When Keith Jones and Deon Maas first started trying to pull together the footage, sources and sound for their documentary, Punk in Africa, they found it slow going. It was only when they started leveraging a dedicated Facebook page and other social media tools did they start to make headway. And make it they did.
Thanks to social media, the film-makers were able to pull together footage and photos and accounts of the birth and young adulthood of punk in Southern Africa, along with the events, strife and social movements that fueled it (and that it fueled in turn). Some of the footage – including accounts of the tumultuous political and social conflict in the countries – had not been seen in 30 years.
The film has been screened at theatres and film festivals in South Africa, Holland and Brazil. It will hit the States in March.
I interviewed Jones and Maas via email. The responses came via Jones. First off is the tech. But read beyond that. Believe me, their approach to the technology, as interesting as it is, is far from the most interesting aspect of the project.
“Our First ‘Facebook Film'”
How did you research the topic? I understand that you wound up finding footage, photographs and people via social media. Could you expand on that?
This is in many regards our first “Facebook film” as without the help of social networks and new media it would have proven far costlier and more troublesome to make the film, especially from the point of view of research. The first step was to track down all the survivors and begin to construct a story from everyone’s first hand accounts, which took several months. Another aspect was tracing all of the archival sources used in the film, which were assembled from literally all over the world: 8mm film of some of the bands from Los Angeles and London, video footage from Australia, DDR newsreels found in Slovak film archives, photographs from Poland, unused excerpts from television shoots in Zimbabwe. The list in endless – and being able to connect to people over the Internet made that not only possible, but effective.
How would making this film have been different if you had made it in the past?
For a start, technology has made it possible to make films in a radically different way than even a few years ago – today filesharing, external hard drives and HD cameras make things easy, fast and second nature that were unthinkable not all that long ago. Africa is also considerably changed from a decade ago which provided us with some necessary distance and perspective in terms of telling a historical narrative. And hopefully we get better at this as we learn more as a result of doing other projects.
What kind of tech was used in shooting and editing the film?
The film was primarily shot on HD using a Vericam P2. We also shot partially on Super-8 film stock to achieve a certain grainy, vintage look for purposes of introducing certain characters and places in the film. We edited on Final Cut by using proxy files to speed things up, and then assembled a full-HD timeline once were roughly finished. We then did the more fine post-production work including grading on the Baselight system and final sound mix in specialised studios in Prague, Czech Republic, where the film was co-produced.
Punk in Africa
What is punk, and how did your understanding of it affect the way you made the film?
Punk is an attitude of showing a middle finger to everything that is deemed important to others. It is about doing things for yourself independently on your own terms. If you put a soundtrack to that approach to life, you have punk.
How did punk reach Africa? For instance it [arguably] reached the UK via the Ramones tour. Any similar event of that nature, or was it more a slow seepage?
There was no single event or incident that caused to punk to reach Africa – the birth of the punk movement was more of a process, a slow build-up against the stifling conformity of the times. In the early 70s, Southern Africa still remained the last bastion of colonialism and censorship and social disapproval of popular culture was rampant. At the time the changing socio-economic situation in the UK caused a last wave of immigration of skilled tradesmen to South Africa, where they were welcomed by the apartheid government of the time due their skin colour. This also brought with it certain cultural influences, including the NME which was sold in South Africa six weeks after publication. Punk provided a necessary release from the imposed boredom of the times.
What kind of venues were found and what kind of ecosystem existed, or developed, to nourish these bands – if any?
Punk developed at first separately in each of the three main South African cities – when the musicians from various places began to meet each other, a network of small venues and later fanzines developed. Most of the scene was rooted in live performances and few records were available. The first attempt to do a punk / New Wave tour took place in December 1979, with Wild Youth from Durban, National Wake from Johannesburg, and Housewife’s Choice and Safari Suits from Cape Town. Most of these bands also played in townships and did semi-legal downtown street gigs, as the venues that would host multi-racial gatherings were limited.
Did punks get arrested for the political aspects of either their lyrics or the default politics of two-tone bands existing?
The politics of maintaining a racially mixed band was even more difficult for them and the police essentially hounded them out of existence and more or less even out of the country, apart from banning their album, which should be as well known as The Clash or The Specials today were it not for the way the apartheid government banned their music
Actual arrests were rare, but police harassment was part and parcel of the entire scene. Bands were forced to change their lyrical content or remove songs from their releases – notably National Wake, whose lyric sheet was censored due to government interference. The politics of maintaining a racially mixed band was even more difficult for them and the police essentially hounded them out of existence and more or less even out of the country, apart from banning their album, which should be as well known as The Clash or The Specials today were it not for the way the apartheid government banned their music.
What were the audiences like? Mostly white, mostly black or mixed?
Punk was the second important multi-racial music scene in South Africa apart from jazz. Rock music is generally a mostly white audience everywhere but in Southern Africa racially mixed bands were present from the beginnings of punk. Punk also often takes on local roots and draws on local music forms, and so there was an African identity present in the lyrics, music and visual style in the punk movement in all three of the countries we looked at.
Was African punk political from the get-go – something in the structure of the societies you cover – or did it move that way during its lifespan?
It was totally political from the start. During the 1980s in South Africa, the early 90s in Mozambique or Zimbabwe today, being involved in the punk movement was already a political statement.
Who were the primary opponents of punk in Africa? Were they religious leaders, political leaders, the police?
Definitely the police and the state. The scene was too underground to really have an impact on religious society as a whole. The government were always suspicious of the punk scene in all of the three countries we cover, with security police around gigs and so on.
How was punk regarded by musicians from other genres at the time?
Southern Africa is extremely rich in musical heritage, and even most rock musicians are taken quite seriously. A lot of cross-pollination always took place between jazz, reggae and African bands and the punk scene. More African-oriented musicians such as Mac McKenzie from Cape Town viewed the punk scene of the 1980s as a vehicle to reach broader audiences and different people but retained their musical chops and brought real musical skill to the punk style.
The punk scene in Southern Africa always took a lot of influence from local indigenous music everywhere it appeared, so the bands are instantly recognisable as coming from a specific place due to their sound.
How did punk change from country-to-country as it responded to the specifics of the society, events and politics of each place?
The punk scene in Southern Africa always took a lot of influence from local indigenous music everywhere it appeared, so the bands are instantly recognisable as coming from a specific place due to their sound. The politics and DIY aesthetic of the scene remained fairly intact everywhere.
Are any of the bands in the film still together and performing? Or individuals from the bands?
The film covers a period of time from the early 1970s until today. Apart from the newer contemporary bands in the film, some from the middle stage are still performing, such as Hog Hoggidy Hog or 340ml. Of the older generation, a few individuals are still performing in various formations but most have moved on into other careers, including also most of the originators.
What are the highest regarded punk bands currently performing in the three countries today, if there are any?
The biggest punk bands in South Africa are actually also the best-attended live acts across the country in rock music generally, such as Hog Hoggidy Hog, Fokofpolisiekar, and Fuzigish. In Mozambique, 340ml have a huge audience which transcends the punk scene they originated in, and the female-led band Mona are the most noteworthy of the new acts on the scene. In Zimbabwe both Evicted and the newer Chikwata 263 mix local sounds within a multiracial punk band and are increasingly popular.
Was there a “capitol” of punk rock in Africa in the 70s and 80s? Now?
This was split between Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, each of which had its own scene with its own specific influences. Johannesburg was always more innovative but the other places had strong punk movements in their own right, all with their own unique characteristics. Today the Internet has provided more of a common platform and the conditions are different, so the distinctions are lessened in many regards.
What kind of response did you get – from the musicians you featured, and from others – when you said you were making a documentary on punk in Africa?
In the beginning people were quite resistant as a lot of them were traumatised by their involvement and in some cases had even left the country. But on the whole people were generally supportive and keen to be of help – in the end we were able to speak to almost everyone we wanted to get into touch with, and most were extremely helpful and generous in terms of sharing their stories, lives and archival sources with the project.
How did the musicians you featured react to the finished film?
The reaction has been hugely favourable from all of the musicians featured. One striking comment has been that across the various generations, many have commented that they finally understand their place in the larger history of local music, which is of course very rewarding. Until now much of this was completely undocumented.
How do you two know each other?
We met at a mutual friend’s wedding in Zimbabwe and hit it off immediately. Soon after we started talking about working together and made our first documentary, Durban Poison.
Could you give me a little background on each, especially as regards film making?
Deon grew up in the scene wrote about it and photographed it in the 1980s during its heyday in South Africa. He was a punk from day one and has the earrings and battle scars to prove it. He comes from a journalistic and record company background, started his own company Meerkat Media and do a lot of television work. He’s made a few documentary films like My Big Fat Afrikaner Wedding and Who Killed Johannes Kerkorrel. His company specialises in music related subjects. He’s involved with Afrikaans hip-hop with the project www.hiphopkop.com, writes newspaper columns and recently published his first travel book Witboy in Africa.
Keith comes from a film school background and has directed numerous documentaries in both Europe and Africa, and was the program director of the Music on Film festival in Prague for several years. Both worked together previously on the documentaries Durban Poison and Flowers of the Revolution.
Can you give me a sketch of the team you assembled to make the film?
We worked with Gary Griffin as our DOP. He was prepared to work without payment as a form of support to the project, so we used someone whose services we wouldn’t be able to afford under any circumstances. As editor we used Andy Wills, again someone who was prepared to work for deferred payment with the added bonus that he grew up in Botswana so he easily understood the subject matter, and had a proven record of excellent work with editing and animating still images set to music.
These three countries were the last ones to be liberated in Africa, which forms a common history that is also reflected in the film.
Why did you choose South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to feature in the film?
These three countries were the last ones to be liberated in Africa, which forms a common history that is also reflected in the film.
How was it financed?
We received a small grant from the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa and made a presale to Red Bull Media for Austrian, German and Swiss satellite television rights. We also had managed to acquire lots of favours from friends and colleagues. It was a labour of love project and largely self-financed in stages.
How long did it take between conception and the first shot? Between the first shot and the last edit? Between the last edit and the first showing? Between the first showing and now?
We are guerrilla filmmakers using the punk DIY approach to distribution, retaining control and going for specific but broadly defined target audiences rather than waiting for something to happen. We use social media extensively for promoting screenings, downloads, premieres and other information about the film. We maintain a regular presence on Facebook and Twitter as well as dedicated Soundcloud and Vimeo pages, and use the Internet daily for promotional activities around the film, sometimes on several continents at once
Between concept and shooting was approximately one year. Between the first shooting and the second was also about year, as we raised the financing based on our first Internet trailer. Shooting took just over one year as we expected, and we edited as we went along as the film is structured basically chronologically. We finished post-production literally days before our world premiere in Durban last July. Since that premiere it has been about six months, as we have carefully chosen our festival and distribution roll-out plan. We are currently in Rotterdam for the European premiere as we write this.
What are the plans for the film going forward. I saw it was shown on TV in Germany and you’ve had showings in various countries. What about the US? Any film festival plans, single showings or TV possibilities?
We are just releasing the film at the moment. We had an independent cinema distribution run in South Africa in January and have successfully launched the film in Europe at IFF Rotterdam. After our Czech premiere at the One World Humans Rights Film Festival in March, we will immediately also start showing the film in the US. We are currently in discussions with several attractive options for North American festivals. Beyond that, the film is represented for international sales by Rise and Shine Films in Berlin.
How is the film being promoted, marketed and distributed? How intensively are you using social media for that?
The film is represented for sales and distribution by our sales agent in Berlin, who also handles festivals for us. We are about to issue a limited run of DVDs in both South Africa and Czech Republic and continue to pursue numerous options to get the film out there so that people can see it – essentially we are guerrilla filmmakers using the punk DIY approach to distribution, retaining control and going for specific but broadly defined target audiences rather than waiting for something to happen. We use social media extensively for promoting screenings, downloads, premieres and other information about the film. We maintain a regular presence on Facebook and Twitter as well as dedicated Soundcloud and Vimeo pages, and use the Internet daily for promotional activities around the film, sometimes on several continents at once.
Other sources: Okayafrica