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12 November 2007

CONNIE FIELD

Veteran American documentary filmmaker Connie Field was in South Africa in September as a participant in the People to People International Documentary Conference . She also screened her latest work "Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West" to a number of local producers and directors at a gathering at the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking. The photograph (below) appears courtesy of Film Threat where you can read a context piece about Connie Field's work.

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Have You Heard From Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West

While in South Africa, Connie was interviewed by Arya Lalloo. Here is a transcript of their conversation:

Q: As a filmmaker from what (in relation to prevalent themes of the conference) could be referred to as the global north, you operate within an industry that is established in a tradition one could call liberal/progressive cultural practice… From your experience of the conference and our documentary industry, do particular debates and conflicts resonate at all?

A: Well, as I mentioned before, one that really did resonate with me, one I could identify with in terms of our own experience is this issue of who tells whose story and what it means that people tell their own story as opposed to other people telling these stories for them. This is a big issue here, because again it is a situation of basically new access to the media and to the tools of telling that story, and I can relate very much to my own history where we were debating the same things, and it is a real question.

I don’t think there’s any easy answer, because I really don’t think that your identity as a person coming from one culture or ethnic group or another should be the criteria through which you’re allowed to tell a story.
But I think what really is important is we try to learn as much as we can about each others perspectives, so if you’re going about telling a story of another group of people, you try to really understand their perspective and where they’re coming from.

I think that probably - though I didn’t get clear answers about Darfur and its nothing I’ve studied, it was very interesting what got said - there were two things I picked up that were key, other than the question of whose perspective, because the story was told from the perspective of a white soldier. One was the issue of defining it as Arab and Bantu in that country because people really said that that’s not what they see and that’s not what’s going on, and to define it that way in America makes an enemy of the Arab and this resonates.

I was surprised because that’s not how I’d heard anybody hear it in America, nor had I read this opinion in any of the reviews because I did look over those.

That was something that was stirring up in America, but I thought it was interesting, and the other panellists felt that it was much more a political thing- that the janjaweed was put together by the government there and that there were major oil interests in the land that the Bantu were living on, and that that’s the whole perspective it should be put into, and that by delineating Arab and Bantu that point was lost. People also made the point that if you stand these people next to each other you really couldn’t see the difference in a lot of respects- that I understood out of it, which I think was very important.

Q: The session entitled Global Solidarity; between you and Jihan El Tahri a filmmaker from what can be referred to as the global South, there was an intimation that you share a certain set of concerns.

A: Jihans is from Egypt and she was born in Lebanon, and so she considers herself part of this continent, I am obviously not- I was born in America which is why I also chose to take on the global aspect of the liberation campaign here in South Africa. I’m not telling a story that’s from the South African point of view, and I did that consciously, again because of this issue of who tells what story- again I feel that I can tell that story because that’s part of what my life was like, and other people involved as I am- you could call us the north. Of course the story’s not only about that- it involves all that Africa did, and India.

So I suppose she and I share a global interest, her father was a diplomat, and in that sense its similar, and we possibly share a certain perspective. Where I very much come from and this is why I was so interested in doing this project is that I see the worlds ability to change and progress in terms of human rights and human dignity, composed of two elements- one is peoples strengths in fighting for their own rights against incredible odds which this story involves- I mean you were fighting the strongest army on the continent, and the most entrenched white regime on the continent. Then the other side of that is the ability of human beings to care so deeply about the concept and importance of human rights and human dignity that they will dedicate their lives in solidarity with people who are fighting, and its those two things coming together that give me hope for us continually to progress.

The first one is a matter of strength, and having this other component means, (what I show in the international aspect of the campaign- and I think this is true- it comes out in all kinds of our belief systems, that there is a need for a moral structure to our universe- it allows us to participate and gives strength to people who are on the ground fighting. This is what won the struggle here I think, that combination, and it was a combination the liberation movements here decided on and went after, again it was a strategic component of it.

But there’s a couple of things I’d like to talk about with the conference, its was interesting to be an outsider listening to these things. I was taken by the discussion of making films about HIV and AIDS inflicted people – and most of those people live in poverty and what that means. And the challenges that they face. And the fact that they have people as characters in their film who decide they do not want to be seen by anybody, they just didn’t have the strength and then having to work through to try to bring that person to the point where they feel comfortable, so that then six months later they could get the film out. I think people from my country are sensitive about this, but we would probably go and get our release form signed to do that.

And the other thing was the whole thing about working in a milieu of poverty because your really a third and first world country mixed right up against each other. All the kinds of ethical questions about filming poor people and their right to ask for money is a real, serious issue. Doing the film that I did about the Cuban doctors and where the people that they were serving are people who are also fighting great poverty. I was making the film about the doctors so I wasn’t confronted with that question. I have been in other work that I’ve done, so I’ve made an ethical question not to choose that person because I won’t pay them, because I’d only do that if I could pay everybody.
But these weren’t situations where I was dealing with very poor people, I found this dilemma facing documentary filmmakers here absolutely fascinating because its such different circumstances that you work and live in than I do and a lot of American do.

The other session that really interested me was the debate between the producers and the SABC ( South African Broadcasting Corporation) because there’s such a difference about how you’re allowed to do your work here, and you have to rely on SABC and these kinds of sources as they’re the only sources for funding. We’re in a very different milieu and largely because of our government agencies, you’ve got some here with the film resource unit (NFVF) Eddie Mbalo does and it funds things, but its small. Whereas we have and its probably the largest establishment of private and public funders in the world in the U.S.A and that’s an enormous resource for us as filmmakers and it allows us an enormous independence in terms of topics and visions and how we make our films and the fact that we have in our public broadcasting, speciality slots that are for these independently produced documentaries, like Independent Lense and POV. We also have other avenues like HBO and Showtime, that will buy up peoples work and fund some of it, but we’ve got a space were we can operate that you don’t have and it makes a huge difference.

Q: The Keynote address by Professor Bhekisiswe Peterson confronts the value of Steve Biko’s thinking for self- referential documentary filmmaking in the South. “A system will not concede what’s not demanded”

One of your chosen aesthetics and forms- that of revisiting past popular struggles/grassroots movements could be seen as a record of ways to intervene upon/effect change within or against a certain system/ set of praxis. In this way it transcends documentary to become an example of a particular democratic process. Do you conceive of your work as being functional, in the sense that it presents a thorough seemingly objective case- study of sorts, for use by future civic activists?

A: Yes and I guess in that way the work that I do is a reflection of that concept that was presented at the conference, and because it is about stories that portray that, that things are demanded from your political systems and what it takes to win those demands.

I grew up in a period where I didn’t know anything about this. When I participated in the social movements during those times, one of the things that we were amazed at- which is why I think that a lot of us activists then, made a lot of historical films as our first films. We were reading about things in the past and we realised that these things were never taught to us. It’s not taught in America, where social security and unemployment insurance comes from, which is from people who were demonstrating for the communist and socialist parties in the United States for the vision of the twentieth century who felt that this is how we’re going to solve our problems of inequality. That got picked up by a Roosevelt and then implemented and that’s not how those things were taught to us, we were taught they came from Roosevelt, and history is taught as a history of great men, and we learned that that isn’t it, and that people are part of making that history and it’s a dynamic between the two, and it greatly fed what we were doing and gave us a different sense of our own role. I mean not all my films are about that- my first film Rosie the Riveter’s not but others since then are.

The other thing is that we don’t get taught our victories, and its really important to know them. Its also very important to know how they happened and I guess thematically both Freedom on my Mind and Have You heard from Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West have to do with that formulation that I talked about- the partnership between people fighting for their rights and people who care so much about that as a moral dictum in the world, that they work together. Freedom on my mind, about the civil rights movements in Mississippi, culminates in a summer where the African American movement used the system to work against the system, and invited young white people down from communities all over the united states, because the media would follow them and this would then platform the issue. These people came down and that is in fact what it did, and it also, though I didn’t tell this in the story is that many of those individuals were seminal in starting the rest of the movements all around the country, the woman’s movement etc. that came out of that period. I guess I must think that’s important because I suppose that’s what have you heard from Johannesburg is about, and so yes, I’m very much informed by that quote from Biko.

Q: Back to the a central theme highlighted in the Keynote address, Biko’s notion of a critical conciousness- part of this including the idea that “to get the right answers we must ask the right questions” This process of assumption and selection, in an entirely pragmatic sense translates for example to the process of character selection and narrative structure. During the session which unpacked the issues raised by The Devil Came on Horseback it was apparent through both the panels and audiences response that these formal choices were seen as problematic. What is your opinion?

A: The thing I said to people there about the Devil came on Horseback is that its been a very successful story in the United States. What really works for story, in fact the most effective stories are about round one character, audiences relate to that. Making that character be an American also opens it up, especially “middle- American”, I mean he was a marine, he’s not a progressive, he learns through things, by what he did, in this way the film exposes the issue of Darfur to a very wide audience, and it helps bring up conciousness about it. Added to this was the fact that it was a ready made story, it was about someone finding something, someone being on a journey to try to get that exposed, what happens to him, so there’s a question, you’re weighing against from whose point of view the story gets told, on the other hand you’re doing a story that because of its point of view makes it more accessible for an American audience, and thereby makes it an issue that the society is more aware of and certainly does in our country function that way which is important.

Q:Do you think that this conciousness you talk of being raised in the United States created by the effective use of the character who is American who ensures audience engagement could also be seen as problematic, in relation to a repeated phrase at the conference “until the lions tell the tale of the hunt, the story will always glorify the hunter”?

A: Well I agree with that, but what we’re faced with is a contradiction, lots of films get made that way, for example Blood Diamond, I mean you have to have the Leonardo Di Caprio character, The Constant Gardner and others, and the problematic nature of getting African Films seen in America, which is a really big problem, and then from where we sit with that contradiction, should you never make a Blood Diamond, should you never make a Constant Gardener, should you never make a Devil came on Horseback? I would say you should make it, and again people have to fight for their space, and people here need to fight internationally to get that space so that the perspective can get created and seen, so though I conceptually agree I think we operate inside this contradiction.

Q: A throughline of the conference was that the independent filmmaker, the black filmmaker, the woman filmmaker , the documentary filmmaker are subject to practical oncerns around briefs, funding and freedom – all related to differential access. I’d like to refer to an interview in Cineeast 1995 – Progress and Misgivings in Missisipi in which you discuss your telling of a particular aspect of the civil rights movement.

A: I would have had no right to make that film had Eyes on the Prize not been made first. Its something that I’ve been interested in personally all of my adult life. The very first man I’d lived with when I was very young- 19 had been down to Mississippi as a white person, and I’d been hearing those stories from that age, and I had the visceral sense because I came of age and joined the movement around the time of the anti- Vietnam war era that he had built what I walked in on. I started out to make the film being told from three different points of view- from the point of view of a black Mississipian, a snick organiser and a white person who comes down to join them. Originally I intended to make a drama, and I wanted to show in the film that the civil rights movements led the rest of the movements in the 70’s. I didn’t really end up making that film, because we found ourselves making a film from too many points of view, and at some points a film starts to speak to you, and you have to follow it, so we knew this thing had to have a stronger point of view. Once we decided it was the point of view of the Mississippians, it had its own motion and it ended where it ended and I couldn’t do the other stuff I wanted to do, had I done that I would not be following the strong storyline of the film, so it meant leaving out some reasons why I wanted to make it in the first place. We’ve gotten two responses that I can remember when speaking with it (the film), the one was… I can’t remember where we were, but an African American asked us what right we have to make this story, because we were white, and so I told her and I told her about my personal history and it built the movement I entered, and so I felt I owned part of it, I wasn’t just an observer.

The other was when we were showing it in Los Angeles at a class at a university and Marilyn and I went out to get dinner, and Los Angeles being what it is we got lost, and so by the time we got back, they’d started the discussion already and they were totally shocked when we walked in the room because they thought it had been made by African Americans, because of the perspective, so you know its interesting because its both sides of the coin, and this was in the mid nineties, so all those issues that you’re grappling with now, they still go on where I come from.

As I’ve said before I would never have touched that subject matter had eyes on the prize not been made, in a way I feel I’ve jumped the gun with Have you Heard from Johannesburg, in a way I’m glad I did because there are lots of people I interviewed who are dead now. Also what I’m getting a sense of from just showing this one episode here, is that a lot of people don’t know that that happened, so maybe its going to, I hope, give people validation and a sense of pride, that you were able to muster that kind of caring and attention from the entire world.

Q: Petersons question, echoed by many of the participants was around the dependence on funding from either corporate sources, NGO’s or government, and the fact that these sources might or might not have certain agendas which conflict with the basics of critical conciousness as outlined in the keynote address. “If our views and acts of protest remain locked within the ideological assumptions and economic interests of the prevailing order then it can be claimed that even as activists we legitimise or give consent to the authorities and the societies they oversee.”

A: Well again I say that this is one of the contradictions that you have to live with, I find as a filmmaker I have more freedom working in the foundations, but the foundations will only fund my films if it’s an issue that is on their agenda, so I have to pick out the ones where this is their concern, but they don’t demand control over my film.
Neither does a government agency like the National Endowment for the humanities- they just change because when they get a different head; politically appointed by the president, they will let certain things through and other things not. In the last few years lots of things have been stopped by them instead of taking panel recommendations they’d be stopped, but I think this is what we live with. Darwin’s Nightmare is a great example of a way forward, even though someone at the conference was arguing that HDTV when it goes up there and transmits is going mean everyone has to have supreme equipment and is going to put us back in that age, but I don’t agree.

I think the technologies will develop accordingly as they’ve been doing. Darwin’s Nightmare was shot on a PD150, a small camera, and he’s got a good artistic eye, I’ve heard in some interviews he was using a sungun, like in the scene where he’s filming the guard, but its beautifully composed.

There are lots of things filmmakers are doing on their own, they get their hands on the equipment, stuff is edited on computers, tools are available to people like never before. When I started out in film, you shot on film, you had sixty thousand dollar piece of equipment that was your film editor called the Siemens. You couldn’t afford the cameras, only people who worked professionally as cameramen could ever afford the camera’s.
Another case in point is film called China Blue, and the Producer/Director Mika Pillad shot it himself on my friend Marilyn’s PD 150 in China, and its shown all over the world and its been bought by broadcasters, its not like it was all done for free, he got money from TV stations to do it, but there’s much more freedom now and that’s what we have to take advantage of.

Right now younger filmmakers in America, they just go out and make a film, they buy a little bit of equipment and they go out and shoot it and distribute it. There’s a film called Hotel Katrina, and they just went out and shot it and have gotten it on the festival circuit, and have gotten it in venues that are not top theatrical venues, we call them semi- theatrical venues. They have handled that themselves, and they’re getting the film out there all over the place. They’re really an example of what goes on in my country that I think people can do here, and the fact that these two films, China Blue and Darwin’s Nigtmare, were shot on PD 150’s, small camera’s; is about the importance of story. The subject was so important, people cared about it, and certainly in the case of Darwin’s Nightmare, his artistic sensibility was so acute that those films have been big successes, and so you work more on your own.

Q: In Have you Heard from Johannesburg: Apartheid and the Club of the West, the film is about working the system as opposed to opposing it, questions arise from that, do you think a different film, one that explicitly told the implicit aspect of your story- a revolt against the ideologies of power…

A: Well I think it does have that aspect, that issue being defined on the top was a Cold War issue, its like the Vietnam war, I mean these were communists, any time you put that in the equation you have a gut reaction in my country because its so defined by the cold war. It’s like what we do to Cuba; I mean why in this day and age do we have an imbargo on this tiny little island, how is this tiny little island a threat to the united states or the world?
That’s what people accepted, and that’s what people in the corridors of power in our country, in our government accepted, so that had to be broken down.

Basically the story is about breaking down the dominant ideology, putting up another and saying sorry this is an issue about race, its an issue about white people oppressing black people, and once they did that, because of what that history means in the United States, because we’re really very similar to you; this is the only place in the world where (even Pik Botha says this and its true) you’re a society defined by race, and the primary race you’re defined by is basically African and white. It’s the same with us, we’ve never gotten over our history of slavery, we’ve never gotten those issues resolved and largely its because of the economic issue.

It won’t go away until the economic issue gets solved by a different kind of system because forever you’ll have people trapped in poverty, and there’s more people trapped that way based on race- same as here, so it is about that story because once they changed the terms of that debate, because of that history, they could use all the power that that history had in America, to change this, so it does exactly have to do with that.

Q: You’ve told the story through this functional movement that used successfully used capitalism against itself...

A: I wouldn’t say that. I would say the divestment movement did that, yes. I would say the rest of it is how at its best democracy can work. Where they used the capitalist movement against itself is in the divestment part of the film, because the united states had more companies pull out of South Africa than in any other part of the world, and when I first started doing the film and was asking questions I realised that we’re not a social democracy, all of our pensions- these kinds of assets, that you have in your union and you have in your church etc, are all in the stock market, its all privatised so you have leverage. So in that sense the divestment and getting the companies out was really what you said, using the capitalist system, but the point wasn’t to fight capitalism, it was to bring about liberation, so that fact that we’re a very privatised society meant that we had more leverage.

Q: Presenting the system as something that can yield, if there’s enough of a mass movement against it, it can change and it can effect great change…

A: Well that’s what happened here…

Q: Yes, a panellist in one of the sessions said to a certain sentiment present in the audience’s response “It would be great guys if we could talk about where socialism went but that’s not what we’re here for…

A: But that is a big important question.

Q: Yes, and bearing that in mind there might be some who don’t view the effected change as you do, that heart of mass ability and the ability to effect change, that there was so much American money in this country that could be pulled out to topple apartheid, that that very system shouldn’t be glorified…

A: No, but it doesn’t glorify it, it just looked at the tactics you could work with. You have to work with what the world is, this is partly the reason in this country that things have gone the way they’ve gone, because the world had a huge shift, when the Berlin Wall came down, it was huge. That’s just when your country was forming, and people here quite rightly didn’t want to have what happened in Mozambique and places where half of them just flew, you couldn’t do it, you have to deal with that, and it presents another situation of contradictions, but the question there of where did socialism go is a very important question. That’s the reason I was attracted to making Salud, because the first thing when Gayle Reed came to me to ask if I wanted to do this, was yeah, because you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that’s what the story’s about, Many things were important about the systems that were our ideal of the last century which is what the communist and socialist systems were. We thought, this is whats going to solve the class war, this is going to solve economic disparities. Then Cuba has been in certain ways very successful, at least in two areas- health and education. It’s an extraordinary place of ingenuity because you have healthy educated people dealing with problems of scarcity which is huge in that society. So this was taking something very concrete from that which has to do with healthcare ,which everbody in the world is confronting, and presenting a portrait of it, that was something very successfully done in this particular place and that question of what happened to socialism and where it went and what that means is very important and is a serious question that nobodies really dealt with yet, and probably a really good thing to ask here because you’ve got to do something or else your countries going to blow-up and I think you all know that. So its got to come from the ground forces in relating to the government, because you do live in a democracy now and so you can do the same things we’ve done in our country.

Q: Well that offers a way forward. The conference highlighted a general feeling that something has to be done, its difficult because we’ve entered history at a certain point. Your country, its history of activism, documentary film, all its cultural products inform how the rest of the rest of the world develops, because it…

A: Because it defines everything, it dominates the world.

Q: Yes, and the notion that a movement that exists in the States could topple the power that it is, is absurd in a way.

A: Well it isn’t absurd, but its basically that we’re in no shape to do that or change that. Many people in America are not very happy about how it conducts itself in the world and otherwise. As I’ve think I’ve said, the world suffers from the lack of a new vision, because socialism and communism have in a sense been disreputed, nobody’s gone through an analysis of that or come up with something else. People have to have a vision of the possible, we’ve got this problem what’s going to solve it, and it’s the same problem of the last century except now we’ve got a different dynamic, which the whole 9/11 caused, this terrible thing.

In a way the trajectory in the last century was a fight against institutionalised racism and colonialism and we won that fight. W.E.B Du Bois at the beginning of the century said this century will be around the issue of race, well then this next century should be around getting rid of poverty, making economic equality happen, and I mean we’ve gotten way laid by what’s going on in the world right now. I do find and really believe that that is the issue of the 21st century, and we’ve gotten kind of waylaid by what’s going on in the world right now, and I’m not sure what all of this fundamentalism plays or how it fits in because it doesn’t exactly fit in, but we don’t have the ability right now, without coming up with concrete ways of how the system would function differently. We can make political differences, we’ve made a differerence in Iraq, this is why the democrats were voted in and stand a very good chance of winning the next election, and its over that issue that the whole republican party is imploding.

Q: Your context and what you offer in terms of strategies and activism operates in its way under this umbrella, whereas in contemporary South Africa, we’ve come straight out of a history where that the umbrella was toppled, a government was shaken from its seat of power. Many of the documentary filmmakers who attended the conference come from this history of acting against a system they achieved an end to. This is their framework and informs the way in which they strategise or struggle to effectively interrogate the new system that won over the old…

A: Right and that’s what’s hard, it’s a difficult transition, how to criticise the new government, many of whom were the liberation fighters who brought this forward, and the fact that it hasn’t quite done what everyone expected, its very hard but it is the job at hand isn’t it?

Q: Well how does a filmmaker or activist here jump the steps of the kind of history of almost co-operative activism, that is a long process that deals with an increasingly impenetrable system and then has to learn to work around it and find new channels, because we need to do it now, and these broad brushstrokes of ideology we still hold onto can’t effect change because there are no channels yet for them to work through...

A: Right they’re in development, it means a lot more work figuring them out. But your system is not as solidified as we have in our country but you face the same problems, that’s what I mentioned to what I learned from Bob Moses, what he said was what he accomplished in Mississippi all they did was bring it up to the level of the country, and you’re brought up to the level of the world really and facing the same problems everyone faces but in different degrees, the part of your country that’s developing faces the same problem people all over Africa do, and that’s all that happened- the main problem hasn’t been solved yet, and that’s economic inequality and all that that means.

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