South African 360-degree film sells out at world premiere in Rotterdam
‘No Place But Here’ had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), as part of the Art Directions: Immersive Media. The film was warmly received with all 86 of the 15-minute screenings being sold out! The ‘360-degree documentary’ uses virtual-reality technology to bring the audience into the lives and stories of the […]
‘No Place But Here’ had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), as part of the Art Directions: Immersive Media. The film was warmly received with all 86 of the 15-minute screenings being sold out! The ‘360-degree documentary’ uses virtual-reality technology to bring the audience into the lives and stories of the occupiers and residents of Cissie Gool House (an unused public hospital) in Woodstock, South Africa. The occupation started in 2017 when a female-led citizens’ group reclaimed two buildings. SAPeople spoke with co-directors Capetonian Dylan Valley and American Annie Nisenson (who is based in SA).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
‘No Place But Here’ focuses on the stories of 5 occupiers, Faghmeeda Ling, Karen Hendricks, Tsukie Bhalindela, Amanda Gericke & Quintin Moos. How did you select these five people?
Annie: It was obviously difficult because it’s a community and it’s a movement space, and there are over 1,000 people living in Cissie Gool House. The people that we feature all have leadership positions in (the House). We made a very deliberate decision to not have a one-character story, and to have a multiplicity of stories and voices because that’s an important experience of this space. Then for the individuals that we collaborated with, (they) are all people I had been making another film at Cissie Gool House with for a number of years, so I was very familiar with the community; and all of the people that we chose were people that we thought were not only story-tellers but would be interested in being in this film.
Dylan: (The choice of participants was also) diverse in the sense that they represented different demographics in the occupation (and) also we tried to – in the main characters – show a diversity of voices, which is what the community is really about. It’s not just one uniform voice.
Annie, what first drew you to this community in particular?
Annie: My partner’s South African and I had moved to also do a masters in film. I’d done a bit of political work in the US and it’s just very easy to arrive in Cape Town and not really get involved in any of the political issues as a middle class American. I just wanted to find some way to become more familiar with the landscape of Cape Town. And obviously understanding Cape Town, in a very limited way, arriving in a place that had experienced such extreme violence and oppression and Apartheid and figuring out what it meant to be there in this moment and have some way of connecting.
I grew up in a collective, a community in California, so I’m also very comfortable with a lot of people, aunties and uncles and different generations so it was kind of both wanting to be socially engaged or aware or participatory in some way and also finding a multi-generational space with community. For lots of different reasons I found it a space of homecoming.
Was there a need for translators when representing the diversity of voices spanning Afrikaans, Xhosa and English?
Dylan: We had translators in post-production but during filming we didn’t. We tried to keep the crew as small as possible. I can speak Afrikaans so I was fine with that. I can understand a little bit of Xhosa and also Tsukie was kind of a natural story teller so she just ran with it.
Annie: Everyone that we worked with speaks English as well. All of the relationship-building is in English and a lot of pre-conversations were in English but it felt really important for us in the film that people were speaking in the languages that are both the language they grew up in or their first language. It was just important to show that diversity or multiplicity of culture and language. Cissie Gool House is sort of half Muslim, half Christian and there’s also these different languages: Afrikaans, Xhosa, English and many others. Anyway it was important for that to come through in the piece but wasn’t necessarily the traditional experience of needing a translator to have a relationship with the person that you’re making this film with.
What was the process for filming with the children of Cissie Gool House?
Dylan: We did consider this in the run up to it and with 360 it’s really hard to not point the camera at someone. We were quite conscious of not just capturing children. We did have a scene with the children cycling around the camera. In that sense we did speak to the parents if I remember correctly, and got the consent of the parents.
Annie: It is always something to consider carefully. For all the children, because it’s a social movement so many of the children that live in the occupation, in Cissie Gool, are very much featured in other ways like in the movement’s social media and so I think we both felt like this wasn’t the first time that many of these children are in a public arena, their faces have already been shown. Then because of my long-standing relationships with all of their parents we were able to just make sure this was something that everyone was comfortable with. It wasn’t like we just rocked up and started filming kids which can happen. It was a bit more sensitively approached.
What were your reasons behind making this a 360-degree virtual reality experience and what were the technical aspects of creating it?
Dylan: So I’d seen Annie’s work, a film that she made on Cissie Gool House and I really loved it. I really thought that she had brought so much heart and tenderness to the story and just kind of the everyday life too, because you know in Cape Town, the way that the occupation is represented is kind of this disaster, people who are queue jumpers that are not supposed to be there. Seeing her film I really enjoyed it and I’d made a film about occupation before and I’d just visited Cissie Gool House. After seeing Annie’s film and also being inside the building I just felt like the space itself is so rich with story in itself, just the building, let alone the people inside it. Filming with 360 video and VR I find works really well in capturing spaces… I also thought that the idea of occupying virtually was something that you could do to bring an audience into a space that is so misunderstood. And if you actually have them inside the space then it undoes a lot of those stereotypes because you feel more like you’re visiting somebody as opposed to watching a film about an occupation. More like you’re virtually occupying a space with them. So that was the idea of using VR as opposed to say making a feature film or longer documentary.
Annie: That was beautifully said. Even in Cape Town so many people have heard of it but they’ve not gone there, they would never maybe go there. This felt like a way to literally bring people into a space where they’ve been given consent and to try and experience a place that has so many other associations or stigma and to bring it to life really.
Were there any moments while shooting that we don’t see on camera that will stay with you forever?
Annie: I think I’d assumed that because VR’s still kind of inaccessible in a way that it might not be something that the people there totally got or would be very excited about. I was really surprised at how interested and enthusiastic and totally excited people were. There was such enthusiasm even in the day to day. People checking out the camera, people wanting to be involved in the production of it. People were helping us, producing scenes. That really stuck with me. In Cape Town a lot of people don’t have access really to internet or to computers and might not have access to cameras. To bring something in that feels way further away than something they would normally have access to, it was just striking to me how much enthusiasm it generated being something new.
Dylan: That’s really well put. One of the kids in the occupation became kind of our production assistant, a self appointed production assistant. That’s something that really stayed with me because he would just pick up the tripod bag and start packing when we were moving to the next shot and he’d sling it over his shoulder like “Where are we going next?”. He kind of attached himself to the crew and became one of the crew and really endeared himself to everybody that was working on it. He really became a member of the crew. That stuck with me because I really thought about how smart and attentive he was for someone so young and would actually be a great filmmaker. I told him, “Maybe I can look into getting you a cellphone to film on”. So now I need to get him a cellphone. That’s really stayed with me because I haven’t gotten him the cellphone yet and he’s already asked me about it. So I need to get my act together and actually get him a phone to start filming.
It’s been really great, the support of everybody in the occupation. A lot of it also was built on the trust of Annie’s work over years of being within the community and becoming part of it. So when we walked into the building for the first time everybody was super excited that we were there which I didn’t expect. I did think people would be happy that the film was being made but people were like really happy that we were there. So that was really great.
Dylan, as a professor at UCT, what is it like observing the new generation of filmmakers?
Dylan: I think it’s really exciting. I find that the students that I teach are often really fast adopters so if you just give them access to a new technology, like Adobe After Effects, they could make a whole title sequence for you very quickly. They figure things out much quicker than I can even. So the little teaching work I’ve done on VR, students have been really excited about it. It’s a mixed bag. It’s not everybody’s thing which I understand. But the students that have been really excited by it have really taken to it, they’ve volunteered at the festival here, Encounters, where they were exhibiting a work called ‘Container’ so they were working on that with the Encounters Documentary Festival… I know at Wits where I used to teach there’s a VR class where students are making 360 documentaries as part of their class. I got to see some of them last year and I was really quite excited about that. I think we just need to demystify the technology because the 360 cameras are not that high tech. They are in a sense but it’s no more high tech than a lot of the stuff that’s going on with your cellphone these days. The students these days, their creativity, is next level.
How did your film touch international viewers?
Annie: Something that really surprised me was that one of the (film festival members) from south Rotterdam, who was setting people up to experience the film, told me that she’s experienced displacement, evictions and rising cost of housing in her community. It’s something that’s a global experience at this point. It made her quite emotional. I thought people would come and maybe find the film interesting and go “Oh that’s happening in South Africa”. It was really affirming to hear that people were drawing connections to their own lived experiences even in the global North in a wealthy city and that it moved them to such a point.
Dylan Valley’s ‘Azibuye – The Occupation’ and the aforementioned ‘Container’ were among the VR projects shown at the Joburg Film Festival (31/01/23 – 05/02/23).