PO Alum Sees Documentary Film Come to Fruition
Hannah Shoenhard | March 24, 2011, 8:50 p.m.
The dream that Laura Gamse, PO ’07, hatched before the end of her senior year is finally coming to fruition this weekend. The Creators, a film Gamse directed and produced, is being screened in Beverly Hills Sunday as part of the L.A. Film + Music Weekend. A documentary about artists in contemporary South Africa, the film garnered an enthusiastically positive review from Huffington Post blogger and nonprofit activist Tamar Abrams, who wrote, “I've seen many documentaries filmed in Africa, but The Creators stands out for its insistence that attention be paid.…It's a film you won't soon forget.”
Arthur Horowitz, chair of the Pomona Theater and Dance Department, who saw a rough cut of the film in October, praised Gamse’s connection with her film crew and the artists interviewed for the project. “I suspect she’s somebody we’re going to be hearing out a great deal for the rest of her career,” he said. Gamse made the film as part of the Fullbright scholarship she won.
The Creators will be screened at 12:15 p.m. on Sunday, March 27 at Laemlle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills (not to be confused with Laemlle Claremont 5). The film is also being screened at the Writer’s Guild Theatre, also in Beverly Hills, this weekend, but you must be a member of the Writer’s Guild of America or a guest to attend.
The L.A. Film + Music Weekend is going to be held in Beverly Hills from the 25th through the 27th. Over twenty feature-length films are to be screened, as well as many more shorts and music videos.
What follows is an interview with Gamse, conducted via email:
Question: What sparked your interest in South Africa?
My Fulbright proposal grew directly out of my self-designed major at Pomona, which was called “Social Activism through Media and Art.” My courses at Pomona centralized around this theme, approaching it from the perspectives of Politics, Media Studies, and Theatre. I made a couple short documentaries in classes at Pitzer, and wrote my thesis on South African counterculture arts as the fuel of anti-apartheid activism. Without the encouragement of Professors like Art Horowitz and Claremont McKenna’s James Morrison, I might never have applied for the Fulbright, or made such an ambitious proposal.
Question: What about film activism?
I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a kid. My parents were strict, to the extent that I was once grounded for watching a commercial. (The only other person I know with a similar parental upbringing ended up directing porn, so I think it might be a technique that backfires.) As a result, I was very aware from a young age of the effect that media had on the viewpoints of my friends - mostly because I wasn’t watching the tv and movies that they were.
Question: Did you go to South Africa specifically with plans to make a film about artists there?
I moved to South Africa on a Fulbright research grant, and I was always planning to make a documentary on artistic activism during my Fulbright year. I had proposed to make a documentary featuring three Johannesburg-based media organizations, but I soon gave up that idea in favor of a more organic approach. The feeling of life in South Africa is so different from that of the US, Asia, Europe - anywhere else I’ve been. I wanted the audience of The Creators to experience that - not just watch a news-magazine-type piece about “social change in the rainbow nation.”
Question: How did you meet the artists you interviewed?
I searched for artists constantly my first year in South Africa. I would go to open mic nights, meet with established artists, drop in on lectures at Universities, meet with professors, and ask everyone I met to name their favorite South African artist. The scary thing was the number of blank stares I got in response to that question. South Africa is so inundated with American music and art that many people you meet on the street struggle to name a great local artist. I searched nonstop for six months, and found nothing. Nothing that really grabbed me, or felt true or original and unique.
Then I started hearing rumors about an opera singer with a knife scar stretching the side of his face. I heard that he owned one CD, an opera CD, and had taught himself to sing by imitating Pavarotti’s voice. My cinematographer and I drove three hours out of Cape Town to the township this guy supposedly lived in. We asked anyone on the street whether they had heard of him. This was a little difficult in isiXhosa (the language with lots of clicks, as you may know it) but eventually we met the cousin of one of his friends. She told us that Mthetho was in Cape Town - where we had come from. After that we met up with him back home. After we shot the documentary, his shack burned down and he moved in with my cinematographer and me this past December.
Question: What do the artists think about the film? All of the artists have different opinions about the film. None of them have been easy to please, but that was never the purpose of the film. I tried to work with each artist to create a piece incorporating their perspective, the fabric of their reality, but not dominated by it. The editor, Jacques de Villiers, and the cinematographer, Bernard Myburgh, also played a huge role in the final look and feel of the film.
Question: What challenges did you face while you were there? What is your fondest memory of your time making the film?
Best experience: On some level, I traveled to South Africa to prove to myself that there was creativity to be found in the most stark conditions - conditions in which a society and government has attempted to forcibly stamp out a people’s culture. I had no doubt that there would be. What I was surprised by, was how successful the apartheid government had been at introducing a hierarchy of cultures that cut so deeply into the Xhosa, Zulu and San heritage. You’ll be hard pressed to find everyday African clothing in the cities of South Africa. You’ll find it even harder to meet a white South African wearing traditional African jewelry. These overt choices reflect a more subversive mentality that one might expect only fifteen years after the fall of apartheid. But I was most surprised by its effect on the music coming out of the townships. Many of the artists who gave me demos sounded like young R. Kelly’s or Celine Dions. I have no problem with global musical flux, but it should be a two-way street, and a lot of what I heard was more copying than creating. The unique South African sounds that had thrived during the segregation and cultural boycott of the apartheid era seemed to be almost gone by the time I got to the country in 2009.
After asking everyone I met, “Who is your favorite South African artist?” over my first six months in the country, I ran into another Fulbrighter in Cape Town who introduced me to Ongx Mona. Ongx is one of the few musicians I met who sings in isiXhosa, his first language, and is not afraid to write lyrics about his culture. He also wasn’t afraid to openly begrudge me for being a “rich white girl.” On the first day we met, he said, “Do you know what your people did to I? They came with their Bible and said, ‘Kneel down, close your eyes and pray.’ We closed our eyes, we prayed, and when we opened our eyes and all our land was stolen!” Ongx usually follows this joke with a long howl of laughter. We eventually won each others’ trust, and he invited me to “Warongx Studios.” This was my first time driving (stick shift, on the left-hand side of the road) at night in a township, and given their reputation as one of the most dangerous places on earth to spend a Friday night, I was definitely apprehensive. Ongx directed me through crowds of people filling the tiny streets, and we finally pulled up to a shack. Made out of aluminum and cardboard scraps, this shack was about the size of a single bed. I thought that this must be the place where Ongx kept his instruments, and that we were going somewhere else for the performance. But soon we were joined by Ongx’s drummer, his bassist and pianist, they all crammed into the tiny space, and I sat on a bucket with a friend for the most intimate performance of our lives.
Ongx’s music is influenced by Bob Marley and Burning Spear, but he makes it his own with lyrics and melodies that should be traveling far beyond the walls of “Warongx Studios.” That night, I decided to help make it happen for Ongx, and that is still my foremost goal in promoting this documentary.
About a week after I arrived in South Africa, I went to an all-night “Isicathamiya” concert to try to find a musician to feature in the documentary. Isicathamiya is a style of vocal music which often features competitions between groups that run from 10 PM until 5 AM on a Saturday night. Traveling with a Watson scholar I met in Durban, we pulled up to the concert and I immediately recognized the name of the street we were on - it was the one street my CouchSurfing host had told me not to go to, day or night. We got into the concert and I noticed their DIY security system - a towering pile of chairs blocking one door, and a man holding a rope, which was tied to the handle of the other door. I figured the event’s coordinators had security under control, and I watched about five hours of Isicathamiya before dozing off to sleep. Unfortunately, I was the only white person in the room and the Zulu elders didn’t think I was safe. Despite my protests, they escorted me out into the alleyway, where they locked me up in one of the elder’s offices - a tiny room with cockroaches crawling the floors. (I did try to protest - but arguing against the decisions of the elders was easier said than done.) They assured me that they were locking every lock on the door - “Four locks!” - and that they would come to get me in the morning. Soon after they left, I heard someone in the alleyway outside fiddling with the locks. Soon I heard the first lock drop to the floor, and then the second. It was at this inopportune moment that I first learned about “airtime” - phones in South Africa don’t work unless you buy airtime at the drugstore, and mine had just run out. I ended up shouting for help at the top of my lungs. By the time my friends got to me, all four locks had been opened. I was lucky enough to not find out who was on the other side of that door. The next day, as I was interviewing a woman about Athol Fugard, bb gun bullets were shot through the window of her home. She barely noticed it. I eventually learned to take the chaotic environment in stride, but it took some time. Walking around the townships with $10k of camera gear was frightening at first, but the artists in the documentary took good care of me. In the end, the townships were the one place where I wasn’t robbed or threatened.
Question: What was your goal in making the film/ what message do you want people to get out of it?
Millions of people in the developed world are bored with the narrowminded and over-satiated media - millions in the developing world are literally starving while creating art that Hollywood’s best writers could never dream up. There is a disconnect.
I hope audiences will become a bit more inquisitive about what goes on in the corners of the world we never hear about in the mainstream media. And I hope that viewers will get fed up with the repetitive sounds we hear on the radio, and the stale sagas we watch on TV, and begin actively searching for more original sounds and stories.
Question: Where do you plan to go from here? What’s your next project?
Next, I’d love to make a film on Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe. Not a pedantic “look at this evil dictator!”-type film, but something that delves into the source of his megalomania on a personal level. I’ve been a fan of Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma’s democracy leader) since my time at Pomona, but the world has yet to seriously pressure Burma’s government to stop killing and torturing its citizens, creating child soldiers, planting land mines, etc. I think a major film showing life from the perspective of a tyrant might get some attention.
Dictators are so misunderstood (jk).