In 2015, archeologists working in Cape Town confirmed an abiding truism of South Africa’s history: things never are what they appear to be.
In this instance, a shipwreck a few metres off Camps Bay’s Second Beach, which was considered to have been, since its discovery in the 1980s, that of a Dutch trading vessel, was, in actual fact, established to be the Portuguese slave-trading ship, the São José Paquete Africa.
The ship was carrying between 400 and 500 slaves from Mozambique to Brazil when it sank on 27 December 1794. About 212 slaves had died, still shackled to the São José. The “cargo” that survived was sold in the slave markets of Cape Town.
Their descendants no doubt walk the city’s streets today, fine artist Meghna Singh points out during a telephonic conversation. The remains of the dead exist as a mass grave, and a site of intense historical violence and trauma, only a few metres away from where privileged Capetonians sip cocktails and soak in the city’s sunshine hypocrisies, she adds.
Cape Town, Singh points out in her essay, Enslaved Bodies, Entangled Sites, and the Memory of Slavery in Cape Town, is a city “that denies its past like no other”; one that has “institutionalised forgetting”.
“How do we then think about historical slavery in Cape Town … and how do we then think about modern-day slavery and modern servitude within a capitalist system?” Singh asks. She then points out that the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery Report estimates there are about 24.9-million people working as forced labourers, with about 16-million of them in private economies.
“Most of us never think about what is inside these shipping containers [that enter and exit ports like Cape Town and Durban] and who makes these products. Both the products and the people who make them are invisible, so how do we make them visible?” she asks.
These are some of the lacerating questions that run through the various scenes of Container, a (shorter than 15-minute) virtual reality film that premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival at the beginning of September. Container is co-directed by Singh and her partner, the documentary filmmaker Simon Wood.
Existing at what Singh describes as the intersection of fine art installation and virtual reality, Container is also — elegantly, disturbingly, harrowingly — cinematic.
It defies a common failure of virtual reality film-making where substance is sacrificed for often gimmicky, textural style. Instead, Container’s tautly scripted series of changing containers/stories combine into a filmic and experiential narrative that moves between an African slave’s journey; to a Bangladeshi sweatshop where sporting goods are being made; to a Korean massage parlour; the parlour of a privileged Cape home; and on to modern-day Clifton Beach itself, where a cosseted white family playing on the golden sands is confronted by history’s ghosts — the dead slaves.
It is a disturbing and visceral exploration of both historical and late capitalism; the latter a moment that has hardened borders for people to move through, yet has ensured those very same obstructions have retained a porousness for the easy flow of capital and products.
In its thoughtful layering, Container echoes popular culture references, from Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave to season two of The Wire, when a container with dead Eastern European women being trafficked into the US is discovered in Baltimore’s port. It reminds one of Venice itself, a centuries-old port city, and intersection between East and West, which, as Amitav Ghosh points out in the novel Gun Island, is increasingly powered by the invisible labour of people from countries like Bangladesh.
But its loudest echo for local viewers would appear to emanate from the violent histories South Africans instinctively render invisible in their search for an easily reconcilable and amnesiac present that negates the traumas carried in labouring black bodies — from the slaves who died on the São José to the striking mineworkers killed by police at Marikana in 2012.
The film emerged from Delhi-born Singh’s doctoral thesis, which combined arts research and migration studies at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. Part of Singh’s research was linked to three ships (the São José, a working diamond mining vessel and another boat which had been arrested in Cape Town with Indian seafarers on board), but it also examines notions of “haunting” and a reckoning between the past’s repression and the present, to find a way to allow the dead to rest in peace by, according to Singh, making a promise to not repeat these violences in shaping the future.
In this pursuit, the immersive nature of virtual reality accentuates what Singh refers to as “sensuous knowledge”, in which responses are triggered not so much in the brain, but in the body. Where “the audience is led through the piece, and they aren’t allowed to turn away” and the viewer’s proximity — and powerlessness — renders their responses more visceral and inescapable.
To this end, the choice to use a more constrained 180° virtual reality format, rather than a 360° one that may also allow the viewer freedom of movement through the virtual containers is significant.
According to Wood, the boundaries of the 180° format have been pushed by the pornographic industry, especially in Japan and China, where the “girlfriend experience” in virtual reality has gained tremendous popularity.
This is the first project on which Wood, who has made award-winning documentaries, including the World Press Photo 2020 online video of the year, Scenes From a Dry City, has worked in virtual reality. He said he was “blown away” by what was possible to achieve in terms of immersion, experience and response.
Virtual reality helped to destroy the traditional border between viewer and screen, while the 180° format also meant that although there is light, movement and storytelling in front, there is complete darkness behind.
This was significant for the British-born Wood, because “that darkness behind me, of deep water, of an unreconciled history, of not knowing, weighed heavily on me”.
The co-directors, who are also partners in life, admit they had to be very careful about what they “showed in the piece and what was left to the imagination”, because of the nature of the material and the potential to traumatise the viewer.
They had to be sensitive, for example, about the film’s drowning scene, for which they had “shot a lot of material”, but had to tread a delicate “dance” between the experience of flailing under water and how far they could take the viewer without causing psychological harm.
The scene in the Korean massage parlour has pitch-perfect direction and acting (especially by the “john”, a sailor played by Albert Pretorius) while leaving just what it needs to the imagination to create a sense of rising sick in the throat.
Yet more than vomit, what rises in Container is the dead. And their memory. And an urgent demand for, as Singh argues, not so much a return to the past, but a reckoning with its repression in the present. A reckoning with something that we may not have actually lost, but, rather, never had.