The promise of revelation

James Matthews has the distinction of being one of the first Black Consciousness poets and publishers in South Africa. He is the subject of a documentary by director Shelley Barry.

The poet James Matthews and filmmaker Shelley Barry, during the filming of 'Diaries of a Dissident Poet.' (Film still.)

The film, “Diaries of a Dissident Poet,” follows poet James Matthews around Cape Town, tracking him during a year, from his 83rd to 84th birthday. It opens with a small celebration of his 83rd at the District Six Homecoming Centre in (downtown Cape Town) and moves on to scenes of him in conversation or banter with various people – among others, the journalist Roger Friedman at Oryx Multimedia, photographer George Hallett, and singer Melanie Scholtz, who has set some of Matthews’s poetry to music (the album, “Freedom’s Child,” 2013). There are also scenes of him talking to camera and to the (off-screen) director at various locations–outside his house in Silvertown, Athlone or outside the house where he was born in the Bo-Kaap. We also see Matthews read poetry to pensioners at a church or walk down his street with a small bag of groceries.

In line with its title, the film is loosely structured and we follow the subject in his day-to-day activities: weight lifting in the mornings (Matthews, true to form, shows off that he can flex his pectoral muscles with the best of them), getting ready to attend a graduation ceremony at the University of the Western Cape where he will receive an honorary doctorate, listening along with Scholtz to pre-masters of their musical collaboration.

The film satisfies the observational demands of its diarist format in that it is generally set in intimate spaces. Not only are there shots tracking Matthews through his house or shots of him sunning himself bare-chested in his garden, but the banter between Matthews and Friedman, and between Matthews and Hallett, shows the poet at ease in familiar surroundings and what appears to be intimate social relationships (Hallett and Matthews know each other from at least the early 1960s).

James Matthews is a worthy subject for documentary film. His biography as an early Black Consciousness poet, with the distinction of authoring the first collection of poetry to be banned by apartheid censors (Cry Rage! co-authored with Gladys Thomas; published 1972, banned 1973); several following books banned, months-long detention in 1976; his endeavors, along Black Consciousness lines of self-reliance, to publish his and others’ writing himself with his founding of BLAC publishers; and opening an art gallery, etcetera, all this make him a subject worth exploring. And, in the popular imagination of those with an interest in South African culture, Matthews is a legend of sorts. A documentary film about him is thus welcome. But perhaps the film is overawed by that very legend and the diary or observational form leaves the viewer feeling that there is something missing.

The interest inherent in the diary form typically comes from the promise of revelation it holds for the viewer who may already be familiar with the subject. We hope that seeing the subject going about normal, day-to-day activities will reveal something about the subject not to be found in potted biographies or word-of-mouth legend. We hope, in short, to see the subject in a new light.

For anyone familiar with even just the touchstones of Matthews’s biography, Diaries unfortunately holds back. While Hallett and Friedman rag Matthews as a “sell-out” for accepting, respectively, an honorary doctorate and a government honor (the Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, 2004), this is only an intimacy of sorts – a familiarity – between friends. For those familiar with the Matthews legend, the kind of bantering between him and friends reveals nothing new about the character. We see James Matthews being James Matthews.

Where there is an opportunity to be properly diarist, the film holds back. Early on, Matthews is in a three-way conversation with the (off-screen) filmmaker and another man (rough cut, no subtitles) over the photograph of a woman, Elizabeth Bruce, a photograph presumably from a funeral program because it includes birth and death dates (1931-2004). The opening question is badly cut: “[Is jy nog] steeds lief vir haar?” ([Do you] still love her?). One presumes that Bruce was his wife or partner. Matthews clearly doesn’t want to talk about it in any specific detail. “Nee,” he says, “I tell you, what was done, is done. It took a lot of pain, but it’s done.” He repeats this disavowal seconds later when the third person contradicts him. And here I feel the film misses an opportunity, as diary, to go beyond popular legend and official literary biography. Was Elizabeth Bruce his wife? Did they have children? How long were they married? Was there a painful separation?

My sense is that, for those familiar with Matthews’s biography – whether intimately or only in broad strokes – the film works only in that we see what we already know. It doesn’t probe the subject, but remains at a respectful distance. When, for instance, Matthews insists that the honorary doctorate or the Order of Ikhamanga was awarded not “for the poetry as such… [but] for what I had done in the struggle”, he is not asked to elaborate. If it’s not for his poetry – and other cultural activities – what does he mean it’s for what he had done during the struggle. It’s an accepted literary commonplace that anti-apartheid cultural activity – writing a poem, designing a poster – contributed to “the struggle”. Anyone familiar with any of the poets of the 1970s and 1980s writing anti-apartheid poetry accepts that these writers fulfilled social and psychological roles. But it would be good to have a more specific sense of how one of these writers saw that contribution.

The overall effect is that the legend that is James Matthews does not appear in sharper relief, nor is it bolstered. Sometimes the legend is in fact undercut. When Matthews reflects on his younger days, during which, apparently, he was a hell-raiser, there is a sense of deflation: he and his friends go to a party, steal bread, cheese and wine, and leave. Another example is when he falls into a drunken sleep while appearing in a panel discussion at a literary event (Matthews has long ago stopped drinking). It may be true that at the time this behavior may have been considered “disastrous”, to use Matthews’s description, but it doesn’t appear particularly scandalous.

Roger Friedman refers to an occasion where Matthews was escorted from a venue for standing up and heckling or swearing at Abdullah Ibrahim at the latter legend’s homecoming concert. Here again I would have liked to find out more. Why was one Cape Town legend, for all intents and purposes on the same side of the anti-apartheid struggle as his target, heckling another? Was there personal animus behind the heckling? Or was it one motivated by a tension between exiles and those artists and activists who stayed in South Africa?

In addition to leaving the viewer curious, an unintended side effect is that Matthews fades from focus rather than being brought into more focus. A shot of him reading with cello accompaniment captures this when the camera pans from Matthews to the cellist while he is reading – we hear his voice, but he slides off the screen.

The diarist format of Diaries of a Dissident Poet is thus not exploited in the manner one expects and it becomes a film for insiders, who may be happy with seeing or recognizing the legend on the screen. (Matthews is a very photogenic subject.) For such viewers, vital moments in the film – heckling Abdullah Ibrahim, the place of Elizabeth Bruce – may need no explaining. For viewers with only a broad familiarity of Matthews through publications and word-of-mouth legend, the film falls short. No new knowledge or insights into the biography or character of the subject is on offer. And for viewers unfamiliar with Matthews or his work, the film does not explain its own interest: it does not provide a reason, say, as to why the film exists.

Barry intends the film as some form of archival work – that is, as archive creation. In the film, “I Am Woman” (available on Youtube) she refers to her film on Matthews, in production at the time:

I’m more interested in being with my camera in an intimate space, telling the stories of artists. That’s what I’m interested in because it’s archive and it’s archive that we need to have; we need to remember our artists, they’re important, they’re our historians who see things through a different lens … I’m making … a film on the poet James Matthews …

Traditionally, archival material is a by-product of other activities – bureaucracy, a writer’s drafts, the rushes and rough cuts of a filmmaker. “Archive” is a label we apply retrospectively to documentation that we (might) find useful for other reasons long after the primary intentions for such documentation have disappeared. Material that has served its primary purpose may find a different use that is both secondary (to its original purpose) and primary (for a new purpose).

How does one intend something to be archival? In what way might this film be archival? Is it a primary or secondary document? How might a researcher, 50 years hence, look on it as primary archival source? How might this film, as archival source, serve to help us to remember our artists? What kind of memory might that be?

It may be that by setting her vision on some future, indefinable use of the film – by prospectively intending it as archive – the filmmaker has allowed a possible present and primary reason for its existence shift from view. That is, why should we remember and pay homage to Matthews. Why is it important to remember him?

While the answer to this question may be self-evident to insiders, it is not argued in the film. There is the commendation read at the graduation ceremony, but this too is short-hand and not an exposition by the film. The interest in Matthews is thus left unexplained; our reason for having to remember him is thus unavailable to that future researcher digging around our literary archive.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.