Part 2: History Matters
Last month we interviewed Mtutuzeli Matshoba, South African literary activist, artist and filmmaker about why history matters. This month he continues to share with us his striking thoughts on language, film and more...
By Tumelo E. Phali | Posted: March 30, 2005
(This is the final half of the two-part interview with playwright and screenwriter Mtutuzeli Matshoba.)
You believe that people don’t necessarily need formal training to write their stories. How do you convince producers within networks to work with people who have no formal training in the art?
I have actually made it my responsibility to help people develop their ideas by acting as middle man between them and producers because I have the advantage of being multilingual and secondly I can identify a philosophy and a good story in many languages. There are many good stories out there that have actually not seen the light of day simply because they are not written in English and secondly, they are not structured in accordance with principles or standards adopted in the western form of storytelling. I have taken it into my responsibility to convince these producers that there’s some uniqueness in breaking away from conventions. Some of these writers rely on Afrikan stories because these are the only stories they know.
He warns producers that they are only going to stagnate themselves if they expect independent storytellers to tell stories in English.
Training is fine. There’s indoctrination: ‘read this manual and write a according to its instructions.’ Training is transfer of experience. If I’m managing experienced writers and act as ‘mid-man’ to transfer their skills to aspirant writers we can short circuit the route,… the long route taken by others to get that experience. We noticed that people with such experience are much better than artists who follow certain standards. The industry must train “mid-men’.
He might lose the support of the women folk in the industry if he keeps using terms like “mid-men” as it might be deemed sexist within those quarters. If he cares about such sensibilities, I suggest he starts finding a sex-friendly substitute.
There is a general feeling amongst Afrikan storytellers that English is used to oppress those who are not prepared to produce their material in the language. We are actually pandering to the dominance of the oppressors if we refuse to tell our stories simply because we are forced to tell them in English – they should persist to tell them in their own indigenous language. One of the weaknesses we have: The desire for approval by the conqueror. In other part of Africa people still believe in their own influences. Zimbabweans carve statues from their own perspective, not Michael Angelo’s method. The Venda (one one South Africa’s native groups) craftsmen’s designs are influenced by their own cultures. If a concept doesn’t work for the white audience we regard it as a failure and as not important. We should learn to appreciate what is ours. There’s enough appreciation for what is ours. An experience that people identify with is an experience they can share.
(left: Venda wood sculpture)
Would you enforce those empowerment principles if you had the power?
I would. I would,...unashamedly. It has been done before. This is actually what the dominant minority used on the back of the so-called, “unqualified labour” or whatever the right term is, to exclude us.
(We both start to grope around for the right expression but nothing comes forth. I later had the benefit of double- checking and I think the term we were looking for is “unskilled labour”.)
It happened with the Afrikaner community around the fifties: they turned unskilled people into managers and now they are running the country’s biggest conglomerates simply because their gained experience was acknowledged.
(He points at a number of high-rise office buildings in the Johannesburg CBD.)
They were built by black labourers supervised by a few white engineers. Those labourers have over twenty years of experience in building skyscrapers but they wouldn’t be recognized as being anything other than bricklayers. They deserve more than that – they have to be rewarded. But this doesn’t happen. I’m saying that those people who had training in any sphere of society and have claim to credibility should be rewarded. So I would definitely do it!
Back to the films now: Do we have that capacity? Have we gained enough experience to tackle the world movie industry?
Not at present. The people involved in the industry work in isolation. There’s television production houses mushrooming everyday – everyone thinks they can create their own Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer etc. They forget that Hollyhood was not made after individual efforts. It’s a collective. We have very capable producers, Seipati Hopa, Zola Maseko, Ramadan Suleiman etc. But, they are all working in negative competition, looking to outdo each other. If we pause and look at this and access our strength, we can strategize better and move far.
Bra Mtutu emphasizes that at DV8, they practice what they preach.
If you take a manuscript to David Philllips (Book publishers), for instance, they will access you work in terms of their market profile - which is fine. But a development industry wouldn’t do that – in the structure where I work, we don’t look at whether you have a fax, e-mail, computer etc., before we give you a chance. W e only look at the merit of your material then we help you grow with your idea as far as our resources allow.
(DV8 is a digital film initiative that develops, produces and markets genuinely South African feature films)
Whenever international filmmakers come to the continent, mostly they don’t use our actors and they come with their own written material: they only use the place as location for their films. Does this mean that they don’t have interest in the stories we have to tell?
It’s cultural imperialism. The fact that they bring their own actors means we are succumbing to imperialistic ideals - sometimes they come to act in African stories. We can resist by saying ‘no’, this is our story. If you want to come in, come in on the funding side. Zola Maseko, for instance, did a South African story using an American actor, thereby compromising our story for the sake of American money.
(left: Zola’s Drum)
(Zola’s Drum, starring Taye Diggs and Moshidi Motshegwa, above, was rated one of the best works at Cape Town’s International Film Festival late 2004 and was recently awarded FESPACO’S Golden Stallion Of Yennenga.)
Filmmakers who have sought the guerilla industry, having been in this industry for long, they know that international producers will just come and exploit their product, they will come like they have come to capture slaves here – just for our brains… because producers here are individualistic. We don’t protect ourselves and our interests in the indigenous material. One still has to attach oneself to a Gavin Wood for instance, if you want your material to be recognized. What a blow to the image of our local industry. Are we so useless that we aren’t even capable of telling our own stories?
But what are you doing?
My mission is to build a pool of creative work and bring creative talent together in a powerhouse called Lesaka ( a kraal),where creative people gather for development and exchange of ideas. A home for the Afrikan creative brains. That’s my dream…..
At the end of the interview I still feel like Bra Mtutu can say more. But his wife needs him for that honest advice … and somebody else somewhere out there needs him to help them realize their dream – I’ve got to let him go, and this I do, begrudgingly.
There’s only one thing I wish for Bra Mtutu -- to see his Afrikan ‘kraal’ bulging with talent as he watches over it from his rocking chair, a novel in his hand and a smoking pipe squeezed between his lips while he enjoys the warm rays of the setting sun falling onto his feet.