The programme for FNB Art Joburg Open City includes a mini art-film festival at NuMetro, Hyde Park Corner. It is organised by Joan Legalamitlwa, a seasoned curator with a professional interest in both art and film. Is it even necessary nowadays to make the distinction between these two artistic media? Perhaps not, but given the ritual dismissal of art films as cinematic non-events bereft of seating, plot and even need for spoiler alerts, a brief defence.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of South African art’s filmic turn. The adoption of film as a preferred medium by local artists has its roots in the radical theatre and performance of the 1980s. Film, however, entered the mainstream only when William Kentridge’s stop-animation film Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old snagged the top prize at the 1991 Cape Town Triennial.
A glance at the catalogue for this travelling showcase reveals a parochial absorption with neo-expressionist painting, drawing and sculpture, which early proponents of art film had to contend with. Kentridge aside, the only other artist working with film featured in the 1991 triennial was Robert Weinek. Nonetheless, a cultural moment was signalled.
One of the hallmarks of Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s brilliant 1997 Johannesburg Biennale was its strong focus on film. Less remarked on is how his ambitious programming and congested layout reduced the experience of films by Steve McQueen and Penny Siopis, among others, to pure collage. Film back then was an ambulant experience marked by simultaneous screenings.
Legalamitlwa, a former director of the Encounters Documentary Festival, knows that films deserve seated respect, not nose-around-the-corner sniffing at. Her programme comprises scheduled screenings of eight films over three days. The selection does not foreground any particular technical approach or subject.
Simon Gush’s SG, 59 Joubert Street, Johannesburg and Tebogo Chologi’s The Shack, both from 2020, explore the psychology and politics of South Africa’s hard lockdown through the minutiae of the domestic interior. Both filmmakers are interested in the precarity of labour, and what happens when it is withdrawn. “I am fortunate to be able to work from home and have a space that is safe,” narrates Gush, whose camera explores his home in Anstey’s Building in central Johannesburg, as well as peers down at police enforcing the health lockdown.
The Shack is also biographical, albeit that the narrator is a one-room dwelling in an unnamed residential area. “Can you imagine people flocking to a meeting just to listen to shacks telling stories?” asks the voice of a shack inhabited by a 45-year-old unwed security guard named Buti. Chologi’s beautifully observed film, which received an award at the 2020 Kismet Virtual Film Festival, never shows us Buti, only the modest things that define him. Lerato Shadi, a South African artist living in Berlin, and Rehema Chachage, a Tanzanian artist currently based in Vienna, both present the black body as a site of ritual and embodied knowledge.
Chachage made her film Letters To … in 2012 after various conversations with family matriarchs. Her split-screen film shows a Tanzanian ritual of kukandwa, hot-water massage performed on new mothers after childbirth. Chachage links this sacrament to a constellation of gendered rituals marked by resistance and subversion.
Shadi’s Mabogo Dinku (2019) is a snappily edited study of various hand movements performed by the artist and accompanied by a Setswana folk song delivered with characteristic rolling Rs. The film is presented without translation.
The frontal camera views and long takes favoured by Shadi and Chachage are also reiterated in the rambunctious films of Botswana filmmaker Moratiwa Molema and Shmerah Passchier from Johannesburg. Both Molema and Passchier come from orthodox film backgrounds, and each is interested in using virtual reality technology to explore the intersection of African cultural history and futurity.
Molema’s The Cosmic Egg (2020) opens in a scrub landscape and features members of the Gaborone-based New Moon Ensemble performing a story about a couple who lose their ostrich eggs to hunters. The film has the quality of a school play, complete with thrifty wardrobe and basic choreography. The film’s do-it-yourself amateurism is its ambition.
Aspirations to slickness have undone many South African films, be they commercial or avant-garde. Passchier’s The Eye of Rre Mutwa (2020), a two-hander featuring Patricia Boyers and performance artist Albert Ibokwe Khoza as Credo Mutwa, is many things, except for slick. In summary, the film offers a speculative reading of Mutwa, the enigmatic Zulu mystic and author who died in March 2020.
“We have lost a human library, a human database, a century of Zulu learning, thought and knowledge, a hundred years of Afro-consciousness,” states a voiceover early into the film.
The zingy wardrobe is a hybrid of Afrofuturist aspiration, à la jazzman Sun Ra circa 1972 in borrowed Egyptian costume, and AfrikaBurn chic. The dialogue is jaunty, but too easily tips over into indictment and academicism. It quotes verbatim Achille Mbembe’s speculation, from a 2015 essay, that: “The African predicament will constitute the main cultural and philosophical event of the 21st century.”
Both Molema and Passchier’s films slot into a riot grrrl idiom of local film. It was ushered in by artist Tracey Rose and has a new star in Tabita Rezaire, a French-born Guyanese-Danish artist based, until recently, in Johannesburg. Stylistically, this fem-positive filmmaking weds slapstick with sprightly amateurism, without forsaking the underlying seriousness of purpose.
The contributions by Cape Town painter Penny Siopis and Egyptian-born French filmmaker Jihan el-Tahri are visually very different, in part because they recall earlier histories and conventions of filmmaking. Both artists were strongly influenced by events predating the “new pantheism” and “black quantum futurism” of Passchier’s generation.
In the late 1990s, William Gálvez’s book Che in Africa lifted the lid on Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara’s clandestine activities in the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo. El-Tahri, an Emmy-nominated director of 15 films, read the book shortly after its publication. Her short documentary Comrades details what happened next.
El-Tahri travelled to Cuba and sought out the surviving soldiers who travelled to the DRC via Tanzania in 1964. She visited Havana neighbourhoods with noticeable black populations, knocked on doors, and asked respondents, “Do you know anyone who fought with Che?”
In all, she found 92 combatants. One of them laughs in her film when he recalls the ill-fitting civilian clothes he and his compatriots wore to hide their identities. The film also includes interviews with Congolese resistance fighters. One speaks of the language barrier separating the Francophone Africans from the idealistic Spanish-speaking revolutionaries with Swahili codenames like Tatu (Che).
El-Tahri’s film details an extraordinary history in a conventional documentary style of witness testimony intercut with archival images. This is not a criticism. If anything, her labour can appear too self evident. One of the difficulties El-Tahri encountered in making Comrades was finding Congolese and Cuban archives to work with. “If we’re going to tell history from our own perspective,” said El-Tahri in 2012, we need to acknowledge the role of images in telling “own story”.
This understanding of images as signifiers of time and place also informs the films of Siopis. In 1997, at the instigation of Enwezor, Siopis made her first film using found footage, My Lovely Day (1997). The film is a collage of antique white rituals that Siopis complicates by adding an autobiographical narrative in the subtitles.
Legalamitlwa has selected Siopis’s acclaimed 2010 film Obscure White Messenger for Open City. The film combines 8mm home-movie footage with the narrative of Demitrios Tsafendas, the slayer of Hendrik Verwoerd, culled from various sources. It is an extraordinarily absorbing film, and moving too in the way it seeks — like Chologi’s The Shack — to penetrate the mind of an unseen protagonist.
In a 2017 essay about Tsafendas, writer Hedley Twidle argues that, in the decades after apartheid, “there is a risk of making [Tsafendas] too meaningful, too quickly”. Siopis knows this, although I am less sure about Passchier, who lionises a man noted for his troubling legacy of collaboration and quackery. I could be wrong.
Decide for yourself.
The Eye of Rre Mutwa and Obscure White Messenger will screen on 30 and 31 October. For the full film programme visit here