Faith or futility?

by Khalo Matabane, 17 April 2003 in Mail&Guardian Online

Does the possibility exist for filmmaking to effect change? (AP)
We are sitting in my flat watching the war on Iraq on BBC World. The coalition forces continue to talk about “precision bombs” despite the heavy civilian casualties. A friend of mine, a fellow filmmaker, looks at me with a sense of resentment and resignation. He then remarks that it is events like this war that make him question the significance of cinema. I am silent for a while because even though I have felt a sense of futility in making films, I can’t accept the thought. I have lived my life for cinema and the potential it has to effect change. My decision to become a filmmaker was inspired by the great storytelling tradition of my grandmother and the daily struggles of the people in the rural village where I grew up. In the evenings my grandmother would tell stories of political and social struggle; during the day I would see the village women walking barefoot for long distances in search of wood, hear about the spreading plague of infant deaths, and feel the immeasurable hopelessness staring out from the sunken eyes of so many. I always wanted to intervene, but was never able to. Then, soon after I turned 17, I watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and the films of Costa-Gavras. They inspired me immensely; I felt they had the power to change society for the better.

Cinema quickly became, for me, an act of intervention. Recently, however, I have felt a certain sense of helplessness about the possibility of cinema to affect change. How does cinema respond to white Americans’ support for “Bushism”, or Europeans voting for right-wing political parties? How can I have hope when the lynching of black people still continues, as symbolised by the killing of the 17-year-old Tshepho Matloha in Limpopo by 11 rugby players for “trespassing”? When people are riddled with bullets from the guns of New York’s finest in their attempt to create a safe city? When women are still the targets of male violence? What do I say, as a filmmaker, when a disillusioned old woman in my village says: “My son, since you are educated and I can trust you, please tell me the truth, is Mbeki and the ANC really running this country?”

At last year’s International Documentary Film Festival, however, I managed to recover a small measure of hope that lasted a few hours. It’s a cold December evening in Amsterdam and I’m sitting at a trendy café with a German filmmaker. We have just watched Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine. We both loved the film. I keep on going on about it being too long, self-indulgent and self-righteous, when my companion makes a comment that stops me in mid-sentence. “The great thing about Michael Moore’s films,” she says, “is that one comes out feeling that they have the possibility to change things.” She’s right, of course, and for the rest of the evening I am a believer again and it feels good.I have been wondering whether the films of Michael Moore, Charles Burnett, Todd Solondz and Oliver Stone have alerted American minds to the fact that their great “American dream” is no more than a myth. After nearly two decades of watching Spike Lee’s films, have Americans become sensitive to race relations? On the other side of the Atlantic, is it possible for us to measure just how far John Pilger’s documentary Palestine Is Still the Issue has shifted Israeli support away from the genocidal policies of the Sharon government? Do my own compatriots feel less prejudiced against Africans from north of the Limpopo since the release of Zola Maseko’s short film The Foreigner? Have men who have seen the wonderfully textured female characters in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust come to appreciate women beyond being the objects of their own sexual desires? After Haile Gerima’s Sankofa do people of the black diaspora have a deeper understanding of their interwoven histories? Are the British now more sympathetic to the plight of the poor and working class as a result of Ken Loach’s films? Yes, Sembene Ousmane’s Xala may be a tale of corruption in post-colonial Africa, but the continent remains heavy with despots, and who is listening to the contemporary genius of cinema, Abbas Kiarostami whose Taste of Cherry is a stern warning about the dangers of monotheistic religion?

It was perhaps out of this despair that the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima committed hara-kiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment). He told his friends before he died that he felt “empty”. But perhaps the problem is not so much the sorry state of the world or the failure of cinema to improve it, but me and my high hopes for cinema as a tool of intervention. Perhaps I need to lower the bar a bit. Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who made Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film with a gay angle, writes: “I think that ... this film is very important since it comes out at a time in which we have to be aware of the many mistakes made in recent years. Cuba and its people have to change ... and Strawberry and Chocolate points to this aspect; to the problem of intolerance that has affected a huge part of our population ... but one does not make a film to transform reality or change something; one realises it.”The late radical Kurdish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney, who directed Yol from behind prison walls, writes: “During my life as creator, I have tried to use indirect means to express my thoughts, and I must frankly admit that to date my works have not totally expressed what I wanted, either in their style or spirit. The dominant element in these works is that they are a compromise.”

In 1937 MK Ataturk, the founder and president of the Turkish Republic, said “a day will come when the invention of cinema will seem to have changed the face of the world ... cinema will remove differences of thought and outlook, and will be of great assistance in realising the ideals of humanity.” Many years later, the late president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, like Ataturk, would have faith in cinema and hence support the Pan African Film Festival (Fespaco) in his country. But perhaps the story that inspires me most is from English film critic Derek Malcolm. In his selection of the 100 best films of all time, he justifies his choice of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film about Killing by saying: “I choose Killing because of the furore it caused in some circles. In Poland, the film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty.”A Short Film about Killing is one of my favourite films of all time. This is a simple film about a young man who kills a taxi driver and who, in turn, is killed by the state. Despite this pessimism, I am a dreamer, and as a dreamer I have to keep on fighting to make what I consider to be meaningful films. I have to believe that my work can affect change, hence the voice message on my home phone, “despite everything else I still have faith in cinema”.