinated, speechless, sad, happy, astonished, angry, hopeful and motivated. I love this country and the spirit of the people. I learned a lot about my own past and I think I learned to be more tolerant towards all different kinds of people who have experienced this particular history.
There are many paths you have to choose in life, and people do their best to make the right decisions. I met amazing people who didn’t fit the clichés at all. I see this country with completely different eyes today.
What have foreign audiences made of the film?
Foreign audiences, and especially the German audience, have been very touched by the film. Many people did not know about this very complex history. Most of the people think apartheid is “black and white” and that now all is fine. Some didn’t know that coloured people existed. The people are completely mesmerised by the beauty of this country and they can sympathise with the people on the train.
Maybe it is because of our own German history, coming from a divided country that became united at about the same time that South Africa got rid of apartheid.
What will South African audiences make of the film?
We’ve had two screenings in Cape Town already. The response was amazingly good. I was so overwhelmed by the discussion afterwards. It was as if the audience was suddenly reminded of their own history and their own wounds.
I realised, yet again, that there is still such a need for South Africans to talk and to actually listen to each other’s stories in order to overcome the past and to heal. There were long discussions about the healing of a nation and that the people are not really listening to each other anymore.
After the film screening, there were also conversations between the old and the younger generations of this country. A young gentleman stood up and said: “I wasn’t aware of all the things that were happening in the past. My grandparents do not talk about it.”
I could go on about the beautiful responses, but please come and find out for yourself.
. For more information go to the film’s website.