Tiffany Shlain’s Experience in Cape Town

From the moment I found out I was being “deployed” to Cape Town, South Africa to screen Connected for the US State Department’s American Film Showcase, to the moment I left, it was like watching a scratchy piece of film footage transforming into reality. I have always been fascinated by South Africa, from reading about the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s courage, to learning, while in production on Connected, about the resonant African philosophy called “Ubuntu,” which means “I am what I am because we are.”

In the fantasy version of my life, I would prepare extensively for this trip by reading a series of books and watching documentaries about South African history. In the reality of being a working mom with two little kids while in production on a new film, I barely made it to the plane. Really.

Regardless, it was a hugely profound trip for me. Here are some freeze-frame impressions from my adventure.

The plane touches down after a layover in London to total a 30-hour journey. Rachel Gandin Mark (from USC, who administers the showcase) has already arrived and is there to greet me.  We drive to Cape Town, passing freeway signs declaring “Mandela Parkway” with dozens of rainbow flags that signify Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation.” And just as we arrive at the hotel, through the clouds and the rain, an enormous rainbow stretches across the sky.

At the hotel, we meet someone from The US Consulate and she hands me an official folder with the US State Department embossed seal on the cover.  I’m living my spy fantasy with the James Bond theme playing in my head. She then gives us a briefing on the events of the next several days.  The head of the Encounters Documentary Film Festival of South Africa, Mandisa Zitha, meets us for lunch. She is a stunning South African woman, my age, and we quickly bond over having two young daughters. She then tells us she had an emotional evening the night before where she announced at a screening how she was leaving the festival because she didn’t feel like she had enough time for her small children running a big event. I get it. These are the same conversations I have with my working mom friends back home. These are the things that bind mothers all over the world.

Mandisa gives us an intellectual tour of post-Apartheid South Africa, the racial and ethnic makeup of the country, and how the term “coloured” in South Africa is still common and refers to an ethnic group who possess ancestry from Europe, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world.  (I later learn “Cape Coloured” in genetic studies has the highest level of mixed ancestry in the world.)  In terms of filmmaking in South Africa, Mandisa tells us that Cape Town has increasingly modern infrastructure for international film productions, and while that is good for the local economy, she and her community are working to promote creativity and expression among local filmmakers as well. Since documentary films reveal the issues a society is struggling with; many of the films selected for the festival address post-apartied South Africa from many different lenses.  At the end of our lunch, I ask her more about the idea of “Ubuntu” and she talks much more in depth about the idea and how it speaks directly to the themes of human interconnectedness that I explore in Connected.   I learn how Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a book, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

The first day of the trip, us filmmakers are given a day without meetings to explore the city (thank you US State Department). Rachel and I took a tram ride to the top one of the tallest mountains in “the Cape,” called Table Mountain, which is near Lion’s Head (a mountain that looks stunning similar to the one from Lion King where Mufasa presents Simba to the Kingdom) and The Cape of Good Hope. The mountains are both majestic and rugged and look like profiles of wise men and women looking out at the horizon. They are like nothing I have ever seen before and I find my mind searching to piece together the parts that look familiar, trying to place where I am. The mountains reminded me of the southwest and the Grand Canyon, the city below like San Francisco, but with a very different soul at another edge of the earth. Someone says since we were at the Southern tip of the African continent, “we are at the bottom of the earth.” Another person says I should definitely travel to “the Cape,” which is literally the end of the continent of Africa. But this person doesn’t describe it as the bottom of the earth, but as the “vista of possibility.”

Dave Duarte and Max Kazin, a brother sister duo who are both technology entrepreneurs host a dinner for me, as part of a monthly salon they do called “27 Dinners.”   The charismatic pair are funny, quick-witted, and keep the evening flowing at a hipster joint called Frieda’s with vintage mannequins adorning the walls.

When I ask what the  “27 Dinners” are intended for, David says they are just for “weird people” and I said, “I love weird people,” partially trying to have intercontinental connection and partially because I’ve always felt like one. Rachel quickly realizes my misunderstanding due to his thick South African accent and lets me know that he really said the dinners are for “wired people.” Of course, David and I fall into laughter…mine I a little too hard, the kind of deep belly laugh that only jetlag can induce.

The entrepreneurs tell me about the tech community and how only 18% of South Africans are online.  Their goal in 5 years is to get to 80%. We talk about a lot things: how they ensure people have inexpensive access. How they can make sure people aren’t online too much. What kind of education can get to people in townships who currently don’t have access to education.

Rachel and I want to visit a township. We definitely don’t want to go on a “tour,” of which there are many. Max from the “27 Dinners,” takes us to meet her good friend “Salvation” who lives in Mandela Park, a township near Cape Town. It‘s definitely humbling to visit a city on the hill of shacks with no running water, a city with little hair salons and most people hanging in packs with no work. Salvation’s home is a room tiny enough to only fit a couch and a TV where American Pro Wrestling is on. They explain to me American Pro Wrestling is huge in South Africa (oy.) While there is no running water, everyone has cell phones. (I wonder if they are part of the 18%?)  I talk to Salvation, her friends, her cousins and people that go in and out of the shack. She tells me she is scared for her safety living here.  I feel helpless to her situation as I interview her holding her sweet 2 year old daughter. I also think of our “townships” in the United States.

The premiere of Connected sells out and even though it’s on a Sunday night people stay late into the evening for a deep conversation about technology and the things that connect us and disconnect us. The next morning I head out to the workshop I am to give at the film school. Even though I’m feeling faded, the room is brimming with energy and eager minds that wake me up.  And those minds keep filing in. By the end, there are over 150 people in a room that normally holds 75. People are on the ground, crowded in the back. The energy is pumping. We have a passionate discussion about KONY 2012 and then I share with them my new way I am making films with people over the Internet with videos from their cellphones in what my film studio and I are calling “CLOUD FILMMAKING.”

I tell them how at the moment people from all over the world are sending in video clips putting their hand on their heart for a new film we are making called Engage. I ask if I could film all of them for the film. There is a resounding yes. The room is so packed and I am not very tall, so I stand on a chair with my iPhone, but still cannot get clearance… A 7 foot tall man approaches and offers to be a living tripod…and the shot begins:

It is such a powerful moment, a room packed with people, young, old, black, white all wanting to tell stories, all feeling their heartbeat.

After the class I speak to many filmmakers, one who tells me he is making a documentary about Ubuntu. He is using the same fighter planes used for surveillance during apartheid to film hundreds of people spelling out Ubuntu shot from the sky looking down.

As I write this report of the trip, I am currently finishing the edit of this short film I had been telling them about, Engage, that will be out this fall.  The shot I took there with them is bursting with so much emotion and speaks so perfectly to what I want to say in this film. It is the climax shot.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Films are a powerful tool for fostering understanding and tolerance in the world.”

I now understand “Ubuntu” in a whole new way.

Be sure to watch Tiffany’s new film ENGAGE, featuring footage from this trip.

And here’s the trailer for CONNECTED.

(A slightly altered version of Tiffany’s report was published in Documentary Magazine’s Fall 2012 Issue in an article called “Connected” in Cape Town.)



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