The Art of South African Storytelling

Learn, Improve, Discover, Social Action, Spotlight

Copyright by 0307 Films.

 

Storytelling has the privilege of entertaining those who embrace it. But good storytelling also has the ability to educate and enliven the passions of life within the audience, especially ones now lost in the quietly apathetic South African landscape. Even though it has been presented as an advert for VW, this is really a short film. And this short film is my favourite South African story. In the space of a minute and a quarter, an entire story has been expressed using truly South African themes that span across this country’s recent history. It inspired me to write a novel, and it has had a profound impact on my writing style. It is one of the stories that moved me profoundly as a kid, fumbling around with my misplaced words and confused ideas, trying to make sense of it all. And it is only after many years that I have been able to reflect back on it, and understand just why it captured me.

Let’s find out how it shows great and artful South African storytelling.

 

VISUAL SYMBOLISM, OR HOW TO SET A STORY IN AN ERA NOW LONG GONE FOR SOME, BUT EVER TRUE FOR OTHERS

Although South Africa still experiences many divisions across racial and socio-economic lines, there is one underlying dynamic that drives the average South African to beat the odds.

Hope.

Apartheid not only denied generations of non-white people of their identity and their prosperity; it also broke their hope. The true psychological damage of such a brutal and chaos-driven system will be felt for many more generations in the country. The institutionalised racism that divided South Africa so successfully is still existent in the very manners in which its cities are ordered, from the very means of transport that the average South African utilises, to the often disparate schooling system that most South African children are subjected to.

But here’s the reality: SA is an African country with its cities thriving with their developed infrastructure (developed by USA’s 80’s and  Europe’s 90’s standards), but with the majority of the population living in townships and rural areas.

That’s what makes this short film so poignant. We see the visual motifs that define the everyday Black South African’s life – the tiny house with plastered walls and a rusted tin roof; the dirt roads travelled by many working people at the crack of dawn or late into the evening; the long lines and the creaking buses; the rural school, so often overcrowded and without resources; the incredibly harsh and often debilitating working conditions of the common man, be him a miner or a construction worker; and the protests against an unfeeling and uncaring government.

These are not just tales scripted on a storyboard. These are the very conditions that the average Black South African lives under. And not just now, but always have, as this short film lets us know in subtle manners because the majority of the film happens in the Apartheid era.

And the film lets us know this in its most brilliant and striking moment; its opening shot, with a young and shocked girl standing over the grave of her mother with her kind and silent father holding her hand. Her father looms over her out-of-shot in the close-up on her mother’s grave; it’s her quiet moment with her mother, being at that tender age when having a mother is most crucial. And as we watch the little girl grow, her father grows in prominence.

 

HONEST DEPICTIONS OF REAL PEOPLE IN THE CHARACTERS

The girl and her father are the only two characters of this story, shifting point-of-view between them when it is organic and important to do so. That they are together in one house but separated by a world’s worth of education and opportunity is paramount. The father’s life is defined by the realities of Apartheid. His daughter’s life will be defined by the end of Apartheid. Some chose to fight it, but many chose to survive it, raising their families in the most blighted of times but doing so with a quiet and stoic dignity and grace.

The father remains nameless and silent throughout the film because he is the silent majority of the country, toiling in the harshest conditions to give his daughter a chance at liberating herself with education. He takes an active approach to his daughter’s education, studying with her and emboldening her by candlelight, but doing so with the mindful tenderness needed to replace what was lost to them by the death of the mother.

This entire reality does not escape the daughter, even in the midst of her questioning glances at the riots and then to her father. This is a girl whose entire life is now based on the kind but steady hand of her father. Her face is a flourish of fear at the world but elation at the appearance of her father every day and night, as he welcomes her and adores her and sits her down to learn once more. We often see the story of a single mother toiling to raise her child; it’s not often that we observe a narrative of a single father struggling to do the same.

But the winds of change are coming to the country, and as the girl looks to her father after the protestors strike past their bus, we see that it is a look of curiosity at her now-expanding world, but not with accusation. This is the manner in which young South Africa looks back on its former, or how young Black South Africans look back on their forebears in this brave new country. For the film, the paradigm shift is now happening, and life for the average Black South African is about to change.

 

MUSIC THAT SINGS TO THE SOUL OF THE STORY AND OF THE LAND

The choice of indigenous South African music to back the film could have had negative consequences. Traditionally, music of this kind is joyful and praising, or emboldened and combative in nature, with fewer songs being of the sombre and reflective nature needed to complement a story like this. But the backing song captures the film’s essence with its haunting vocals and its quietly brilliant instruments, both mourning the hardship of South African life and celebrating it with subtle strength, much like the ever-eternal grace that oppressed Black people across the world have displayed throughout human history.

The music chosen for this film has the same significance as what the phonaesthetics of the words chosen have for prose. It is poignant that this music is the only sound heard throughout the story, which is a silent film about the love between a father and a daughter.

 

THE GIVING OF THE GIFT BETWEEN THE FATHER AND THE DAUGHTER

It is perhaps the most telling metaphor that the box in which the father gives his daughter a simple golden necklace, is the same box in which she gives him the equally significant keys to a car. Their dependence on public transport is an overwhelming consequential reality of their life, whether it was in the low-quality buses provided for them to use, or in the state-provisioned trains with White-only South Africans formerly operating and controlling every facet of their operation.

Using public transport in South Africa, if not in many countries around the world, is to be subject to an externally-controlled system that determines your freedom of movement throughout the city and the country. And because public transport in SA is heavily limited to day operations only, it has become a determining factor in class dynamics, where middle-class and above peoples are relatively far freer to enjoy the pleasures offered by their cities and their country through day and night in their cars, versus the heavy limitations experienced by poorer, working-class peoples.

In highly developed societies, the public transport system is robust and affordable enough to ensure that any user is guaranteed a great deal of freedom of mobility throughout the day and night.

However, being a Black person in Apartheid South Africa (and even today in economically-depressed regions of modern South Africa), you were faced with the hypocritical nature of freedom of mobility. As displayed by the film, Black people, in general, were limited to being allowed to use public transport for work and schooling purposes only, and under heavy scrutiny and regulation as to how far that transport could extend.

There was no going to the city centre on a weekend evening for a dance if you were coming from a surrounding township or rural, much as grocery shopping could only be achieved for a certain period of daytime on Saturday or Sunday, especially if you were a working-class person who devoted massive amounts of time and labour to earning a barely liveable wage.

And while many of these conditions still exist in principle for working people in South Africa, it was a highly formalised and universal way of life for all Black people in Apartheid South Africa. There was no escaping it and there certainly were ceilings to any social mobility a Black person could achieve in that time. But there were no such restrictions for White people. That ability to move around, which in modern times is now a UN human right, meant that having a car unlocked a vast array of activities that spanned from recreation to entrepreneurship, and that you could now bypass the dependence on using public transport.

Having a car in South Africa allows you to overcome many of its issues, whether they are in the legacy forms of systemic racism designed and implemented in the unequally-developed infrastructure from Apartheid, or being able to access the well-intentioned but poorly managed government programmes designed to provide meaningful social mobility to Black South Africans.

Having a car in South Africa also means you can leave the house for the simple joy of travelling, limited by nothing other than a petrol tank and an open mind for a journey. It is then significant that VW commissioned this to be the theme of the short film, as for so long in South Africa, owning a car was one thing every Black South African dreamed of, as it could change your life entirely.

That is why the daughter giving her father the gift in this same box is the crux of the story, and it is why it is so important for it to be its ending. For us as the audience, it may seem like a small thing for a young girl to be receiving a golden necklace from her father. But knowing the harsh life this family has to encounter, from the back-breaking labour toiled at by the silent father, to the heartbreaking journey of a young girl growing up without her mother, a golden necklace represents not only a precious gift of love from a single and hard-working father to his beloved daughter, but also a reminder of her worth in his eyes. And for a young girl receiving this kind gift from her exhausted but stoic father, it is a validation of her importance as a person in this world from her last remaining parent.

It is a hopeful reminder that she is worth all of his time. And in doing so, he is enabling a young woman-to-be to one day find her self-worth defined in much more than society’s demands of her looks or her mental prowess. In him giving her hope, he enables her mother’s everlasting love to be felt from the grave. And that is what is reflected as he watches her take her journey to higher education, having been her stoic guardian for so long.

And so when she presents him with the car keys at the end of the story, it is much more than a daughter saying thanks to her father. It is a great South African story reaching its equally brilliant conclusion; an ending that reflects the journey.

 

THE ART OF GREAT STORYTELLING

Great storytelling shows an acute awareness of the world within and outside of the story, and its characters must live and breathe that awareness as the story itself continues. The best stories are therefore the most empathetic to the worlds they inhabit, giving us a lifetime of views and experiences that we would not ordinarily be able to encounter in our day-to-day lives.

The best stories are sincere and honest, no matter the subject matter. And they are now needed more so than in any other point in the past. And in South Africa, a nation that needs to read and write its own stories after having been dominated by Apartheid for so long, the best of stories are now ready to be found.

It is time that South African storytelling rises up to meet that challenge. And it must do so with that eternal South African theme.

Hope.

‘No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.’ – Ernest Hemingway.