An African Minute: Oli Benet + Senegalese Skaters

OKA contributor Kate Bomz takes "An African Minute" with DJ and global powerblader Oli Benet to ask him about the thriving skate scene in Dakar, Senegal.

1. How did you end up in Dakar?

Over a year ago a friend called me and told me that there was a group of skaters coming from Dakar to do a show in 'Parc de la Ciutadella' as part of a Dakar/Barcelona collaboration of culture. There was a meet the day before, and the skaters asked if I would join them. I arrived at this palace of a house in the centre of Barcelona, and found no-one related to the event. I was underdressed and considering leaving, feeling rather out of place. I decided to wait it out and how glad I am that I did. A group of Senegalese skaters entered this house with music playing, and all wearing their skates, bringing with them some great vibes and smiles, and we immediately started communicating with broken English on their part and broken French on my part. Their skating and story was inspiring, and their shows the next day were incredible.

2. You've mentioned you had fear due to ignorance & preconceived notions, how were those shattered upon your arrival in Dakar?

When I say preconceived notions I mean in the sense that I have been travelling for many years, and you learn to keep your head down and push on when people try to talk to you. Avoid eye contact and mind your own business. Dakar was full of people trying to talk to you all the time, and at first I just did the whole “Avoid everyone and march on” technique. However, the Senegalese skaters with me were very friendly to everyone. At first I thought that they must all be friends, but when Eli Manel told me that everyone should be nice to everyone always in this life, I realized that many of the people were being far more welcoming than I had realized. What I had understood as “hassling” was more just friendly human contact, and there is an overlying social openness which really inspired me.

3. How long has rollerblading been a part of youth culture in Dakar, and what lead to the popularization of this activity?

The skate scene there is huge. I guess skates taking 80mm wheels and above means that it might well be the one extreme sport that can be done on such poor paving. Also they have “Street Marketing” programs where skaters skate the streets throwing flyers through car windows, so there's work in skating. They are also very well organized, and very welcoming to new skaters. Accro-Rollers have a school where everyone is invited to learn, and this means that the scene is always healthy and growing. We could all learn a lot from Accro-Roller.

4. It is evident that fashion is an integral part of the events with people using designs as a form of cultural expression to accompany the artistry within the rollerblading scene, what are your observations of this form of display?

In the case of this event there was visual arts, skating demonstrations, music, artists, and fashion all combined. This is the first time I have seen this type of combination event, but it meant that it was really a visual feast from start to finish. There are some incredible fashion designers in Dakar – I met a couple. Creativity, colour, flair...the lot!

5. What are the perspectives of the participants, what do they think about the opportunity to combine athleticism, innovation and collectivism?

Well the event aims to stimulate these poorer neighbourhoods and bring in a hurricane of inspiration and creativity. All the different elements have been combined in the past by the different groups of artists, and you found that some of the fashion designers also skated, and they had all travelled together to dislplay their skills together as a group. There is a really great sense of harmony between the different disciplines and a lot of “love” compared to other similar events where different sports or activities feel the need to “beef” on each other.

6. From the pictures of the Dakar event, it appears that there are far less women that rollerblade, do you think that the movement will become inclusive with time, what can be done to encourage more female rollerbladers and strengthen the visibility of the ones that exist?

Actually the percentage of woman rollerbladers is not so low in certain styles of skating. Slalom is a popular type of skating that attracts women, also of course the Fitness aspect of skating has always been popular with women. Aggressive inline skating doesn't tend to have many female fans (allthough there are some really great women aggressive skaters) it's really is very hard on the body, and not much of a “sport.”

7. You get a sense that audience participation has a distinct role in creating a sense of atmosphere, could you describe the different reactions that the audience has and how the participants interact with them?

Depending on the type of person you are, it's nervewracking. Some people love being the centre of attention, and grow while they skate in front of a crowd. Others just turn into a nervous mess that cant even roll straight. It helps when a crowd is watching and enjoying the show, because in some cases you can find that you are in front of a hostile group of people that can't wait to see you fall. It's a very different energy! In Dakar the crowd was made up of about 100 children who LOVED everything, the jumps, the falls, the skaters...claps and screams of joy for everything, and that's never a bad crowd, that's when it's really fun!

8. You're a great DJ, tell us a bit more on the deejay scene in Dakar, your perspective?

Scary as it gets. The crowd know exactly what they want to listen to, and don't have time for anything else. A really great DJ from Spain was playing before me, and they decided after about 3 tunes they didn't like what he had to play, and they “removed” him from the decks. Neither of us had ever seen anything like that and it meant when it came close to my time to play I was 10 times more nervous than I had ever been. In every other country I have played the crowd will give you a good chance to show what you have, in this case it was “If you haven't played the exact tracks I want in the first 5 minutes you are getting booed off.” Luckily, it worked out great for me and my set went down a storm...phew!!!!

Find out more about Oli and his sport at USD SkateThe Conference, or his sponsor Inercia.

Check out all of OKA’s African Minute interviewees – folks whose work reflects a new perspective of Africa:

Zimbabwean self-taught artist activist Sindiso Nyoni

Congolese superstar rapper Hugo Million

South African fashion designer Gareth Cowden

Nigerian songstress Zara Gretti

Zimbabwean celebrity hair and make up stylist Jackie Mgido

Kenyan comic artist Chief Nyamweya


Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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