Monday, 26 June 2017

Mqombothi and the Masses

Personal and professional priorities have kept me from updating this blog regularly, and I hope I can be excused for posting so late on an interview I read with a prominent young South African artist on the website of the national paper I subscribe to, the Mail & Guardian. Three months ago, it published an interview The Daily Vox had had with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, a writer, filmmaker, and photographer from the Transkei who won the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing. (The short story for which he was awarded the prize, Memories We Lost, can be read here.)

He gives an insight that closely echoes what I’ve written here before on adapting literature for the screen:

The problem is to take all these pages and squeeze them into 90 minutes. We would tell better stories taking a page out of a book and making a film out of it.

Mqombothi doubtless understands that much of a literary work is lost in adaptation, especially when done so literally as filming an enactment of its actions and dialogue, or when it must be compressed to fit a standard of running time, or when it needs to be pared down to meet his concerns of accessibility.

I think access is very important. Adapting a book into a movie doesn’t mean everyone can access that story. It’s important to tell the story and I know stories will always find their people, but work needs to be done to make that access possible. I know people in Cape Town and Khayelitsha who have had film screenings, so I think they need to be screened in these areas to take the films to the people and make them accessible. I don’t want my films screened in a festival that my people can’t come to. The problem with film is that it is visual media, it’s different to take text and turn it into visual media.

Would he were given a broader opportunity to distinguish film from literature; and would that many authors, local or elsewhere, take heed. Cinema, still an infant in relation to the other arts, suffers measureless underestimation in comparison to drama and literature, and its vast merits are often missed, though they’re brightly illuminated before spectators’ eyes. The best way of taking in Mqombothi’s fuller conception of cinema as a form of visual self-expression, rather than a mere medium of visual communication, would be to see his work in it. (I have not yet succeeded in finding any instances of it online.)

In that excerpt, he raises another important challenge facing the South African film industry – namely, that the more personal artistic endeavours are totally unavailable to a vast majority of the country, and that those people are the ones who could benefit the most from having their stories told, honestly and clearly. He expands on it:

Film festival-going people aren’t the ones I need watching my films. I want my films to be screened at high schools and townships. I’m far more interested in how people talk and react around my stories, which is why I come to these kinds of events.

The gap between artistic distribution and exhibition, and the millions in this country who don’t see it is obvious to many more than just Mqombothi, but many immense obstacles have to be overcome to begin remedying it, and I haven’t seen much effort been directed towards that goal. The independent movie theatre The Bioscope, located in the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg, has generously begun a programme of short films on rotation every Sunday, to which entrance is free, and which, presumably, any number of any sort of people who would find themselves in the Johannesburg CBD on a Sunday would be content to attend.

The reason for these concerns is obvious: All the radical transformation, economic or otherwise, that many are working towards in this country is for the benefit of the underprivileged mass population, and also requires their support and collective involvement. Therefore, the processes of transformation and rebuilding should be clearly understandable to them as well as immediately available for action and development, and they should be incorporated into any movements of democratisation, transformation, and revitalisation planned for the country. This is also expressed by Mqombothi in his interview, and linked to his endeavours in the arts:

The language used to talk about decolonisation is a problem. Overly academic language creates a barrier for those who really need to discuss this. When you don’t have an accessible vocabulary for these concepts, you sit all impressed with yourself and talk to all your friends and form an echo chamber. Can children understand what you mean? If you go into a township can you explain decolonisation to someone there? For me, documentaries and films about decolonisation are all extensions of conversations I want to find a narrative to define. I want to present the idea that these conversations should be had in a different manner.

I look forward to reading more about Mqombothi for many years in the future, and much more to seeing a large output of work from him. As it stands, there’s an archive of his contributions to the site Africa is a Country (where he reviewed Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, which was reviewed on this blog as well), and notes from a few other media interactions with him, such as his list of important books. Comment with your thoughts on Mqombothi, his work, and his comments.

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