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.

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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