‘Noma’ uses an intimate and personal vignette to humanise the land issue

Have you ever considered taking the risk of occupying land to build yourself a shack? Noma, a young woman, agonises over this idea and eventually takes the step. Her prospects of having a home are bleak. She owns a small shack, but has to pay rent because it stands in someone else’s overcrowded yard.

Noma pays a few people to help her dismantle the shack and erect it alongside others on vacant land in Philippi, Cape Town. This occurs at night, because Noma spends long days working in a surburban shopping mall food outlet.

Noma allows Spanish filmmaker Pablo Pinedo to accompany her on this journey of worry and hope, disappointment and courage. Their friendship brings the camera close to the ordinary and intimate.

And so a skilfully crafted, colourless film, which is named after its real-life protagonist, takes the audience through a deeply personal and moving roller-coaster of creativity, destruction and endurance.

Noma humanises the struggle for land and housing, through the integrity and community values the audience witnesses. Even the police officers deployed to demolish the occupied shacks are moved by the flower Noma has sprayed on the wall of her shack. They take a photograph before flattening the structure.

The eviction that follows the re-erection of shacks is more violent, disturbingly mirroring the 1950s footage Pinedo inserts earlier in the film. And yet, an emerging community rebuilds again.

Noma won Amnesty International’s human rights award announced at the Durban International Film Festival in June this year.

Its second screening, hosted by student collective Black Studio in the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of architecture and planning, took place last week to a packed audience. In the vibrant Q&A session, many expressed the urgent need to wage a struggle over land, and many empathised with those who live in temporary shacks, essentially out of a suitcase.

Some asked about Pinedo’s choice of cinematographic techniques and the curious incorporation of scenes in which the presence of his camera is commented on. Why no colour? Why Italian music from the 1950s? What has happened since? Does the settlement still stand? Who owns the land and what were their responses to the occupation?

These questions were supplemented by tougher questions on the ethics of making a film about poverty, and the potential for it to become a spectacle or poverty porn. What was the intention behind the film, and why is it that filmmakers from abroad undertake such projects?

Pinedo answered these questions with the sensitivity and openness evident in his film and is clear about his own position. It is the middle class that he hopes to reach, those who give no second thought to the lives of people who serve them in a mall. The need to humanise land occupations through a story like Noma’s stemmed from Pinedo’s experience of shooting eviction footage for use in courts.

But Pinedo has no illusions about the limits of such a film. His angle and unique techniques meant it was impossible to secure sponsorship for the project. It is a hard sell to movie houses, which is all the more reason not to miss the August 20-24 screening of Noma at the Bioscope in Johannesburg or subsequent screening at the Labia in Cape Town.

Marie Huchzermeyer teaches in the school of architecture and planning at Wits University.

Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer
Marie Huchzermeyer is an academic and public intellectual at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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