Tell them we are here, from here

Fear. Fire. Laughter.
Poster child: Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave’s charred body. Undoubtedly, the xenophobic violence that gripped South Africa in 2008, remains etched in the pshyche of and enacted by perpetrators, spectators and purveyors alike.

Johannesburg-based Nigerian filmmaker, Akin Omotoso, shared with Chimurenga on how the image of Nhamuave impressed him to direct and write Man on the Ground: a drama that skilfully exposes the contrasts, symbols and general complexities that inform the landscape to navigating the South African life.

Starring Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Fana Mokoena, Fabian Adeoye Lojede, Makhaola Ndebele and Bubu Mazibuko. Man on the Ground premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2011 to stellar reviews.

Chimurenga: The media account of the 2008 xenophobic violence mainly spoke of nameless and faceless victims or “others”. Is Man on the Ground an attempt to provide a more subjective take on the events?  Did the local, South African, cultural & socio-econo-political framework assist in the narration process?
Akin Omotoso: It was important from the beginning that the characters in the film had to have history. I have always found the reporting problematic at the best of times when violence breaks out so it was very challenging to wade through the research, always looking for the “human factor” first. It was also important to fight against “the othering” in the film. We discussed it daily and it was a very conscious choice on how the representations of all characters on all sides of the battle were positioned.

The topic is (also) highly volatile and everyone has a perspective on what should be done/ what isn’t being done. It was imperative to read and pile through the research we commissioned to be able to then take a step back and say: this is what the film is going to attempt to do. The violence is so prevalent not just in our society but other countries in the world that one almost doesn’t have to try too hard to fight the information-migration, immigration - violence against immigrants are coming faster than twitter updates. That prevalence was going to be an important step in the film.

The struggle is to be objective, but film is subjective of course because you are telling people to look here, and then look at this, so it’s a constant battle. We had a manifesto on what the central theme will be and the kind of change we wanted to affect. As members of civil society we want to make a statement. Art can take us so far and then humans have to do the actual work. The key philosophy was that no matter what side of the divide you are on, there is NO justification for killing anyone. In the research a young boy was asked about the violence and he said (of his attackers): “Tell them we are from here”. Here, for me, being planet earth.

Your reported hope that the film would convey an appeal for healing goes beyond providing just another South African production on violence. How does your film achieve this?
Like i said, civil society is important. Our aim is to take the film into the communities and start discussions. The film shouldn’t just play in multiplexes but actually go into the communities affected by violence and screen it there as a way to stimulate, hopefully constructive dialogue. That for me is hopefully the beginning of healing. The art side of the divide, is that it is a film and it should entertain as a film and it should be in a genre that people recognise. So that side was also important. My heroes are Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Haile Gerimma, Raoul Peck. You can dance to Bob or Fela at any point (they didn’t let us down musically) and they didn’t let us down politically. Same applies with Haile and Raoul.

Do you see the film as a means of re-reporting on the xenophobic violence of 2008?
Absolutely. I see it as a re-reporting on how we see ourselves and what we make of ourselves and also that (whilst) the violence is happening to “others”, it’s happening to us. A journalist asked me at the time if I was scared for my life and I said to her,” you should also be scared because today it’s Ernesto tomorrow it’s you.” People make choices and the film is all choices. Some communities didn’t kill and haven’t killed anyone.

Furthermore, with all this talk of multiculturalism having failed that is making the rounds in Europe, I say that we as Africans are a multicultural continent. The challenge of learning to live with one another is the challenge we face now and have always faced. We can’t afford for it to fail.

Please share the process and some themes that arose from researching the project.
The process started with the picture of Ernesto Nhamuave. I saw the picture and was immediately struck by the horror of it. I phoned Hakeem kae-Kazim and Fabian Adeoye Iojede and said we had to do something cinematic, but we didn’t have a story. We commissioned the research. The lady we hired came back three months later with tons of files, videos, testimonies, books, pictures-everything. We then poured through the research and from that we started teasing out the story. Last year after the World Cup (where there were rumours of attacks) the story came to us and we started writing.

This year, we decided to produce the film. We opted for the crowd funding approach so that the ethos of making the film reflected the ethos of the film. We received donations from across the world, sponsorships that allowed us to have the locations we wanted and the equipment we wanted. Rosie Motene joined us as a producer at this time. Just as we were in the middle of shooting, one of our donors disappointed us. We almost had to shut down production.

Fortunately AK Tshabalala of ChrisDon productions was able to step in and help us so we could continue shooting. The National Film and Video Foundation came on board for Post Production. We have partnered with The International Organisation for Migration and City Press to help with the community initiatives. We also premiered in Toronto in September and we cannot wait for the film to be on ground.

For more from Chimurenga Chronic, see our special report.

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