SA-born film maker Jon Blair dances with his dark side

It is like watching a big-budget action thriller with squads of burly cops armed to the teeth in combat with drug dealers decked out in bling, surfing gear and guns. There’s thumping hip-hop, lost youths partying way into the night and a preacher roaming the favelas trying to put everyone on to the path of righteousness.  

Blair was born in South Africa but he left the country in the late sixties. Today, he bears an ungainly title: Al Jazeera English’s acting commissioning editor for major series, specials and discussion programmes. Yet in the time between leaving the country and becoming commissioning editor for Al Jazeera, he has produced a remarkable body of work that has earned him just about every award in his profession, including an Oscar in 1996 for his documentary Anne Frank Remembered.

At this month’s Encounters documentary film festival, Blair will present a showcase of works made for Al Jazeera’s Africa ­Investigates series. But the occasion is marked also by the showing of three of Blair’s major works. Dancing with the Devil (2009), Anne Frank Remembered (1995) and Reporters at War: Dying to Tell a Story (2004).  

You seem to be drawn to quite depressing stories. What is the ­origin of your interest in stories about conflict?
I don’t know if I should tell you this, but basically, I am still the seven-year-old boy in short trousers in Jo’burg who is bullied ruthlessly at his primary school.

I grew up in Parktown, very close to Wits University. I started school very young, much younger than normal South African kids start school and I had the misfortune of being really bookish and not very sporty.

So why should I be someone who has always been interested in the underdog, which is another way of putting it? I suspect that it might have some origin — and I had that sense as a kid — in my having been an outsider, which is pretty much where I have been coming from for the rest of my life.

When I was 16, I was drafted into the South African army because I was in standard nine. I had already stayed back for one year at one point because I just could not cope with the social issues of being so much younger than everyone else. And there was just no way in a gazillion years I would do the army. So I managed to get a short-term passport. I was 16 and I left and never came back.

If you look at a theme in my work, which I guess is where we have to come to, there is an interest in several things. One is what makes certain people stand out and be different. The first example I can think of, an obvious example, is Oskar Schindler.

What interested me about him was, here is a guy who is a drunkard, a womaniser, a black marketer. If you look at the credit and debit sheet of goodness, this guy did not actually appear heavily on the good side. And yet he did something that almost no one else did. So that kind of intrigued me.

Yet, in some of the films, one experiences a form of voyeurism. Does it not worry you that some works might play into our love of shock and horror?
If it was only voyeurism, then I have completely failed. If, on the other hand, out of watching this stuff you get some insight into the nature of the world we live in, it will be a bonus in my point of view. If a small number of people will feel they have seen the world in a different way and, even better still, will want to change it, then I have hit the jackpot in my own personal ambition.

Having had these first-hand experiences, in the drug world in Dancing with the Devil, looking at war zones in Reporters at War and in prejudice in Anne Frank, do you think these works show the triumph of the human spirit, or are we lost?
We are not lost, self-evidently, because there are amazing stories of individuals and societies that transform. When I came to South Africa [in 2007], I had to defend another film that I made about murder and crime here. It is titled Murder Most Foul, narrated by Sir Anthony Sher. It effectively takes as its starting point the [Brett] Golden and [Richard] Bloom murders in Cape Town and looks at some of the issues regarding violence in South Africa. Some people would say: Why are you concentrating on this stuff and who are you to concentrate on this stuff? You do not live in the country anymore and let us look at the amazing, good things that have happened.

My view is that we have to confront the world that we live in with its issues and its problems. We have to understand it.

My job is not to tell you how to move forward. I am only a journalist or a filmmaker. My films are not prescriptive in that way, which I think is really important. There are filmmakers, many of whom I respect, who are basically advocacy filmmakers.
I prefer people to come to their own solutions.

In Reporters at War, you have a war correspondent asking: “I’m risking my life unnecessarily, why am I doing this?” Somebody else says: “I scream in my sleep.” Have you been affected by full-scale combat?
Do I have post-traumatic shock syndrome? I don’t think I do, partly because I have a pretty solid family life. Also, I do not go out of my way to put myself in combat situations; I am too old. The Rio film Dancing with the Devil was probably the first time [in a combat situation] in quite a long time and actually the first time that I have been in full combat gear. It would have been foolhardy when we were going into battle with those cops not to be wearing that. In fact, we were better equipped than the cops. They all wanted to have our gear. The drug dealers and the cops both offered us money for our kit.

Yes, but what has been the effect on you of this bleak but uplifting subject matter? At the end of a working day …
After I did my Schindler film, I swore I would never do another Holocaust film. I felt I had made my kind of statement about the Holocaust and I did not want to get typecast. After you do a film like that, which was relatively successful — wins a British Academy Award and all the rest — people come to you and they say: “Have I got a story for you …”

Actually, it is pretty horrible going home at night having watched huge amounts of this footage day after day. So when a woman came to me and asked me to make a film about Anne Frank, I said: “Absolutely not.”

I thought everything that had been said about Anne Frank had probably been said. It was only when she pointed out to me that I was wrong about the last thing, that all the films up to that point had taken as their starting point the diary and not the girl, it occurred to me that I had the opportunity, if I had the money, to make the definitive film biography of Anne Frank.

How was the selection made for the Encounters festival? It is ­introducing you to many who do not know you.
I gave the organisers the first opportunity to choose what they wanted. I did then make a few minor tweaks because I felt that, stylistically, each of these films is very different. They represent, from a filmmaker’s point of view, a different solution to different problems. What I wanted to do was illustrate that, at least within my work, I am reasonably diverse in my approach and that essentially I am a storyteller.

Encounters happens in Cape Town at Nu Metro on the V&A Waterfront and in Johannesburg at Nu Metro Hyde Park Corner and at the Bioscope, Fox Street from June 7 to 24. Website: encounters.co.za

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Matthew Krouse
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