JOHANNESBURG — By the standards of other African countries, Namibia’s post-colonial transition has been considered a smooth one.
Few people remember its armed struggle against the South African apartheid regime in the 1980s. And since independence, it’s managed to steer clear of the bloody headlines that have plagued so many newborn nations.
“Namibia is thought of as a success story,” says helmer Perivi Katjavivi.
Yet in his elegiac debut, “The Unseen,” Katjavivi examines the psychological trauma of a country that endured both a long period of German colonialism and the brutalities of apartheid. Drifting through a series of spare, poetic scenes, its three leads grapple with the question of what it means to be part of a young nation that’s still trying to understand its own place in the modern world.
It’s a film, he says, that “seeks to uncover what is under-represented and intangible” in the experience of contemporary Namibia.
The film takes its title from the work of the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who asked: “If I see things unseen by those who have eyes, why should my wisest speech not be silence?”
As the idea for “The Unseen” began taking shape, Katjavivi immersed himself in Armah’s post-colonial writings, recognizing many of their existential quandaries from the point of view of someone “feeling similarly displaced.”
“I guess I’m drawn to these stories about people who are kind of in between, in these liminal spaces,” he says. “Neither here nor there, neither in the past or able to imagine a future, but rather stuck in this traumatic space in between.”
Katjavivi’s own life is rooted in such tensions. He was born in Oxford, England, to an English mother, who was active in the protest movement against South Africa’s apartheid regime, and a Namibian father living in exile, where he helped to establish the British outpost of his country’s SWAPO liberation party. The family moved to New Haven, Conn., when their son was four, and then to Namibia in time to celebrate its independence from South Africa in 1990.
For Katjavivi, there was always a sense of what he calls a “dual heritage,” equally steeped in the England of his childhood and the Namibia he’s called home throughout his adult life.
“Some of the first things that fueled my imagination were playing in the English countryside as a kid,” he says. “And then the contrast of that [with] coming home to the dryness and the desert. It was two different worlds.”
In an age of constant flux and migration, he says, “that’s also a very African, and human, experience.”
In bringing that experience to the screen, Katjavivi also had to confront the less existential problems of a young indie helmer trying to get his movie off the ground. Locations were changed on the fly, the script was improvised once the camera started to roll, and a large cast of friends and colleagues from Namibia’s small film community pitched in for a 13-day shoot that cost just 150,000 rand (around $11,000).
But the movie’s sparseness, in the end, was a result of both Katjavivi’s practical concerns and his desire to make a certain type of film, “in black and white and going against this idea of sunsets, the color, the drums.”
“I wanted a film that would look very different from the way we’re used to seeing Africa,” he says.