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Conversations with Barbarians

15 Nov 2006

An interview with South African Filmmaker Khalo Matabane

Tonight, Cinematheque Ontario presents a screening of South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane’s 2005 film, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon. Perhaps best described as a docu-fiction, the film is set in the multiethnic streets of downtown Johannesburg. The journey begins with the fateful meeting in a park between an inquisitive poet named Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge) and Fatima (Fatima Hersi), a Somalian refugee. Keniloe is fascinated by Fatima’s heart-wrenching story of despair and personal tragedy which brought her to seek refuge in a foreign land. After meeting her in the park for a series of Sundays, Fatima then vanished without a trace. Captivated by Fatima’s story, Keniloe is distraught by her sudden disappearance and sets out on a mission to find her. With a mini-recorder in hand, the improvised documentary-maker sets out to interview a series of exiled migrants in his search of Fatima.

What ensues is a truly eye-opening and provocative exposé on the realities of life for numerous economic and political refugees, living in South Africa, from across the African continent and elsewhere in the world. In addition to shedding some much-needed light on the struggles of Black African migrants who are often faced themselves with obstacles to integration within south African society, Khalo Matabane explores the voices of exile from as far as Asia, Palestine, and the former Yugoslavia.

The dominant theme in Khalo Matabane’s many films has been a sometimes brutally frank portrayal of South African society. Having enjoyed much success in his homeland, Matabane is also frequently invited to film festivals around the world. While Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is his first feature film, his past films include (from press release): “Poetic Conversations (1996), a half-hour profile on the black consciousness poet Ingoapele Madingoane; Two Decades Still (1996) which offers a look at the 1976 uprising in Soweto 20 years after; The Waiters (1997), stories of hope about people waiting for lost family members to return home after being caught in the political crossfire of South Africa; and Young Lions (1999), about three former youth activists at the centre of the struggle in the 1980s.”

AfroToronto.com recently had the opportunity to interview Khalo Matabane. I not only discovered a gifted self-taught filmmaker but also a politically astute social commentator. Matabane is a man of ideas first and foremost. He describes to me, in a visibly sad demeanour, how shocked he was about the indifference displayed by many South African filmgoers towards the message conveyed in Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon. “I was hoping that people would engage. At the premiere, people really engaged and stayed [to discuss it until late at night]” as he relates. Speaking specifically about the movie critics, he says: “They were not talking about the film, they were talking about what they think cinema is. And I think they missed an opportunity to really engage.” Khalo Matabene’s films unabashedly run against the sometimes rose-coloured view characterized by the African National Congress’ message that post-Apartheid South Africa is a just non-racial society.

Rather than going in the perhaps predictable direction of examining the still-simmering tensions between Black and White South Africans, Matabane turns an uncomfortable light on the contradictions within this idyllic image we sometimes have that the traditionally oppressed victims of the Apartheid system are themselves so pure and docile.  But what Khalo Matabane in fact sees is a society, and a wider world, trapped in insatiable capitalism and little concern for the suffering of the less fortunate. One of the most poignant revelations in Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, as expressed through the accounts of refugees from Uganda, Mozambique and the Congo, is the often blatant hostility faced by thousands of African immigrants who keep being reminded by Black South Africans that they are foreigners.

“[There’s this misconception that Black South Africans] are so innocent and so pure. … I’m becoming very frustrated [with this myopic view]… A lot of South Africans right now, because of Apartheid, because of the injustices of the past, they just want to grab a piece of the pie. … I’m not even saying that I hate the country, I don’t think that saying this makes me a traitor. … I think that eventually, people in the world we live in, whether in Mozambique or Zambia … are so caught up in their own survival and in their own accumulation of wealth that they have no time or interest in engaging.”

In the midst of our discussion about the concepts of homeland and identity, Matabane is reminded of a statement by one of the migrants in the film who says: “Roots are for plants.” Khalo Matabane strongly believes that the illusive concept of “nationhood” is a dying idea. “I think the notion of home is a very complex one. … The people who espouse those identities, like people in South Africa who proclaim “I am Zulu” … I find that very simplistic.” Speaking of his own experience seeing South African society being redefined by the phenomenon of migration, he recounts: “Some of the areas where I filmed are places where I’ve lived before. I go back there and I realize that everything’s changed. … A place where I used to buy chickens has now been turned into a mosque. … So therefore, you realize the dynamics of the phenomenon of migration. … It does not only have an effect on the economic situation of that country.” To Matabane, this is a good thing. He adds: “If you look at some parts of New York for example, that really interests me more than [any other place around] the world. It’s the fact that you see people who are interested in things that have nothing to do with their own culture. People go watch an artist perform [that has] nothing to do with their culture. … People cling to their identity around the world. I feel like people are missing out. I feel like people are missing on the extraordinary revolution that is happening around the world. … I love Asian food and sometimes more than African food.”

The danger, Matabane finds, comes when the world becomes homogenized. Speaking about the dangers of a U.S.-dominated global mono-culture, Matabane says: “People don’t eat breakfast anymore. When I was in Rome about two and a half weeks ago, it was really shocking because I was enjoying the Italian lifestyle, the pasta was so amazing, the cooking was so amazing, and I saw young Italians who were going to a place called “American Pizza.” And I thought: “My God!” I find that in South Africa too, intellectually, there’s this [desire for everything] American. I’m not trying to say that the U.S. is bad but I find the choices [are lacking]. For example, the notion of people having McDonald’s or Burger King at nine in the morning … I think it’s really crazy. There is an opportunity I think for us to really explore each other and explore each other’s ideas.”

Crystallizing his thoughts on nationhood, identity and the American cultural empire, Khalo Matabane refers to an interview he read with Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcan about his groundbreaking film, The Barbarian Invasions (2003). “He [Arcan] was saying that the notion of borders is disappearing … he said in the future, there will be those who are with the U.S. and those who are against it. And I think this is becoming apparent. Because whether you are in Manhattan or Johannesburg … it’s the same thing.” Matabane believes that regardless of the societies, people’s aspirations, grievances and notion of capitalism are essentially the same. As he cleverly puts it,  “you will find little George Bushes” in rural parts of South Africa who are against homosexuality. “The conservatives in Iran and the conservatives in the U.S. share so much in common. They use very much the same arguments.”

In essence, the conservatives and nationalists everywhere in the world are fighting against the barbarian invasions. They are resisting the inevitable destruction of the artificial borders which separate the haves and the have-nots. As Matabane remarks: “Eventually you realize that if you’ve got the same sort of ideas, sense of integrity, and sense of values as someone in Finland or Mozambique, what makes you less close to them than someone who has the same passport as you?

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