Memory and forgetting

Almost 30 years since South Africa’s first democratic elections, apartheid can sometimes seem like a distant past. However, three new films interrupt both the temptation to forget and to selectively remember.

Still from Private Footage (2022).

One of the more powerful attributes of film lies in its ability to make sense of fantasy. We are alive to the filmic as an imaginative medium for telling us about ourselves and the world in which we live. The best films hold us in a sort of tensed imbalance: they get beyond the dopamine-seeking, what-happened-next storytelling imperative to ask us to sit with more profound questions. In Milisuthando Bongela’s Milisuthando, Janaína Nagata’s Private Footage, and Jose Cardoso’s What The Soil Remembers, we see three aesthetic responses to the question of memory and forgetting. It would be more accurate to term these films visual essays, for they are each in their divergent ways about the reach of memory, and the way in which that reach might be exploited to better think about the things that resist saying.

Early on in Milisuthando, the exceptional new work from South African filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela, there’s a quite bizarre bit of montage footage. A chiaroscuro pageant of fire and synchronized dancers is happening in a looming stadium. A runner enters the picture, wielding an Olympic torch, his face a mask of determination as he ascends a flight of stairs to light a cauldron. With much pomp and circumstance, the apartheid “Oranje, Blanje Blou” flag is lowered, and homeland flags are raised against a dark sky. It’s two parts totalitarian kitsch, and one part pagan ritual. No doubt, similar scenes occurred in each of the 10 bantustans, the performative theatrics of apartheid’s South Africa’s hearts-and-minds campaign to show the world the friendlier side of white supremacy. Underscored by a propulsive 1970s soundtrack, it’s a startling moment  that gets at the heart of the often-overlooked strangeness of that time. You can’t help but be awed at the thoroughgoingness of it all.

Bongela’s eponymously named documentary film is a lapel-grabbingly intimate portrait of Black livingness against the backdrop of this strange apartheid homeland system and its afterlife. Structured in five parts, the documentary pivots around her family’s life in the Transkei, the first of the absurd attempts by the apartheid regime to peddle the fable of a series of “independent” Black states operating in close harmony with white South Africa. The homelands were a PR ruse on a grand scale: by allowing Black people to preside over their own territories (so the lie went), they would demonstrate that apartheid was, after all, just sensible rationalism. Each of the homelands was meant to be a grand boast: a strongman at the helm, an army, a casino (of course), and a narrowly defined sense of national chauvinism. They lasted two decades at most, long enough to lodge themselves in memory well past their expiration dates.

As a social adventure, the homelands were a ridiculous exercise. Conversely, however, for many Black people, the homelands were enclaves where love and normalcy could be nurtured and given succor. As Bongela narrates, “Even against a backdrop of utter madness, the stubborn details of basic human life find a way to exist and exist well.” As the documentary illustrates, the homelands were an attempt to stanch what had always been a leaky plan: apartheid didn’t reckon with the practical logistics of all those people. The homelands were meant to be buffers for absorbing Black expectation, filters for keeping Black economic and social aspiration out of the pale fantasy. This was their intended purpose. It was perhaps incidental that they often became environments that held open space for Black people to forge new forms of love-in-common. For the generation of Gen-Xers and elder-millennials who are now the grownups, those who grew up in these brief homelands as the children of parents “who took briefcases to work”– civil servants, academics, lawyers, and others in the burgeoning Black professional classes.

Because the homelands fizzled out in ignominy, their memorialization has tended to be sketchy. Milisuthando is a trenchant intervention in this regard: in getting past the will to forget via a filmic meditation, Bongela atomizes the often-conflicting workings of nostalgia: the way it entices and sullies in equal measure, the way love and violence can swirl and entangle in strange ways. What would it mean to experience love, belonging, and togetherness in a place that Bongela calls “Apartheid’s wish?” At just over two hours (it doesn’t feel that way), the documentary proceeds as a controlled exhalation. Following a path that reaches back beyond the womb, it feels its way toward a set of truths about how we read history and how we make sense of the peculiar intimacies apartheid occasioned. It is a blend of archival footage, home movie, and long audio clips (the removal of the visual accompanying a grappling for truth) that feels both recognizable and brand new. There are no toy-toying men; no policemen wielding German shepherds, or images of Desmond Tutu or FW de Klerk. Instead, powerfully, we see and hear women: their voices (Milisuthando herself, particularly), their memories, their images. The story begins with an unknown woman, Mystery Braveheart, and leaves off in what feels like a place of knowledge, with the passing of Milisuthando’s grandmother, an anchoring presence in this capacious film.

As Milisuthando shows, the Transkei was more than just a family hearth: it was the context that shaped her subsequent relations to the world. When Bongela discourses with her white friends on the difficulty of friendship without the burden of history-making itself felt, they sit with the vexing problem of anxieties that are frustratingly inexplicable. Our proximity to the exposed vulnerabilities is almost unbearable, which I suspect is the point. What would it mean, Bongela asks us, to experience the full unhurried working-through of love, belonging, and togetherness in the long waking afterlife of “Apartheid’s wish?” This is Milisuthando’s traction point. It’s not all heavy weather, though. Milisuthando isn’t too po-faced to exalt in the humor of the everyday. Some of the best scenes are those where Milisuthando and her 90-year-old grandmother are indulging in everyday chatter. When Milisuthando’s grandmother hilariously upbraids Mandela and Matanzima for ending apartheid (thus paving the way for her grandson to wed someone who isn’t Black) you laugh because it’s funny, and because it feels like something it would be good to be a part of. When a family member sings from halting memory one of the stirring anthems of the errant state, you feel the perverse sweep of the optimism that the lyrics carry.

Milisuthando is a banquet for the feelings, scored in arresting fashion by the South African composer and artist Neo Muyanga. It has so much texture and granularity that you find yourself afraid to blink in case you miss something. It’s a marvelously inventive piece of documentary cinema that acts upon the viewer, taking us through the work of thinking about closeness and connection in ways that shake our complacency.

If Milisuthando is burnished by its careful, patient turning-over of detail, Private Footage proceeds quite differently. A punchy, claustrophobic film that is simultaneously high-concept and beguilingly simple in its execution Private Footage is also woven from memory objects, but its organizing premise—that the obscene can lie latent in the commonplace with distressing ease—feels more haphazardly executed. Janaína Nagata, the Brazilian director of this unsettling film, bought a reel of film on the internet for a film project. The reel contained a roll of film—the “private footage of the title”—that turned out to be a travelog of the sort white people were wont to make in the middle decades of the 20th century, images that capture scenes of leisure, exploration, and carefree bonhomie. It’s the mid-century equivalent of an all-caps I WENT TO SOUTH AFRICA YouTube vlog.

The film opens with 19 minutes of silent film footage of a white Brazilian family touring the Kruger National Park. The wife is in a beehive, the daughter in the clothes children wore in the 1960s. They are being driven around in a Mercedes sedan by a driver in a peaked cap. This is an early marker of economic access: the drive through the park is often framed through the windscreen of the Mercedes, the glinting three-point star clearly visible:

Suddenly the frame cuts from the animal-watching, and we are in the Transkei observing a performance of Africans bedecked in skins and beads, kicking high and jiving low while the white people look on in delight. A flag tells us that the spectacle is at the behest of the Bakers/Baumann biscuit company. The spectacle sets my teeth on edge. It makes the camera part of the coercion, a feeling that continues as other Black people—rickshaw operators, Mpondo villagers gathering reeds or riding horses—enter the frame. They seem, to the camera, to belong to the same order of scenery as the giraffes.

The film is framed in two halves, a split-screen experiment in illuminating juxtapositions. As we replay the seemingly innocuous images of white people at play, gurning by luxuriously blue pools or on manicured lawns whose keepers are conspicuously absent, on the right side of the screen a new window appears, zooming out to give us cultural and historical context. The desktop format allows the two images to comment on each other, turning the incidental into the deliberate, and foregrounding the enquiring presence of the director. Nagata uses the robotic Google Translate voice where sections of text require rendering in Portuguese, and in a film whose narrative architecture has been voided to the frame, the effect is jarringly mechanical.

The elements synthesize into a narrative about access and intervention: the filmmaker’s manual intrusions rescript the vacation film’s innocent happiness as moral deficiency. The endorsement of an evil regime as a sort of pleasure paradise illustrates how easy it was for apartheid South Africa to win the approval of the wider, whiter world. Private Footage invites questions about the ease with which complicity happens when there’s a will to make believe. By concretizing the abstract, Nagata asks us to think about how our reading changes when we know that the scenic tour is through places that are strictly segregated along racial lines, or when we realize that the affable man grinning in his corduroy ensemble and twinkly earrings is the Verwoerd-feted occult healer Khotso Sethuntsa.

The rhythm of Private Footage stops and starts in an unpredictable way, sometimes reversing, other times looping, always drawing attention to the edited nature of the reel. All of this is accompanied by a shearing chordophonic soundtrack that sounds like the strings are being stretched to breaking point. The effect underlines the sense of horror that pervades the film. It ends with Verwoerd at a garden party, glad-handing society ladies and exchanging niceties in one pane; in the other, first a Pathe newsreel clip broadcasts the details of his assassination, then the dulcet tones of William F. Buckley loop in, and we see him posed in a Johannesburg high-rise studio, as he prepares to interview Verwoerd’s equally intransigent successor, BJ Vorster.

Private Footage will undercut your expectations: in this regard, it doesn’t play out at all like you expect such a film to do. There is no resolution, per se. It tells its story in the sparsest way possible, pulling meaning from the nooks and crannies of its source material in an unsparingly confrontational way. On first watching it the film feels rough and improvised, yet the clarity and watchfulness of the editing mark it as something deceptive.

If you walk the length of Andringa Street in Stellenbosch, there is little that deviates from the town-and-gown aesthetic. One end debouches in the cutesy tourist hub, where sidewalk cafeterias provide a gift-shop facsimile of European cosmopolitanism. As you walk up the road, the malls and parking lots give way to a series of massive buildings. These blandly repetitive buildings, with their innards laagered from view by forbidding glass and obdurate concrete, are university buildings, and they stand on the site of forced evictions.

As a result of the apartheid government’s spatial racism, 3,700 coloured residents were removed from the area in the mid-1960s. Six schools, four churches, one mosque. The houses they left behind were razed. If you stand in the parking lot of the Pick n’ Pay shopping center, you can date the erasure. All the surrounding buildings are the pastiches of International Modernism beloved by people who fervently believed they belonged to European civilization. Only the mosque standing resolutely across the parking lot suggests a different, palimpsestuous history.

This area—a nexus of streets that was known as Die Vlakte—is the focus of What The Soil Remembers, a deeply evocative visual narrative produced by South African filmmaker Adrian Van Wyk and directed by Ecuadorian filmmaker José Cardoso, about the displacement of residents from Die Vlakte. The documentary is an effective piece of storytelling, austere and tightly controlled in its pacing. It reminds us that many of the victims of apartheid’s lebensraum fantasy are still alive, even as their claims become less legible in their old age and their dying. We witness gray-haired interviewees discussing the smell of koeksisters, the rituals of togetherness that the space held, which the film contrasts with the homogenous banality of the students who now claim the town as their own.

It’s one of these old-timers who recalls how in 1940, at a corner where there are now shops selling activewear, coloured residents of Die Vlakte were attacked by a mob of fascist students. A two-day outburst of racist violence ensued. The students, all young white men, drove coloured residents from their houses, ransacking, punching down, throwing stones, and braining innocent bystanders with bricks, before returning to their residences, cheerfully fortified in their nationalist camaraderie.

Here, as with Private Footage, the Nazi resonances resurface. What The Soil Remembers reminds us that the University of Stellenbosch was run by a cabal of pro-National Party administrative toadies, cheerleaders-disguised-as-clergy, and sycophants in high office. If Verwoerd and company were the architects of the great apartheid error, the University of Stellenbosch was the firm in which that architecture was drawn up. The documentary shows that the greedy annexation of Die Vlakte that drove the coloured residents from the center of town and replaced their houses with classrooms they were not allowed to access, was the university’s institutionalization of racial hatred.

The story told in What the Soil Remembers feels almost too short, leaving off with no great resolution. It ends on an uncertain note, as it inevitably must since the events it records have no end date. There is no just reconciliation that would restore the lives smashed apart, quell the bitterness fermented over decades, and provide just recompense for the years of disregard. The film echoes in the mind long after its brief running time has elapsed, because it is a record of confrontations both loud and quiet.

The through-line that connects these remarkable films—and why they are so moving—is their willingness to rescue what seems on the verge of being lost. Their archival resources are fragile, precarious objects: found film, remembered oral accounts, sonic artifacts. Each is an essay-in-collage and watching them in proximity draws clear resonances to the surface. The film reel that bedrocks Private Footage, for instance, is immediately familiar as a certain kind of memory object. But watched alongside Milisuthando, we become aware of how rare it is to see home movies of South African Black life. The camera indexes prosperity (relative though that concept may be), and the freedom and leisure to document oneself. The absence of similar images in What the Soil Remembers is thus also a resounding commentary on loss and disruption.

These films are also linked by their architecture: they each eschew the granitic conclusion in favor of more subtle, associative meanings: what happens if we place this next to that? What happens if we interrupt the archive, drawing attention to the unsaid? I was struck by how each film draws the audience into an open-ended consideration of meaning: we are made to read and interpret, to linger at the places where the truth rubs through the fantasy. In watching them, we learn what our own role should be.

Further Reading

Cinematic universality

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