The son of a celebrated leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, helmer Rehad Desai has protest in his blood. His first doc, released in 2004, was the Cannes selection “Born Into Struggle,” and he’s spent much of the past decade examining the interaction of politics, power and corporate interest in contemporary South Africa. His latest feature, “Miners Shot Down,” is an unflinching account of the 2012 massacre of 38 South African miners in the town of Marikana. It screens July 19 in the Durban festival. He spoke to Variety about the challenges facing documentary filmmakers in South Africa today, and the role they’re playing in shaping the country’s young democracy.
Variety: The South African government these days has a very contentious relationship with the media and with its critics. How has the government reacted to “Miners Shot Down”?
Desai: Apart from the failure of the public broadcaster to take the film, or the other free-to-air commercial broadcaster, I don’t think there’s any sign of censorship…. Actually, I was surprised there’s been nothing, despite all the publicity. (Pubcaster) SABC have taken five months to tell me they are considering it possibly for a slot in 2015, but they haven’t gone through all their processes. (Laughs.)
Variety: South African documentaries seem to be flourishing right now. Do you think this is a response to the government, and how they’re dealing with their critics — sort of a different version of the protest movement in South Africa, that documentarians are finding their voice?
Desai: I think that’s possibly an overstatement. You’ve got the National Film and Video Foundation that’s supporting about 10 documentaries a year. With the Dept. of Trade and Industry rebate … that’s also tremendously helpful. I would consider both of those government institutions to be politically neutral…. But it’s very difficult for documentary filmmakers. There’s no commissioning from TV, so it’s very difficult for a new crop of documentary filmmakers to come up. There’s no space for short docs, there’s no space for TV hours. There’s certainly no space for feature-length docs. Despite some of the reports, we’re in trouble.
Over the last five or six years, the quality of documentary has improved. But I think you’ve also seen the quantity of documentaries decrease…. I couldn’t have made the film without having made 10 documentaries beforehand.
Variety: Throughout your career you’ve looked at the nexus of politics, power and money vested in powerful corporate interests — in “Bushman’s Secret,” in “Miners Shot Down,” in “The Battle for Johannesburg.” Looking through the lens of Marikana — which was such disheartening moment for post-apartheid South Africa, and a period of grim reflection — two years on from Marikana, ANC is still going strong. How do you feel about the state of post-apartheid democracy here?
Desai: I’m really hopeful. I see the emergence of a serious, left-wing, radical opposition.… You look at the decrease in the amount of support for the ANC among the registered voting population, that’s gone down 15% in 20 years. You see the fact that you’ve now got a very vibrant youth movement which has a significant representation in parliament. The 1.1 million votes isn’t a sniff in the ocean. They’re going to be a noisy, youthful, thorn in the side of government. I think that speaks to the very real possibility of a serious opposition. And I think that’s given confidence to young filmmakers in particular to speak up, speak out…. But I don’t know if they’ll get any money for it. (Laughs.)
Variety: As you described these youthful, noisy, thorns in the side — you yourself have been something of a noisy thorn in the side. As the title of your first movie puts it, you were “Born Into Struggle.” Your father was a celebrated leader in the liberation movement, and with your camera you seem to be following in his footsteps. When you look specifically at the role of documentarians, or maybe filmmakers in general, as part of this protest movement, how do you see them fitting in?
Desai: I think documentary is critical, particularly in societies such as ours where the population is generally very young … the levels of literacy are very low, and we need to give voice to our own stories, to our victories, to our mage. This is something which has been neglected for decades. We’re only just beginning to build it.
We had a buoyant TV system, which started giving rise to a whole group of documentary filmmakers. There are some young, promising talents emerging. But just as they began to emerge, the recession kicked in, the broadcaster went into crisis… The NFVF and outside foundations had to step into the breach. And the problem is that often they’re seeking just impact films — the quieter films, the more reflective pieces, don’t get to see the light of day. And if they do, it’s without a sufficient budget and production value to make a spark in the world.