Film Review The Creators: When Art and Activism Collide in South Africa
Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, September 4, 2011 0:00 - 3 Comments
“If you are looking for Hell, ask the artist where it is. If you cannot find an artist, then you are already in Hell”
After a gorgeous Friday evening at the theatre I came home to find an eagerly awaited package from South Africa lying on my bed. I was tired but couldn’t wait to watch ‘The Creators’, a documentary that explores the reality of post-apartheid South Africa through its artists.
My first visit to Cape Town back in 2009 left me winded, I was falling in love with a city that was jaded, uncomfortable, and ugly as it was beautiful. As a postcolonial British student dedicated to undoing systems of domination, the reality of South Africa was profound to me.
Cape Town and its inequalities were stark; traces of apartheid were visible and still strung across its landscape, the people that inhabited it, and the socio-political sphere that was once home to many anti-apartheid leaders. My love affair with South Africa as a whole had begun and now nearing my third visit, I’ve become impatient to dig deeper into a country with a history that retains a heavy hold on its present.
When Laura Gamse, one half of the duo that directed this powerful documentary, contacted me earlier this month I was excited; little did I know that it would leave me feeling overwhelmed and inspired.
The Creators takes viewers through a dynamic journey, bridging the lives and stories of very separate and different artists from all over South Africa. It begins with unearthing their very distinct gifts and the narratives that accompany them. Graffiti artist Faith47 brings dilapidated townships alive creating murals centred around the ANC Freedom Charter, a testament to not only keep post-apartheid governments in check but to evoke a sense of empowerment that the Charter was once grounded upon.
Afro-blues band Warongx reveal the reality of struggling African Xhosa artists in an increasingly Westernized music industry, to tell stories that can only be really understood in their mother tongue, a message that can’t be diluted. B-Boy Emile Jansen uses Hip Hop as a platform to nurture young people into personhood, a self-actualization outside of material depravity forcing them to express themselves in ways they can take ownership over their own lives, particularly in white spaces traditionally outside of their comfort zone.
One of the most powerful tales for me, however, was that of tenor singer Mthetho Mapoyi who discovers Opera through a CD his father had owned growing up. In tentatively watching him record a few songs in the hopes of attracting a sponsor, his producer proclaims “singing is supposed to make you happy”.
Gamse juxtaposes Mapoyi’s state of loss, sadness and socio-economic hardship with a talent that is often deemed racially and economically exclusive, a high culture and luxury that comes with White Supremacy and Capitalist wealth. As he uncovers his own life experiences, what has brought him this far, he gently clings onto what faith music has left him with: “let me just live with my voice, do things with my voice, trying to see if my voice will be my mum, my father, my everything”.
Opera for Mapoyi becomes not only about creation and transcendence, it becomes a way of working through the pain that is definitive of a life familiar to over half of the South African population currently living below the poverty line.
Co-director Gamse came to South Africa on a Fullbright Scholarship from the U.S. in the hopes of exploring the ways in which underground arts had communicated messages once stifled by apartheid censors. Curious to see if they still served and participated in activist frameworks, she uncovered a much deeper reality than she had initially anticipated. “When I got here, I realized slowly that the impact of the Bantu education system was so much more drastic than I could have understood from the various books and documentaries I had read and watched in the U.S,” she says.
As a result, Gamse and her South African team ended up looking at South Africa’s attempt to reconsolidate itself after fifty years of destructive oppression, critically engaging and giving voice to those who actively attempt to address a raw and what seems septic wound.
The Creators draws on not only narrative reconstruction and historicizing disparaging experiences in a country that remains divided, but creating a space in which cultural resistance becomes crucial in conceptualizing a volatile, collective history. What becomes evident in some essence is continuity; where art and cultural formation create/challenge identities based on multiple but shared, converging histories.
There is no break; the end of apartheid in 1994 did not signal the end of a system that had formally and informally governed South Africa for centuries. For all these artists, however, there was no ‘discovery’ of South Africa: its entire conception was born of theft, a theft that has been reshaped and reinvented over decades be it through land, labour, freedom, wealth or human life.
We witness brutal scenes of buildings being torn down, Afrikaaner tanks rolling through the streets and opening gunfire on coloured and black peoples, as Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd speaks on the ‘good neighbourliness’ of Apartheid policy as managing racial differences plays in the back ground. Emile speaks painfully of his youth, a time in which he was but a teenager and was shot at by the police.
A few scenes earlier we are introduced to Blaq Pearl, a spoken word poet who finds solace in creative writing after the brutal murder of her hip hop activist brother Mr Devious several years earlier. Systematic and physical violence are but a daily reality for many, and widespread deprivation clearly shows the interconnectedness of race and class as systems of domination that are maintained in different but similar ways today.
Less than a decade on from the first multi-racial democratic elections and there is much work still to be done, and even more healing to be found. Cultural resistance becomes an ideal space to consolidate identities and difference, to transcend many of the boundaries South African history has attempted to solidify. These artists not only carry their own stories but acknowledge the collective responsibility that accompanies their gift, we see activists immerge: reminding, inspiring, teaching and empowering where those in power fail to do so.
Radical electro/new rave/rap black and white duo Sweat.X re-envision a path of contemporary activism that is proactive in the current socio-political climate; Marcus Wormstrom sees creation as intrinsically linked to manifesting change: “If you, as a human, as an artist, can create something out of nothing and it takes shape for so long that it eventually becomes physical”.
Laura Gamse and Jacques De Villiers beautifully capture the subtleties and complexities of individual lives and broader framework within which they operate. This is seemingly achieved by giving the artists agency, voice and place whilst retaining a constant sense of context.
Art becomes a gift, a way of humanizing one another as individuals and as collectivities in the face of an oppression that attempts to undermine this very same thing. It actively engages some of the most disenfranchised segments of society and what becomes evidently clear in this process is that in carving out spaces for their artistry, these creators simultaneously effect a pertinent type of change: one that breeds empathy, compassion and understanding between, across and beyond the inequalities that remain entrenched even post-apartheid.
If this documentary achieves anything, it is convincing us of the endless possibilities of transformation as these artists take it upon themselves to determine the future of the world around them. If we judge South Africa by its artists, the struggle may continue but change is happening- we definitely aren’t in hell yet!
Hana Riaz is a black muslim feminist, writer, blogger and believer in the transformatory power of love.
To order a copy of the documentary or find out about any local screenings log on to http://thecreatorsdocumentary.com/