Laura Gamse, an extraordinarily talented young film maker, uprooted herself from a familiar, comfortable life in the United States of America and has spent the past two years tempting fate in South Africa, all in the pursuit of showing us what lies in the heart of the artists of a country torn apart by racial divide.
I was glued to my screen as Laura's answers unfolded. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
What inspires a young gal from Washington DC to head to South Africa to make a documentary about the creative expression of artists in a country impacted by apartheid?
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, where 99% of people have homes, if not 100%. It's a suburban town where kids grow up with skateboards and guitars. There somehow seems to be a disproportionate number of musicians from Arlington and I couldn't understand the vast abyss between the terrible selection of songs on the radio and the amazing sounds coming out of my friends and neighbors. I still don't understand why the same tired songs are played ad nauseum on the radio and on television when the really magical and transcendent music is ignored. Either Rupert Murdoch has terrible taste or the world is grappling with a very biased global media conglomerate. I looked at my music collection and saw 90% western, white male artists. I started wondering what else was out there, and what I had been missing.
When was the first time you had the idea?
It was always evolving in my head, so it's hard to pinpoint an exact point. Once during college as I was driving to my internship in LA, I heard Perfect Jewel by the Gyuto Monks playing on the radio. I had to pull my car over to the side of the road to listen to this song. I couldn't believe such unusual, discordant and beautiful sounds were coming out of my radio. I listened to the whole song with such physical pleasure, like the sounds were scratching an itch that had built up over years, reaching a place nothing else had ever touched in me. This was all from a song recorded in 1995 by Tibetan monks that I never would have heard had I not happened to tune in to a very obscure radio station at an ungodly hour of the morning.
Around this time I was writing my thesis on protest art during apartheid, and reading a lot about the great lengths the South African government would go to in order to censor populist music and theatre. I wondered why, fifteen years after democracy came to South Africa, I still hadn't heard this music, and whether the opening of the floodgates of "global" media had a similar dampening affect as apartheid censorship, this time in a much more subtle way. After a century of racial oppression, segregation and forced mis-education, I wanted to hear what was so important to keep quiet.
Did it take a bit of convincing for you to follow through on your idea? What fears came up for you when you considered actually moving over there to make it?
The night I received word I had gotten the grant and would be headed to South Africa in the next year, I had so many nightmares. I read about the crimes most people read about in South Africa. Old women being tied up and tortured, babies in ovens, horrible crimes over cell phones or watches. I tried to keep myself informed of the situation from afar, which is probably a terrible idea, as anyone who has ever googled "South African crime" knows. I got a very distorted picture from the mass media, and I landed in Johannesburg expecting a car-jacking the second I left the airport.
Oddly enough, in a way I entered the reality I envisioned for myself during my first months in South Africa. The day I moved to Cape Town, I got a death threat at the door of my new home. The next day my wallet was stolen, and the following day my rental car was crashed into on one of my first visits to the South African townships. The first car I bought failed two weeks later in the middle of the Eastern Cape, and the rental car I hired subsequently broke down at 5 am in the Drakensburg Mountains. I soon contracted tick bite fever, sweated through a break-in, had a second wallet stolen from a second bag, my clothes stolen from the wash and the wheel stolen off of a third rental car. I'd slept in a cockroach-infested alley, had the four locks of the door broken open at 3 in the morning, and watched b.b. gun bullets fly over my head while having tea the next morning. I think my views of this country are still colored by these experiences and many more like them.
What kept you there despite these terrifying encounters?
It was a while before I was able to look past my own relatively petty problems and realize I was not the only one in this situation. Many people in South Africa say things have gotten worse since apartheid ended. I wouldn't agree with that statement at all, but poverty, disease, and the wealth gap have all grown on average. This is understandable if you consider the Bantu education system enforced by apartheid ensured most of the country's current rulers have very stunted educations (President Zuma has a grade 5 education). Those who perpetuated apartheid, and were complicit in the system of apartheid, drag their feet when faced with another system of government in the country. Without the active assistance of the wealthiest 10% of the country, the rest of the country is left scrounging for crumbs. The level at which people are routinely exploited and abused in this country is nauseating, and to be honest it pisses me off. I didn't believe any group of people on earth could be so uncaring before I came here, and after witnessing it first hand I couldn't walk away. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly I can do about it. But I have yet to walk away.
You even lost all your footage at one stage. That would have been devastating and could have been something most people would take as a sign to give up. What drove you to take all the footage again and continue?
When my footage was stolen, I didn't want to react. I kept believing it would turn up somewhere, that the hard drive was just missing, and not stolen. Around the same time, I saw an old man standing outside my apartment for hours, just standing there. Finally went out to him and asked if I could help. He told me his wife and daughter had just died in Rhodesia [note - Rhodesia was an unrecognised state in southern Africa that existed between 1965 and 1978]. He had taken the first bus down to South Africa because he didn't know what to do. He had been robbed of everything on the bus and he said he wasn't moving until what was his was rightfully returned to him. I told him that was unlikely, and offered to get him a cab or a hotel. He said he wouldn't be able to pay them, and insisted on standing in the same spot. I stuck around for a little while, and watched while women from a nearby window began to shout at him for loitering. They couldn't get him to move, and I realized, neither would I.
Experiences like this taught me, I hope, to keep my own problems in perspective. Africa introduced me to a new spectrum of emotion in that way. So many people are in a state so painful or numb they cannot begin to take the first step to move on, or even convey their situation to strangers on the other side of the street, much less the ocean. I've found that the only way I can begin to really tune in to the hum of South Africa, the experience of being immersed in this history and these many cultures, is through the emotion expressed within a song, or a story, or a piece of visual art. So with this documentary I tried to tap into that. I asked artists from different segments of society to represent their experience of reality through their art - and show us through the camera lens how to see the meaning in their art, and their lives, through their eyes.
How did it feel when you finished it and saw it played on the big screen for the first time?
It was relieving. There are lots of subtle jokes and controversial statements in the film, and I was nervous the audience was going to misread the film or take it in the wrong way. Luckily our first audience was packed and they laughed through the jokes and understood the controversies. Since then, I've made about 1000 more changes to the film. After two years, it's hard to stop.
What do you hope to achieve from the documentary?
I hope The Creators lets people step into a reality they haven't experienced before, and gives a little more meaning to the stories behind artists' work. In a place like South Africa, you get very polarized stories and perspectives from people living right next to each other, and I wanted to create a multiplot film that would highlight just how difficult it is to move past the shackles of a collective history and create something new.
What sets your heart alight these days?
The music of Ongx Mona, one of the featured musicians in the film.
What are your visions for the kind of world you want to live in?
I hope in the upcoming years artists like Ongx, Mthetho and Faith can support themselves with their work. I hope global audiences will take more interest in arts on the international level, especially art coming out of developing countries like South Africa. To me, those are the pieces that are the most interesting, and the people who have the most unique stories to tell.
What is your heart calling you towards now?
Now...what a question. It's really bizarrely difficult to think of the future at this point. The end of this process has seemed so distant throughout the making of the documentary, it really felt like it would never come.
I love the quote on your website:
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
This speaks to the original impulse that made me fly to South Africa, searching for people who had come alive. The film is about the struggles inherent in that journey, and the process of stripping down every external crutch and hang up in order to find that core spark.
But when I look at the result of this process, a film which a few hundred people have seen around the world, it really doesn't feel like I've done anything to address what South Africa needs; very simple things like equality of opportunity and education. So I'm left wondering whether to spend the next several years working on another creative pursuit which will arguably have very little impact on the people in the world who have had their own opportunity to create taken from them (by the necessity of working degrading jobs to put food on the table). Or realize the bias in my ways and devote all of my energies towards an activist organization that addresses the direct causes of global inequity.
Either way, it feels wrong to spend two years shooting a film just to abandon it before anyone sees it. I applied for finishing grants during 2009/2010, right as the remnants of the financial markets were crashing down around us, and ended up spending about half a year writing applications that would eventually be rejected. I ended up renting out my filmmaking equipment to fund the film and eventually selling it to buy a cheaper kit. Luckily, since the festival release there have been some donations to the artists in the film - all from the US. Unfortunately none from South Africa, despite the disproportionately wealthy upper class here. Hopefully as wider audiences see the film, the artists will be able to use the proceeds to fund their own creative work, as 75% of the net proceeds from the film go to the artists in it.
As for me, I'm still looking for the best option. If I could divide myself in two, I would send one back to school for a masters degree in international development, and send the other to the Caribbean to look into possibilities for founding a collective based on creative activism. So as you can see, I'm torn.
You can support The Creators Documentary through:
The Creator's Website