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Growing up under apartheid in the 1970s, I think that I knew my place from an early age. This is not merely a metaphorical knowing of my place and keeping quiet when I had something to say; by nine years old, I knew that I was a second class citizen. No-one had ever told me this, but I suppose nine years of living in South Africa under apartheid was bound to imprint some message of racial disharmony in my impressionable head.
I remember being nine years old – or I think I was nine years old – and going to Blue Route Shopping Mall in Tokai with my parents and my five year old sister. It was very likely a Wednesday because my father worked half days on Wednesdays and then we would go grocery shopping. Back then shopping malls often had play areas where parents could leave their children while they shopped. I don’t remember these play spaces having attendants, but maybe they did. What I remember quite clearly on this day, was that my sister and I were wearing matching soft cotton dresses with a green paisley-like pattern and flowers. I was also wearing my school shoes and socks with my dress.
My parents left us at the big plastic playground with the slide and the jungle-gym. There were two other girls there. White girls with blonde hair. They were barefooted. I remember noticing this and wondering about it.
Weren’t white people better than us? Weren’t white people better off than us? Is it because they are originally from Europe that the cold in Africa does not affect them as much as it does people from Africa, that they can walk around barefooted on cold days? Or is it because they’re better than us so they don’t have to worry about wearing shoes in a shopping mall, they don’t have to prove their worth? They don’t have to prove that they know about shoes? Being nine years old, these were more feelings than articulated thoughts.
The older of the two white girls was friendly and we ended up playing with them. I think we were about the same age. I remember feeling confused that they would want to play with us because I thought we were not allowed to be together, black people and white people. But then I thought that maybe it was alright because the white girl had initiated the contact, not me, and if contact was initiated by white people then it would be okay. I remember feeling that I had to follow the white girl’s lead and then everything would be okay. I thought that I had to defer to her.
I also thought I could observe what it meant to be white and that I could work out how they were different from me. All that I could ascertain, however, was that white people didn’t care about wearing shoes like black people did and that they seemed to be more confident, or less self-conscious about what they were doing.
Through most of this interaction, unfortunately, I was deeply in my head and unable to enjoy this unusual instance of southern suburbs inter-racial interaction.
A slightly different version of this memory was submitted to the Apartheid Archive.
I have just come from seeing ‘Kentridge & Dumas in Conversation’, a film by South African director and editor Catherine Meyburg. The film is showing at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival in Cape Town. I will only mention in passing my initial apprehension when I saw that the filmmaker had used the ampersand in the title of the film, instead of spelling out the word and. I doubt there was any pressure to hurry and finish the title, and even though the ampersand by itself is neat and elegant, I always find it ugly and repressed amidst other words and a sign of carelessness in the user.
I will also mention in passing that I was one of three black people – staff discounted – at the film. And if I hadn’t gone, there would only have been two at the screening …
I went to see the film because I would like to make a film about an artist friend of mine. Kentridge and Dumas (that’s William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas) spend most of the film talking about their processes and how certain elements and themes came about. It certainly is illuminating to hear Dumas talk about Chinese and Japanese pornographic paintings; and it is insightful to hear Kentridge explain why he rides around naked in his studio on his son’s little bicycle.
They talk about perspective and interpretation, and give concrete examples of how different people interpret their works differently because of each person’s context. I was pleased to hear each artist talk about choosing the easier way to do things, e.g. when Kentridge thinks about drawing and animating a horse in his film ‘Felix in Exile’ he realises how much work this will be and decides to replace the horse with a fish. Sometimes, I believe, taking the easy way out works better in the long run.
Overall the film was interesting and the interview location was well chosen, but the film lacked vitality, which I think could have been enhanced through more locations and more detail. I could be inclined towards more locations because I am working on a series where a variety of locations in made-for-tv documentaries helps make the people and the story more dynamic. Kentridge and Dumas are certainly interesting and most people would have gone to see the film because they are interested in the characters and their works. The bulk of the film, however, happens in a well-lit white room with neat green grass outside the windows. The location is white and sparse, the artists wear white and black and everything feels minimal and vast – as if the location were a canvas, waiting for the artists to place their marks (characters) on it.
This interview location feels like a reflection of Kentridge’s personality, however. When we see Kentridge in his studio, it is neat and organised, while Dumas’ studio is cluttered, she works on the floor, and you catch a glimpse of a mattress where she probably sleeps amidst her work. There are hints of Dumas having an unruly energy and this comes across rather definitely through her hair, the busy studio and the way she talks, but I find this aspect of her personality, which contrasts Kentridge’s, is not afforded equal visual importance.
Most of the time we are inside, although there are some exterior shots around Kentridge’s house and some shots in a town somewhere in Europe – although I don’t think it is mentioned where this is. The film is bracketed by a social event, where in the beginning we see Dumas arriving at Kentridge’s home and presenting him with a bottle of wine while food is being prepared in the kitchen; and at the end of the film, they are seated around a long dinner table with about ten other people, eating the food and drinking the wine suggested at the start of the film.
So, although their works and processes are dynamic, the dynamism does not come across visually. The film lacks energy for me and I wish it were more alive. I do not think this is the fault of the characters, nor a flaw of their works. I think it is more a shortcoming of the direction and the visuals used to convey the subject.
There are enough examples of the artists’ works, but we don’t get to see much detail. It could be that the artists did not want to show too much detail of their works – I don’t know – but that is something that I miss. I would think that one way to honour two of South Africa’s greatest exports and their works would be to get under the skins of the canvasses in a sense. This detail would have helped to energise the film.
I was surprised that the filmmaker had allowed unwanted bits of audio to creep into the film. For example, in one scene Dumas starts talking about something, but at the beginning you can still hear her finishing off another thought of the previous sentence. I know how hard it is to make a film and how rigorous you have to be about every little thing; I don’t usually get this right, and I always hope that not too many people notice. I had expected (setting myself up for disappointment, no doubt) that a film about creative and technical heavyweights would exact more creative and technical rigour than I fear I could deliver.
I also found the music screamingly loud – this could have been a problem with the cinema’s audio levels, however.
Most of the shortcomings in the film feel as if they were results of constraints imposed by funding, format, or broadcast requirements. So, it feels as if the film could have been longer, that we could have had more of a sense of Dumas’ personality if the filmmaker had had a bigger budget to spend more time in Holland; that there could have been more locations if there had been more money and more time to film; that there could have been more detail shot of the works had there been more money for better lenses.
But it is a film worth seeing and I am glad that this film has been made and that I had the chance to see it! Thank you Catherine Meyburg.