Picturing Ponte

In 2001 the KwaZulu Natal-born television journalist and filmmaker Ingrid Martens won the CNN African Journalist of the year award.

Among her achievements is the recent documentary titled Africa Shafted — Under One Roof which, over a period of four years, explores the lives of non-south Africans in Africa’s tallest building: Ponte. This look at the struggles of newcomers to the city shows at this year’s TriContinental Film festival, currently showing in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town.

How long did it take you to do the documentary, and who funded it?
It was a five-year-project and no one funded me. I tried not to take money from people fearing dropping the integrity of the project because sometimes some people who give funds might need to control you. So I wanted to be independent on that project.

How much did you invest in the documentary?

It was more a case of time and energy. I filmed it, directed it, edited it and I produced it with help from friends who believed in the message. So I really can’t tell how much in terms of money.

What is your opinion of Ponte?
Ponte was like a home to people who lived there, of course no one would feel at home far from his or her real home but at least being at Ponte was, for them, a great relief. I have travelled everywhere in Africa; I have been comfortable in Lagos, Kigali, Nairobi and anywhere else I went without being harassed. However, when I realised that I could meet people of all these different countries at Ponte, and that I don’t have to travel very far to experience the beauty of this continent, I decided to go there and see how it feels.

I must admit that it took me time to make connections and build relationships with the people at Ponte but at the end the whole process was wonderful; people at Ponte were very wonderful.

Do you think your documentary has helped non-South Africans since, in one way or another, it portrays the struggles they go though in South Africa?
I never intended to do something about xenophobia. I wanted to show the colourfulness and humanity of people coming in from across the continent, something often misunderstood. I just wanted to challenge the stereotype but then the issue of xenophobia came up. People watching this film have to look at their own prejudice, including us South Africans.

The notion that we call a hundred and fifty million people from Nigeria strangers, and the fact that we come from such a background in terms of our history poses a challenge to think about xenophobia. But [the documentary] also reinforces the story about South Africa not being a convenient place, this is how the western part of the continent thinks about us and maybe it’s because of the reflection they have.

If you were non-south African how would you feel being treated badly in this country?
It is bullying. South Africa is referred to as the America of Africa and that’s it. But if we are not careful we might be creating an environment in which we resist others. We have to think in our hearts about changing our arrogance because we also travel to other countries.

What do South Africans think about the documentary?
I would like this to reach people at schools and the whole younger generation of South Africa. Once, when it was shown at one of the festivals, people laughed. But there was a point when everyone fell silent. This means they were taken away by what they were watching. South Africa is very diverse, there are all these stereotypes around the world about South Africa but the truth is in that building [Ponte]. There were [foreign] people who were educated compared to maybe more than 90 per cent of South Africans themselves. So it should make us think of distributing power to the community instead of holding onto our prejudice.

What difficulties did you go through as you were filming the documentary?
Being on top of that building. I thought that was the end! Getting over my own fear about the building. Getting the music to support my documentary took a long time. It took three years to get support from the musicians because I really wanted to have different tunes from different the countries of Africa that were present at Ponte. It was a bit difficult to do something without funding anyway.

How many documentaries have you done so far?
I am a TV journalist so I have done news and current affairs but I can’t tell you how many. There may be a hundred and more. I have done more features than documentaries but I have also done some documentaries funded by the UN. There was work about young girls. I did these two by myself, but the Ponte documentary was done at my extra time, during my daily breaks and that is why I had more personal control.

What are your future plans?
I have returned to the SABC because I am passionate about public service broadcasting and I am busy doing something for the 24 News Channel — for the foundation. I also want to do a documentary about our heroes and I will not say more about this just wait and you will see.

Many African countries have been in trouble recently; do you think you can use your career to help people who are suffering in those countries?
Working with the public service broadcaster within the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation is quite different from me as an individual. But I believe that as we look up to the BBC and CCN we can plan to go to the places [further afield]. There we can tell the stories from those areas. But there is no doubt that we can have the same stories downtown in Johannesburg.

Filmmaker Ingrid Martens is the director of the documentary Africa Shafted-Under One Roof that forms part of the TriContinental Film Festival. It will show at The Bioscope, Main Street Life, on September 16 at 3pm, at Cinema Noveau, Rosebank, on September 17 at 3pm and on September 18 at 5.15pm. It will show in Cape Town at Cinema Nouveau, V&A waterfront on September 18 and 21 at 6.15pm.

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