For the last three months, we have been working on the sound design of my first feature-length documentary, Taking Stock, a film about my father and our third-generation family business in Benoni, a city to the east of Johannesburg. I brought a crew of close friends I had met at film school in the USA to spend a month talking with my father about work, legacy, generational divide and South Africa. This included Jan, our sound man from the Czech Republic.
It’s often only when a sound designer has done a bad job that a casual viewer notices the design; a “clunk” or “buzz” that sounds fake or misplaced or too loud. When done well, few in the audience will think about how the sound contributed to the experience, and fewer understand the process: during the shoot, Jan focused on getting “clean” audio from the people filmed. But, at the same time, he carefully noted the unique flavor of the different spaces we visited, from the busy streets of the Jo’burg central business district, to the outskirts of the Drakensberg, Limpopo’s villages, the walled suburbs of Houghton, and the buzzing Sunday afternoons of Daveyton township. Each of these places sounds different, and each needs to be reflected as such, or it might read false to a viewer who knows the place, if only on a subconscious level.
After the cameras have stopped rolling, it falls to the sound designer to create a world through sound that is both engaging and natural. They will reengineer spaces by adding backgrounds, effects and music, while saving auditory “room” for dialogue, always in service of emotion and story. Someone who has been to Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, knows that it sounds unique, even if they can’t put their finger on the balance of voices, atmosphere and the things that makes it so. When you’re recording on the day, you can’t capture all that, so Jan and a team “build” it, sometimes long after the shoot, in post-production.
After 18 months of picture editing, we began the sound work, with a team of three designers. We met for a review session. Watching a scene outside the family store, I noticed a weird, faint beat. In the background, one of the designers had layered a subtle track of djembe drums. She told me that she had wanted to add something with an African flavor. I laughed and told her that the drums are African, but they don’t make much sense being in the background of a scene downtown. We put in some house music from a passing taxi’s radio instead and moved on to the next scene.
When making a documentary, you live between trying to tell a real story and trying to entertain. But there is sometimes a gulf between these two because entertainment relies to some extent on fulfilling the expectations of a pre-existing genre, regardless of reality. The conventions of these genres are often simplistic: for romantic comedies, the guy and the girl should live happily ever after; likewise, in Africa, there should be djembe drums.
A South African film is operating within a broader international narrative that already has expectations about the concept of “Africa.” These can manifest as expectations about certain kinds of music or voices, certain visual cues, certain people, and more generally, certain kinds of stories. The international success of a documentary can sometimes seem reliant on the extent that it lives up these expectations: stories about poverty in Africa, war in the Middle East, drugs and gangs in Central and South America. If you want to make a film about the Far East, and you want to put butts in seats, you better make it about some kind of human rights violation.
Obvious evidence for this comes from looking at the bodies that provide institutional support. Today there are very few places to apply for documentary production grants if you are not making work about a social justice issue. It can feel like a film taking place in Africa is looked on skeptically by funders if it doesn’t address race or poverty directly. Take a look also at the Oscar nominees for documentary over the last 10 years. The majority of them are about social justice issues, and those which take place in developing countries are far more likely to be so. This holds true for selections at many major film festivals too.
Social justice is an important part of documentary filmmaking, but these stories are not enough on their own to create a realistic sense of a place, person or culture. The documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson notes how journalists tend to look for the “gems” – the facets of a person or event that are most sensational – and then put these all together to make a gripping story. In films, there is a focus on the extreme elements of a society, like genocide, collapse or revolution. This is dangerous, because it doesn’t paint complete pictures of issues or people. A topic is not exclusively described by its extremes.
This incomplete description is more acute in developing parts of the world because there are simply fewer opportunities for stories to be told – with less funding and fewer people in a position to independently spread a unique story. So, a film about a mother and daughter’s eccentricities (Grey Gardens), or about pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven), or a strange but brilliant artist (Crumb), might struggle to find funding and an audience even more if it comes from a developing part of the world, because it’s not the familiar (read: marketable) international narrative… “If this is a movie about Africa, why am I watching a story about a shoe salesman… we have those here.” Ultimately I think this is a tremendous loss, because these less “extreme” stories challenge preconceptions of elitist difference, while still providing a window onto the unique social fabric of a place.
On a personal level also, the preconceived narrative of “Africa” is tricky for me to navigate because I am not the ideal person to make a story about that Africa. I’m white, Jewish, a descendant of European immigrants to South Africa. I identify completely as South African, but I don’t speak a black language, and I don’t listen to the same music as most South Africans. That’s embarrassing for me to admit, but worse to fake. During the design, I started asking if maybe I should have djembe drums in a scene, and then I had to Wiki-check if djembe drums really even come from South Africa, because I grew up hearing Neil Young at my house, and when I Googled “current music in South Africa,” I found hip hop, not African percussion.
What options exist then while reporting on life from somewhere with a preconceived narrative? Maybe you go after your truthful narrative above all, at the expense of potential marketability – telling your story, say, of a town in India with a love of Superman (Supermen of Malegaon), without unnecessarily mentioning the war with Pakistan, or poverty or Mahatma Gandhi. Or, maybe you look for a middle ground – framing a story in a digestible way for an audience that will never totally grasp the complexity of a whole other life anyway, but at least will be able, here, to interact with some new part of the world (as in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s series on CNN, Parts Unknown). Or should you cynically, accept that “narratives of truth” are decided by individuals anyway, and just give funders whichever narrative they want? I admit I feel tempted to do that sometimes.
Ultimately, it’s the representation of the complexity of truth that I respect most in documentary, and it just feels wrong when that plays second fiddle to entertainment. Sometimes it is frustrating when broad narratives don’t line up with reality, however this seems all the more reason to keep pushing for those stories that correct, improve and enrich the narratives we have from all over the world. And when it’s entertaining on top of that, all the better.
*Taking Stock, is a personal story of his shopkeeper father, and the relationship between family, community, country and work. It is Ben Stillerman’s first feature documentary and is playing at the Encounters Documentary Festival during June 2016, with more info at facebook.com/takingstockmovie.