One of my most anticipated TCFF documentaries is playing today and I can’t be more thrilled that I got a chance to connect with the filmmaker to talk about her film. I always love films that immerse me into a world that’s far away from where I live, and gives me a chance to learn a bit more about the struggles they are facing. A large spectrum of the South African population includes the indigenous, Asian, European, Indonesian, Phillipino, Indian of India, and many others. In the Western world, we mostly hear about the Black/White struggle in South Africa, but nothing about the minority ‘Coloured’ people, as they’re called in that region.
Kiersten Dunbar Chace (Producer, Director, Editor) founder of Chace Studios/Mondé World Films, is an award winning indie film producer/director and human rights activist/advocate who for the past 21 years has focused her lens on South Africa. In 2009, Chace produced her first feature length documentary film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured – Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope which explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the Cape Coloured people. The film won an Audience Choice award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival (Bermuda Int’l Film Festival) and was featured at several US, International Film Festivals and in over 60 major Universities. In September 2014, Chace’s film was one of two selected to present at the prestigious academic conference Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts and the African Diaspora in Hanover Germany. Her role in the conference will be documented in the upcoming book by the same name.
Most recently, Kiersten was invited to be an observer at the United Nations in Geneva in September 2015 when a Shadow Report was presented/submitted to the Int’l Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination citing South Africa as being in violation of the UN CERD treaty/convention. The film was used as a supplemental neutral piece to help educate UN members on the history of the Coloured people of South Africa.
A documentary film that gives voice to a community questioning the future of their mixed-race/indigenous identity in the new South Africa. Blending poetry, landscape imagery, and rare archive footage with a collection of powerful, indigenous voices, Word of Honour is an introspective look into South Africa’s young democracy as well as a meditation on what may be looming on the horizon. (All South African cast and crew)
TCFF screening: Sunday | October 23 – 3:45pm
Runtime: 73 min
Q: What inspired you to become a documentary filmmaker?
My inspiration was South Africa. In 1995, I helped produce a US concert tour for the popular South African vocal group the Christian Explainers. During that tour, one of young women in the group, in a somewhat fearful confession, shared a secret with me “Kiersten, in my country I am not considered black, I am Coloured.” Like many Americans I was stunned by her use of the term Coloured, but she kindly requested that I maintain an open mind. That was not a difficult task, however, with that open mind I felt this so-called secret would have been a great opportunity to educate Americans about the absurdity and injustice of the apartheid system; beyond the black/white rhetoric perpetuated by Western media. It also saddened me that they had to endure and maintain this awkward situation of telling people they were black South Africans, when culturally and linguistically they were not. Their reasons were centered around the use of the term Coloured in America and they were also embracing and putting into motion Mandela’s promise that they were now part of the majority alongside black/Nguni South Africans. So over the course of the next two weeks Suzanne shared the rich culture and history of her people and I listened closely with great interest.
Soon after that 1995 concert tour, I was invited to South Africa to visit Suzanne and my other friends. It was on that trip that I began learning more about this community and culture and for the next 5 years I traveled across South Africa meeting various non-profits and developing new friendships. In 2000, I began organizing group cultural tours to South Africa including Open Arms of Minnesota’s first visit, which ultimately led to the development of an HIV/Aid’s nutrition program at the new JL Zwane Center in Gugulethu. No matter how hard I tried to explain the history and culture of coloured South Africans, Americans were always drawn into the exotic tribal cultures of Southern Africa which are the common images portrayed of the African continent in Western media. I learned quickly that Americans don’t want to travel to South Africa to be visually reminded of impoverished communities in their own backyard per se, and that is the image they see when looking at Coloured townships.
Ten years’ post-apartheid, 2004, I organized another American tour group to South Africa. It was on that particular journey that I recognized how quickly the Coloured communities were deteriorating structurally and economically. Foreign investments and donations targeting disadvantaged communities were not filtering into Coloured townships due to their lack of knowledge and various government agencies bypassing Coloured townships. It was then that I knew I had to step up and educate the globe about this community and their existence. To accomplish this, I chose film as my instrument for change.
Knowing very little about the film industry, I went to Daniel Pierce Bergin in 2007, a senior producer at TPT/PBS in Minnesota and asked for his mentorship. His support of my project propelled my confidence greatly. He also connected me with a monthly event called Docuclub at IFP Minnesota where I met the talented Producer and Director Melody Gilbert, who gifted me and many other aspiring filmmakers in the Twin Cities with her years of documentary film knowledge. She gave me the tools and insight I needed to be a documentary filmmaker and in 2009, I release my first feature length film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope.
Q: How was your background as a humanitarian activist play a part in getting this film made?
After the completion of my first film I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured in 2009, I was surprised at its impact not only in South Africa but other mixed-race communities around the globe, academia and the United Nations. For example, in 2011, a Non-Profit organization in Johannesburg, South Africa used the film to petition the South Africa Broadcast Company to ask them to invest in Coloured television and radio programming. In 2014 I was invited to screen the film at a private academic conference in Hanover Germany ‘Migrating the Black Body: Visual Arts in the African Diaspora’ where 30 top professors gathered to present their academic research papers. Nearly half of the conference attendees were not aware this community even existed. I also learned that several universities over the years altered their curriculum to include this film. And in 2015, I was invited to participate as a human rights observer at the United Nations in Geneva where the film was used to educate UN rapporteurs. It is my goal to return to Switzerland again in March 2017 with the Advocates for Human Rights based in Minneapolis for additional UN training.
Through these experiences and the continual movement of my first film, I came to realize that my role as a human rights advocate was materializing before my eyes, unexpectedly. There is no doubt that these experiences along with the support of community leaders in South Africa gave me the confidence and motivation to produce Word of Honour. So yes, my human rights activism played a major role in this latest production.
Q: ‘Word of Honour’ is a sequel to your 2009 film… it is extremely rare to see a documentary sequel, would you speak about the differences between the two?
I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured: Identity Crisis at the Cape of Good Hope (filmed in 2007/2008) explored the legacy of apartheid from the viewpoint of the mixed-race/indigenous Cape Coloured/Khoisan people of South Africa, whose largest population resides in Cape Town (approximately 60% of the total population). After 10 years of witnessing the decline of this community and trying to teach Americans about a marginalized people who identified themselves by the term Coloured, I focused the film on history and identity.
The film also illuminated their diverse ancestry, how they suffered (180 years of slavery and a vast number of forced removals), and their contributions to South African society dating back to the mid 17th century to the dawn of democracy in 1994. So INBIC was historically driven and educational. That film won an audience award at the Africa World Documentary Film Festival in Bermuda, sits on the shelves of nearly 63 major universities around the globe.
My latest film, Word of Honour: Reclaiming Mandela’s Promise, focuses on the first 21 years of democracy – post 1994. It is less historical and more focused on the socio-economic struggles and the marginalization of this community due to discriminatory government policies. It features communities all across South Africa, not just Cape Town. In addition to the difference in storyline, the production value of Word of Honour is much greater and it is structured differently. More artistic yet the focus remains on the voice of the people.
You are correct. It is very rare to produce a documentary sequel. But as I mentioned before, my purpose for entering the film industry was for advocacy purposes, not awards, and as you will witness in this new production, clearly my work was not completed within South Africa. Especially after viewing Jimmy Manyi’s public statement in 2011 about Coloureds being ‘over concentrated’ and ‘should spread in the rest of the country if they want jobs’ my friends, community leaders and myself, became very concerned. Hence the making of Word of Honour. Since I already had a decent university presence with the first film I wanted to continue the dialogue around race, identity and human rights. With the two films together, we have created a more holistic perspective, identified and exposed the root of the problem, and documented a specific time in history that will last for generations.
Q: What motivated you to shine a light on the complexities in identity/ history of the people in South Africa?
There are a lot of misperceptions about South African history internationally and within South Africa. As recent as 2015, trial attorneys who were attempting to justify their client’s discriminatory practices, claimed that coloured South Africans did not suffer as much under apartheid and should not benefit from Affirmative Action policies. This depends on how you define apartheid. Many scholars will argue that the system of apartheid was implemented the moment the Dutch arrived in South Africa and formally legalized in 1948. But others will argue the opposite and define apartheid as only starting in 1948. So it was important for me to focus on history as it relates to their identity, how this community evolved, what they endured and as reflected in this new film their struggle to fit in the new South Africa.
Q: How many people did you end up interviewing for your film? (Vast area that is covers)
For 21 years, I have developed friendships with community leaders, business leaders and political activists all across South Africa. In our discussions, each person was very adamant in sharing their regions unique needs; that their struggles were very different from Cape Town (the largest population of Coloured’s in South Africa). Combine those strong regional or provincial sentiments alongside a lack of unity nationally amongst their leaders, I personally wanted to see if the socio-economic issues facing the coloured communities were different between the various provinces and townships. In the past, I had travelled across South Africa but with a very different purpose. So to observe the country from behind a camera lens with the intent to further educate the globe about this community, including South Africans, I wanted to see if I could capture the similarities versus the differences as well as affirm or nullify the psyche of disunity that seems to be embedded in national rhetoric amongst community leaders.
So our film journey included six of the nine provinces, thirteen cities, drove approximately 7000 km’s, interviewed 27 people and brought home close to 200 hours of footage. All but one of our production locations was pre-planned and budgeted. That one unplanned ‘spur of the moment’ location was Riemvasmaak, a tiny desert community near the Namibian/South African border where we literally knew nothing about this area historically or culturally, nor did we know a single soul who lived there. However, what we captured in 3 short hours (in the middle of the desert) ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the film and possibly one of the most important in terms of using an historical event as a reflection of what the future might be for this community if government policies continue on the path of racial quotas.
Q: Would you share a bit about your collaboration with David Grant, a prominent figure in MN arts/film/writing?
I actually met David through a shared interest in genetic genealogy five or six years ago. I was the founder of the Cape Coloured DNA project at Family Tree DNA and we were introduced by a distant blood cousin from Arizona who also shared similar DNA with one of my former cast members in South Africa. Soon thereafter I learned of his gift for writing as well as his respected presence in the Twin Cities arts community. After one long breakfast meeting in South Minneapolis, I knew this was the person I needed to collaborate with.
With Word of Honour, I was taking a riskier more creative approach to my storytelling. I didn’t want this project to be cookie cutter journalistic type documentary film so I searched for someone who would take my artistic vision and goals and help build the storyline. With an arsenal of powerful poetry, rare Mandela footage, great interviews and beautiful landscape imagery I needed someone to help create a piece that made people think outside the box and engage the heart. Being a seasoned writer David understood all of these important elements and was instrumental in guiding me through some difficult storyline and structural decisions.
Q: Who have been some of the people who’ve inspired you, both in term of history/culture or cinema. Any documentarian whose work you admire?
I’m a great admirer of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and books. He inspired me in my artistic direction, to not be afraid of taking risks and to be confident in your artistic expression. Not everyone will like your work but in the end you were staying true to the vision or your film. Another person who inspires me is Al Milgrom. A longtime friend and walking encyclopedia of film. Our long conversations and his passion for film inspired me greatly.
Q: While traveling around South Africa, what was your greatest take-away from this production in comparison to your other journeys 20 years ago?
There were actually several key take-away’s on this journey but the greatest would be discovering how many Coloured communities across South Africa endured forced removals. I knew of District Six, South End and Sophiatown but I was stunned how many others there were. Nearly every major city in South Africa, including small villages, has a history of forcibly removing Coloured communities.
On a more positive note, I was encouraged by the economic progress in the Eastern Cape province near Mandela’s Qunu home where I spent some time back in the early 2000’s. This was a pretty impoverished area back then but today that has changed. The energy there was uplifting. I just wish I could say the same thing about ‘one’ coloured township, sadly it does not exist.
Thank you Kiersten for taking the time for the interview!
For more info on the film, please visit Word Of Honour‘s official site.