Cinema Africa: 'The Unseen' Filmmaker Perivi Katjavivi on Exploring Postcolonial Identities in Namibia

Perivi Katjavivi’s feature film debut is a collection of philosophical musings on what it means to be alive in post-colonial Namibia.

In the tenth instalment of Cinema Africa, Alyssa Klein sits down with Namibian filmmaker Perivi Katjavivi following the South Africa debut of his feature debut, The Unseen, at the 37th Durban International Film Festival.

Perivi Katjavivi’s deeply poetic feature film debut is a collection of philosophical musings on what it means to be alive in post-colonial Namibia. Shot in stark black and white and weaving stylistically between fiction and documentary, The Unseen tells the parallel stories of three lost souls in Windhoek––a Namibian rapper (Matthew Ishitile), an African-American actor (Antonio David Lyons) and a young depressed woman (Senga Brockerhoff) who has recently returned home from a life overseas. The characters never actually cross paths. Rather, they’re tied together thematically by a sense of isolation from the rest of Namibian society.

The Unseen had its world premiere in February at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. Last month, the film made its South Africa debut in competition at the 37th Durban International Film Festival. I caught up with Katjavivi in Joburg shortly after DIFF.

Alyssa Klein for Okayafrica: Tell us about The Unseen...

Perivi Katjavivi: It’s a film that unfolds more like an essay than a straight narrative. It’s a film that looks at issues of identity and place in contemporary Namibia and follows three stories that are all interconnected thematically. That of a young depressed woman who’s traveled and seen the world and is returned home and deeply unfulfilled, deeply unsatisfied with life and her place in it. There’s an African-American actor who travels to Namibia to play the role of Mandume Ya Ndemufayo, a famous historical leader in a Namibian film. He then deals with issues of place and identity. He's certainly someone who’s searching for something greater and something more meaningful as he starts this journey to hopefully make this film. And a struggling rapper who finds himself caught in between cultures and influences, and is trying to navigate the influences of his community versus the influence of western culture and hip-hop. He’s trying to find his own unique voice.

I’m more interested in linking them thematically, as opposed to having people pop in and out of each other’s stories a la Crash, or those sorts of multi-narrative films. They’re linked by the fact that they’re all doing something that I get the impression we’re doing more of in southern Africa––we’re asking questions about what it means to be African in contemporary Africa. And these are three people that are certainly wrestling with those questions, of which we have yet to find answers. There are no answers yet as far as we’re concerned.

What are some major themes throughout the film?

We’re exploring postcolonial identity, culture, music, language. Language becomes a big thing for me in a portion of the film. Can you think in your own language? Do you think in your own language? Do you think in English? How does that affect you? Why would you communicate in this language? Why would you make music in this specific language? These are things that we take for granted. One of the biggest mistakes we make as Africans is that when you want to have this conversation, a lot of people are dismissive. They say, “well, I don’t have to be African. I don’t have to have that conversation. I’m just doing what I want to do.” But to do what you want to do, you’re picking a side, you’re making a choice in that already. In the sense that the culture we have is not an African culture, it’s a generic culture, it’s a Eurocentric culture that we have the world over. So to not engage in the conversation, or to say, “I’m just doing whatever, I don’t need to consciously be African, or consciously address these things,” you are actually making a decision by doing that. That was something that came across very strongly in the movie.

And just feeling this notion of in-betweenness. The movie is called The Unseen for different reasons, and I hate to over-explain things, but there’s certainly unseen spaces. There are people who lack visibility in the world. And [the three main characters] are an example of three people that are invisible, and existing in this unseen space that you can’t define. It’s not colonial or decolonial. It’s not African or Western. It’s not black or white. It’s something else. And I think more and more of us can relate to that sense of displacement and in-betweenness.

Can you speak at all on having an American as one of your main characters?

Following an American actor in Namibia [gave us] a specific vantage point. It takes foreigners sometimes to come to our communities to show us how crazy we are. There are many things that we tolerate every day in Namibia. Namibia is an incredibly racist place. It has an incredible amount of income inequality. But for most people those things are normal. People do not address those things. Somebody else comes in and goes, “you know, this is kind of crazy. You guys live like this?” That has value.

Antonio David Lyons in The Unseen. Courtesy of Old Location Films.

Could you tell us a little more about yourself and how your own background might have shaped the film?

I’m a Namibian, a Namibian filmmaker. I’ve lived there almost my whole life. My father’s from there. My mother’s from England. I was born in England so I do have that dual heritage. And that in itself, that’s a way I relate to this more fluid exploration of identity and place. I can also look at myself and think, well, “Is he African enough? Is he European enough?” I’m very comfortable in my skin, I’m very comfortable as a Namibian. But I’m very clear that I don’t fit the main narrative. I don’t fit the easy kind of well, that’s “what an African looks like.” Or that’s “what a Namibian looks like,” or “how they should behave.” I’m very open to self-examination and being part of this conversation about who we are, where we’re from, where we’re going to.

And your filmmaking background?

I wanted to make films, probably, since I was eight years old. I went to a small film school in Los Angeles called Columbia College. I did my masters at UCT more recently. I’ve been running a company called Old Location Films in Namibia. Historically, Old Location was kind of like how Sophiatown was to Joburg or the Harlem Renaissance in the States. Old Location was a neighbourhood in Windhoek in the 50s where you had all these different cultures and influences from around the country. This was not before apartheid, but before some of the forced removals. Then in the 50s people were forcefully removed, massacred. The intention in naming my company is to recall that spirit. We intended on making films for Africans, and the world. People keep saying, “well, we make content for the global market,” or “we make African content for the world.” What does that mean? It’s already problematic because you’re not interested in your local audience. So I’m interested in making films about issues of identity and some of the things we’ve touched on. For us, by us, and for everybody else too.

'The Unseen' filmmaker, Perivi Katjavivi

What can you tell us about the film scene in Namibia?

Namibia is very small. Namibia has two million people. So we’re not in a position to work towards building a film industry. There have been a number of filmmakers that have been making really exciting stuff since the 90s. Some of that gets seen beyond the border, some of it doesn’t. I think it’s an interesting time now. Because it’s much easier to make a film. It was very hard to get our film done, but it was a film we did for next to nothing. It’s always a model I encourage. Some of my heroes were people like John Cassavetes––pick up a camera and make a movie. I’m always interested in what is the space that you’re making your film from. How are you seeing the world and working creatively from there? The way filmmaking has been imposed on us in southern Africa, we're copying and pasting another model and putting it on us. That in itself is suffocating the progression of original voices. And I think Namibia is no different in that sense. Education, our education systems are incredibly poor in Namibia and South Africa as well. It’s not just about film education, it’s about life education. If those things aren’t there, you’re not going to change things fundamentally because you’re not addressing the larger holistic education needs. That’s my biggest issue. And it’s one of the reasons I’m getting more involved in academia.

We have a film commission, which for a tiny country of two million people to have a film commission is pretty dope. They started off doing amazing things, but we have two individuals that basically hijacked the good efforts of the commission and have just been using it as their cash cow. And unfortunately nobody does anything. That’s also part of another culture of entitlement and corruption that we also have here in South Africa. So again, you can fix the film commission, but if you don’t fix the country, it doesn’t really help. Not to be deeply pessimistic. But there are amazing filmmakers. There are people like Joel Haikali, Richard Pakleppa, Tim Huebschle, Pedro Mendoza. There are many people I can name who have been doing interesting work that I hope gets acknowledged more and more.

Still from Perivi John Katjavivi's The Unseen. Courtesy of Old Location Films.

What’s your take on youth culture in Windhoek?

We have crazy rates of alcohol consumption. It’s a serious problem. I think in a city like Windhoek there really is nothing to do for a lot of young people. There really isn’t shit going on. And crazy unemployment rates as well. You take those factors, coupled with not enough going on for kids, and you just have a very unhealthy situation. But it’s important to note that people are still doing really cool shit. People are still creating great music. People are making films more and more in Namibia. There’s very popular monthly poetry sessions. I think you’d find youth culture is very similar in southern Africa, but you’d not surprisingly find more stuff going on in the centres.

The Unseen will have its next public screening in Windhoek on the 24th of August. The event is being organised by AfricAvenir as part of their on going African Perspective series. The event looks to challenge old colonial narratives as it is scheduled to take place at the Alte Feste, an old German fort that looks out at the surrounding Namibian capital.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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