NYAFF – Interview with filmmaker Laura Gamse – THE CREATORS

A scene from The Creators, a wonderful new documentary from filmmaker Laura Gamse.

Leaving South Africa and all of the wonderful places and people I’ve met was the hardest thing for me. But fortunately, I was able to revisit the streets of Cape Town at Film Society of Lincoln Center during last night’s premiere of The Creators, a wonderful new documentary from filmmaker Laura Gamse. It focuses on six unique artists—musicians, break-dancers and graffiti artists—who use their chosen form of expression to rewrite the impact and control of apartheid in South Africa.

Earlier today, I sat down with the filmmaker Gamse to discuss The Creators, learn more about the artists that are featured in the film and what inspired her to tell a story about post-apartheid South Africa.


[Shannon J. Effinger] Tell our readers about your film The Creators

[Laura Gamse] The Creators started with the question: how do different people experience reality?  How the texture of your reality differs from mine, and specifically, how do geographic and economic differences impact the way we create and experience our lives? I asked each of the six artists featured in the film to take creative control of their representation in the documentary in order to convey their personal reality. 

For example, Faith47, a graffiti artist, chose not to speak in her section of the film, since you don’t typically know who the creator is of a piece of street art rather it’s a public artform that’s transient and anonymous. So Faith’s sections in the documentary are used as conjunctions to connect the other more narrative sequences, trading dialogue for visually-based sequences featuring her art and the art of her 11-year-old son.  In contrast to that, the afro-blues artist Ongx is very political, humorous and daring. He took us on the trains in the townships, picked fights, and expressed himself in a very honest, sometimes polemic way that I think adds a lot of color to the film. Mthetho Mapoyi, the opera singer, took us back to his original home in Hermanus and we got to experience some of the condescending ways in which everyday people treat a poor man singing on the streets for money. 

The juxtaposition of these various realities can feel fragmented, but that is part of the purpose of the film, to see the very contrasting ways in which people who live only 20 minutes from one another live, think and express themselves.


How did you become involved with the project? What inspired you to tell a story about South African artists and musicians?

I’ve always found censorship of the arts very interesting, the simple fact that so many dictatorships root out artists who are addressing social empowerment in even a tangential way is evidence of the power of music, art, dance and theatre to bring people together and disrupt the status quo.  You see this in modern day Burma/Myanmar (where the poet Saw Wai was imprisoned for writing a love poem which doubled as a code for an insult to the dictator), China (which notoriously allows only “happy” songs on the radio) and many other countries around the globe.  South Africa is a recent and very extreme example of the ways in which a minority can oppress the majority through land displacement and cultural colonialism, so I wondered how artists from different sections of the land divided during apartheid would express their own realities.  


How long did you live in South Africa?

I was there for just under 3 years. 


What was the most challenging thing about making this film?

Over half of the footage was stolen 10 months into my time in South Africa. I ended up staying an extra year to reshoot.  During that time I met the opera singer Mthetho Mapoyi and the electro duo Sweat.X, both of whom added enormously to the final product, so there was a silver lining.


Were any of the artists, particularly Faith47, hesitant at all about being a part of this film? How did you gain their trust to share their stories over the course of the film? 

Faith helped create the idea behind the documentary (a multi-plot creatively directed by the artists within it) and suggested that Sweat.X and Emile YX? be in the film so she was incredibly helpful during the first year of pre-production and shooting.  For her segment of the film specifically, she preferred not to show her face or speak on camera, in order to allow her work to speak for itself.  At the last minute we decided to speak with her son, Cashril Plus, who showed us his incredible artwork and spoke about his mother’s work. 

Everyone came into their film with their own preconceptions, including myself, and it was a learning process for everyone involved.  If a shoot did not go well one day, we would simply schedule another shoot at the next available moment the artists had.  This was most difficult with Sweat.X as they only had a three-day period during which we could shoot, but miraculously they pulled it off.  We filmed other artists like Warongx (made up of Wara Zintwana and Ongx Mona) throughout the full three year production.

Apartheid is definitely a central theme in this film. Not only in the historical accounts, but also in the selection of artists for the film—separate ethnic groups or classifications. In allowing the artists to direct their own stories, was that also your way of symbolically putting the “power” back into the hands of the people?

Yes, I didn’t want to make yet another film on South Africa from a western perspective.  Coming from the west, I couldn’t avoid that in any way other than to have an entirely South African crew (the editor, my co-director (Jaques De Villiers), the cinematographer, producer, production manager, sound engineer, etc. and none of them had worked on a feature before).  Beyond that, I spoke with each of the artists about what they would like to have us film.  Some had grandiose ideas (like the Sweat.X tour of the Karoo dressed up like British colonists) and others just had me over to hang out in their homes and film their everyday life.

Could you talk about your selection process in the artists you’ve chosen to feature in the film? What exactly were the qualities you were looking for in each artist?

I was really just looking for incredible art.  Original art made by and for the people of South Africa, preferably without striving to emulate the work of other artists or the MTV look (which I saw a lot of).  Many people suggested that I feature William KentridgeJane Alexander and other incredible artists who fully deserve international attention.  I chose instead to feature less-heralded artists, attempting to highlight a cross-section of the racial diversity so emphasized and divided by apartheid.    

“All Shall Be Equal Before The Law,” graffiti art by Faith47


I just returned from a two-week trip to South Africa on assignment, my first time there and was really taken by how areas of Soweto in Johannesburg and parts of Cape Town were no different than most of the ghettos and neighborhoods here in New York. Did you draw any similar parallels during your time in South Africa?

South Africa is like the US turned inside out: all of the wealth inequality that is buried or normalized by the western media is in your face in South Africa in way that most travelers can’t ignore, though much South African media also does its best to brush over it.  I should mention that Soweto is one of the wealthiest townships as a result of lots of (deserved) foreign investment and attention, and it is not representative of the average township exposure or quality of life.  But one sees parallels between the US and South Africa’s polarization of wealth, segregation, lack of land reform or reparations for first peoples, etc.  Even the apartheid laws look eerily similar to the former Jim Crow laws of the south. 


What’s been happening with many of the artists featured in this film?

Mthetho Mapoyi recently gave a TedxTeen talk and performance in New York as the result of an incredible woman who saw The Creators in November, and Ongx Mona from Warongx will be giving a closing night performance at the Afrykamera Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland at the end of this month.  75% of the profits from the film go to the artists and South African crew involved, and Warongx is using the donations they get from audiences to fund the Khayelitsha Music Academy, a music school which deserves massive attention based in Harare, just outside Cape Town.  Mthetho has been accepted into the Black Tie Ensemble, an opera training company based in Pretoria, where he will train for the next three years.

Faith is participating in exhibitions around the world, and Blaq Pearl will be traveling to perform spoken word in Europe in the coming months.  Emile Jansen is heading up the incredible organization Heal the Hood in the Cape Flats, which I encourage everyone to get involved with as it’s one of the most effective community-uplifting projects I’ve ever seen.  Sweat.X continues to kill it on their UK-based label Citinite.

I try to keep up to date on all the artists on The Creators blog.

And lastly, what do you hope that viewers will take from your film The Creators?

My one major hope is that someone out there will feel a connection to Ongx Mona and Wara Zintwana of the band Warongx, and help support a new album that might fund the rest of their career and allow them to develop the Khayelitsha Music Academy into a life-changing school for so many kids in the area.  This is where my heart resides, this is my major hope.  Ongx has already released an incredible album that has been buried by Gallo Music, and he deserves more than that.  They’ve been working all sorts of other jobs (connecting electricity, construction, carpentry, gardening) to support themselves while their musical talent is left behind.  I think of what would be lost to the world had Bob Marley spent all his time doing construction, and this is what I think the world stands to lose if Warongx never gets to record their work.  

There are many other hopes, of course, but that’s my number one.

To learn more about The Creators and how you can help to support these exciting new artists, please visit http://thecreatorsdocumentary.com/.

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