How much of a stylistic departure was this from your other film works, in terms of approach, and not necessarily the finished product?
Jannous Nkululeko Aukema, director: Deliver Me is my first attempt at documentary filmmaking as a director. I have worked on several documentary films in my capacity as a film score composer (Everything Must Fall, 2018; How To Steal A Country, 2020), but this is the first time I have created and held the process of a documentary work.
As such, it is a kind of departure from my earlier narrative films (Until The Silence Comes, 2018). However, the ethics and aesthetics of my approach have remained quite similar. I work as hard as I can to ensure that my production team is held like a family; that our process is our process and not one dictated by a single voice.
In this film and all my previous work there has been a consistent sphere of interests: migration, postcoloniality, ancestral memory, isolation, overtones of melancholy. If I were to pinpoint one stark difference between this film and my previous one, it would be that I have relinquished trying to play every role.
I was blessed enough in this film not to have to work as the cinematographer, editor, sound designer, et cetera, and rather surrounded myself with an incredibly talented group of people who held me and the process [accountable] in profound and meaningful ways.
I often joke with the film’s producer, Mitchell Harper, that I’m not interested in the Mp4, which is to say, the final export of our efforts. And although there is a fair deal of hyperbole in that joke, it is true for me that what excites me most about filmmaking is its possibilities for communal and familial building. It is a surreal suspension of the present, an amalgamating of different people and perspectives into a collaborative creation. I grew up on the floor of my mother’s film-editing suite. Family and film will always be two inseparable homes for me.
How do you work with the supposed line between documentary and narrative films?
I don’t. And without sounding egotistical, I don’t think there is such a thing as a line between the two. Any technician who has spent five seconds behind a camera or in an edit suite can tell you that documentary filmmaking is a constant journey of making subjective and creative choices that skirt any public definition of “objectivity”.
I don’t believe in cinéma vérité, or at least not in the way people hold it up to be truthful. Whenever I hear that, I’m always taken back to Werner Herzog’s tongue-in-cheek Minnesota Declaration, point number one being: “By dint of declaration the so-called cinema verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”.
I prefer to approach filmmaking, whether documentary or not, with a core set of questions and ethics rather than a dictum about what, for instance, documentary filmmaking is or isn’t. They don’t change whether I work on a “fiction” film or a “documentary” film. I’m deeply interested in poetic resonance, from whatever ancient well it will come from, and that’s generally the direction I try to point the camera in.
Could you explain some of the choices around lighting and sound in this film?
JNA: When I began researching this film, I spent several weeks alongside delivery-bike riders, navigating the routes they drive and the places in which they wait for orders.
Part of this process was directed at gaining a holistic understanding of the conditions under which delivery bike riders work, but also noting what would be the best approach to filming in these locations. Because we shot entirely with natural and locational light, it was really important to focus our work in those areas in which the lighting would underscore the central themes of our film: isolation and alienation.
However, many of the moments we captured were also unplanned, magical grace notes that we could never have manifested without some luck from the lighting gods. In the main, I asked my cinematographer, Elijah Ndoumbé, to follow the advice of the seminal filmmaker, RaMell Ross, to use the camera “as an extension of your consciousness”, filming “with and not at”. This approach invited an intimacy into our images and foregrounded a relationship with the locations and characters that evoked unseen moments.
Highlighting the different roles that light plays in demarcating spaces of access, the colour of light took on a new meaning for us. For instance, the colours of traffic lights, security-vehicle flashes, harsh fluorescent overheads outside cafes — all these different hues had powerful stories to tell about a complex network of human interactions and divisions.
The sound of the film is an extension of these hues. Our phenomenal sound designer, Denise Onen, and myself worked on creating a soundscape that would bring the viewer into our protagonist’s shoes. We worked to create a sonic palette that emphasised the vividness of his world, but also distorted it and undercut it with sounds that spoke to his alienation in this strange place and time. We spent many hours recreating the sound of the spaces we filmed in, viewing the sound design as a musical score in which a directed interplay of sounds could elucidate the inner character of our protagonist and the different worlds he navigates.
How did you find the language to represent motion, stillness and confinement in the film?
JNA: One of the very early choices in the filmmaking process for us was which camera lenses we would use. Luckily, we did not have to spend an excess of time figuring this out, because the non-existent budget made it clear we would be able to use only one lens.
I chose a 50mm lens because I wanted to create the effect of feeling boxed into our world. It is also the lens that sits closest to the human eye, and I believe this, along with our approach to cinematography, brings the viewer into a direct confrontation with the worlds of our character.
Stillness in the film is a quality of our character’s life. He spends numerous hours waiting to make deliveries, and then has short quick bursts to make his orders on time. His rhythmic life is one of long pauses and fast-paced interjections.
We tried our best to also capture the ways in which working on a motorbike allowed our character to break out of these pauses and often difficult, stilted interactions through the freedom of fast-paced movement on his bike. That acceleration could be a kind of small freedom before arriving back to waiting.
This, of course, had a through-line in the film with our character’s narrated journey to South Africa, a journey which involved many hours of waiting and then short decisive moments in which his future would be determined.
What were the biggest hurdles in completing the film?
Mitchell Harper, producer: Outside the obvious challenges of trying to create a
ilm during the national lockdown, which has caused changes to the normal protocol of how films are made, was to create a film on, pretty much, what could be described as a micro budget, but also to create a film that was collaborative in nature and steered away from some of the problematic nature of documentary film.
The film was made in eight months, on a budget of less than R20 000. However, we were blessed with great collaborators in the crew, namely Ndoumbé (director of photography), Onen (sound technician), Catherine Meyburgh (editor), Pupil Visual (post production), and the characters Paul Mwase and Cassandra Mapanda. Without these collaborators, I don’t think it would have been possible to create the type of film we have.
What were some of the lessons for you as a producer?
MH: This was my first film I have produced on my own, and there were so many lessons from the very basic mechanics of making a film. However, I think the biggest lesson is that it was completely possible to make a film that breaks down the hierarchical structures in the production. A lot of what they teach in the process of filmmaking has antiquated notions of power dynamics and for us to make a film that aligns with our personal politics was great. All the crew of the film have equity in the project, and I think this film has set a model for how we will approach filmmaking in the future
What milestone does the film represent for you or your company, Ctrl Alt Shift?
MH: For us, it’s great to complete a project and get it out to the world. As a production company, we hope to create more projects that align with our personal ethos of progressive politics, inclusivity and collaborative nature. These are not only the driving force of our company’s beliefs, but also my own. To view Deliver Me and other films that are part of the festival visit The Encounters South Africa International Film Festival website. The festival runs until 20 June.