Interview by Chelsea Haith
Some Children Are More Equal Than Others is a short documentary film made by Stefan Göttfried, an Austrian student working in the Legal Resourcs Centre in Grahamstown, South Africa. Göttfried spent some time from September to November 2014 traveling in the Eastern Cape investigating the successes and failures of the the South African education system.
Here Göttfried shares some of the difficulties he faced during the filming of the project, choosing narrative strands and building a story out of such a nuanced and socially controversial South African issue.
What made you choose education as the focus of your short documentary?
I think that education is ‘the’ cornerstone in bringing about a more equal tomorrow in South Africa. There are programmes in place to counteract persisting inequalities in this country. Take affirmative action programmes for example, all of which I agree with on a moral basis. However, they do not get to the core of the problem. Fixing the educational system in its entirety, and thereby, offering a chance to the black youth in South Africa is a necessity. People, black, white, coloured, Indian, everyone deserves the same chance to participate in the society they live in.
What was the filming and editing process like?
In hindsight, I would say hard work, but it never really felt that way. I was fortunate enough to receive the best support from the Legal Resources Centre in Grahamstown, which is currently working on a mud-school programme. This particular project included the visitation to over 200 schools throughout the Eastern Cape, which became the perfect opportunity for me to get a sense of the challenges in the remotest and most neglected schools. Hence, the filming process was highly interesting and I got the chance to talk to some of the most passionate people who are advocating for equal education in this country.
The main challenge of being a one-man-documentary team is to be a one-man-documentary team. As a documentary film-maker you want to catch the moment, you really try to convey impressions, which means having to be spontaneous at times. The camera, the rig and tripod in my right hand, the microphone and the recorder in the left, headphones around my neck, I see this woman carrying her child over the river on his way to school. By the time I got my head around which lens to use, I have to acknowledge that there is neither time or a hand to adjust the camera at this point. Setting up a rocking tripod to mount the camera onto, I intuitively put my left hand on top of the lens to protect it from the rain that has set in. Switching on the camera with my right thumb triggers a feeling of unease that the left hand is not supposed to be the umbrella for my lens. The black screen on my camera does not console the microphone, which once was in my left hand, lying in the field behind me; just like double-checking the memory card did not make up for not checking the battery beforehand. The mum and her son made it across the river safe and sound.
There is no such thing as re-enactment in documentary film-making, you cannot just ask them to come back and do it all over again. So, besides the obvious challenges I faced, being out there in South Africa’s wilderness, trying to find certain schools, the filming process was not utterly stress-free to say the least. However, being lost somewhere in the former homelands of the Transkei, to me was one of the most intense experiences, which immediately put all of those challenges into perspective and made them trickle away.
Being someone who does not necessarily deserve the attribute ‘social’ in the world of social media, I was honestly caught off guard by the extent that the film went viral right after it came out. I somehow managed to search for the name of the film on Twitter to find out that it was tweeted over 30 times in a couple of days. As a matter of fact, getting audience is a vital thing for a documentary film to fulfil its purpose which is to raise awareness. Thus I am utterly grateful for every single person who watched and shared the film. Personally, what made it all worth for me was the many messages and comments I got from people in South Africa who thanked me for making this film and told me that they found their own stories within the film. People telling me that they knew that this is going on, but somehow alienated themselves from it.
The feedback from people in my country was utterly bonny too, but they somehow have to be nice right? I am really grateful for all of their nice words. Most people were staggered by the extent of the inequity in South Africa. Following western media, people tend to get the sense of South Africa being this fast developing nation on the edge of overcoming poverty. However, just like I experienced first-hand, people by means of the film got a sense of how the inequality was preserved, and how fatal institutionalised inequality paired with a neo-liberal economical system can be.
You have some quite controversial content in the documentary, particularly with regards to implicit racial exclusion in schools in Grahamstown, what do you think the impact of that information is on our community?
That point is indeed controversial, and I did give it a lot of thought before I decided to address the racial level in my film. Firstly, schools, like in the case of Victoria Girls’ High School, are not responsible for the failings of a system, which forces parents to race for places in those schools. This clearly is a problem of not fixing all of the schools in its entirety. Secondly, there are exceptions to be found, where those former white-only schools give very poor township-children with certain aptitudes a place in their schools, and thereby, a chance in life. In fact, to a large extent race has been replaced by class, and it becomes evermore important which social class your parents belong to and if they can afford school fees. However, in visiting township-schools, I could not make out a single white kid in those classes. So if one is talking about dysfunctional schools, one is inevitably talking about black people.
The film was never meant to focus on race. It was a layer that became apparent in the making of the film. It is very important to understand that at the racial level, as I experienced it, it is not the problem of people in Grahamstown being racist. It is the fact that inequalities that were cemented over decades are treated as being neglectable. These disparities have not ceased, and it is about time to address that in a radical manner, even if some people might feel uncomfortable hearing that. There is nothing wrong with black kids in town-schools, just like there should be nothing wrong with white kids in township-schools, but there is something wrong with the condition of township-schools. Take Ms. Madeleine Schoeman, for whom I have the deepest respect. She resigned as a principal at Victoria Girls High School because, as she told me in an interview, she “could not go on playing God with people’s lives, deciding who gets a chance in life and who does not.” Instead, she went to Ntsika High Schol in the township, and literally works day and night to offer a decent education to those kids. Race should not be an issue after all, but quite frankly, to use Nic Spaull’s words, it is a ‘tale of two systems’.
As far as the impact on the community in Grahamstown is concerned, my hopes are that people work together. People need to start engaging in activities to overcome still-existing inequalities, and recognising them is the first necessary step. Despite all the positive vibes, there was always this uneasy feeling resonating wherever I went in South Africa. This feeling clearly stemmed from the extent to which people are able to alienate themselves from realities on the ground. The fact that people just turn a blind eye to things that are unpleasant is according to the philosopher Pedro Tabensky a natural human reflex in order to be able to cope with the situation of such flagrant inequalities.
I do not want to claim to be an expert on South Africa. I am someone who came to this country with an open, unbiased mindset, someone who encountered those blind eyes wherever he went. More inequality is met with higher fences, adorned with more barb wire. In many ways I found it to be the equivalent to European borders. The richer Europe gets from exploiting other parts of the world, the more fences and borders are needed in order to keep people away. Most Europeans look away when thousands of people from Africa die on their way to Europe, on their search for a better life. It is feeling good at the cost of alienation. It is a loss of empathy, a deprivation of all humans as being equal. Some humans somehow become more equal than others. Thus I hope that the impact of the film is to open the eyes for some people, rather than it being an impact of any shallow chatter about race.
My understanding of documentary film-making suggests that the effect should be to raise awareness, to inform, and eventually encourage the audience to engage critically with the issue. Furthermore, documentaries have the power to cause people to reflect upon sometimes quite settled values and beliefs. After all, our mindsets are products of our experiences. Hence, documentaries have the power to be important footprints on everyone’s way to personal growth. Documentaries certainly have been crucial to me personally and I do not see why they should not be for anyone else.
Finding a voice was a major challenge. I knew beforehand that I did not want to be the narrator in this film in the form of a voice-of-God. I always found it to be intruding to narrate in documentaries like these. Firstly, it is about South Africa, its people and its children, not about the film-maker. Secondly, I wanted viewers to perceive the film in their own way, to make their own story to it. There was no room for a narrator who guides the audience, telling them what to think. Thirdly, since the film consists of interviews largely, there was no need to narrate really. Documentaries can never be fully objective, and in the course of the editing process, the film-maker inevitably tells his or her story. However, to me it was important to leave room for different perceptions.
Putting the pieces together at times seemed like a Sisyphean challenge. I had 600 Gigabyte of raw material consisting out of hundreds of film clips and sound files, and to make things worse, I am not the everything-in-order kind of guy. It was a major challenge to look through footage and listen to interviews over and over again to eventually compose one sound picture.
What other stories or narratives do you think are relevant to the Eastern Cape that need to be shared?
How many people live in the Eastern Cape? Every one of them has a story to tell. Stories of real heroes, and stories of tragedy, stories of hope and stories of disenchantment are to be found everywhere you look.
As an Austrian working in South Africa, what do you think the relevance of your documentary is to your own country?
As already mentioned earlier, I think it is important to raise awareness as to how the situation in South Africa is. In this material world, it is tempting to content oneself with some sensational news about the problems in other parts of the world. I think it is the challenge of our time to broaden horizons and get people to see complexities in a global world. For Europeans it is easy to say that Africa needs to cope with its own problems. Why should Europe as a ‘functioning’ society take responsibility for failing countries and take refugees from Africa? Right-wing populism is growing throughout Europe and it is thus necessary to show people that things are not that easy. The world is not black and white. There are overly complex mechanisms that contribute to why Africa is struggling, and an educational system rooting in colonial oppression is just one of them. It is not enough to donate to a charity every year before Christmas whilst supporting an utterly exploiting system. It is time to raise awareness and get people to think and reflect upon their beliefs. In the words of David Mitchell, my documentary amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?
What differences do you see in the education systems in SA and Austria?
The main difference is that in Austria it does not really matter where you grow up or which class you belong to. All children have the privilege of being offered relatively equal education. There will always be minor differences in the quality between schools, but in a nutshell the country succeeds in equipping every child with the same tools and it is then up to each and every one to use them in their favour. That is not to say that there are no privileges when it comes to the job-market, quite the contrary, as soon as people enter the job-market it is all about strong contacts. However, children are educated enough to take part in the society and go about their lives with open doors.
What made you choose to tell this story in particular?
It is all about the people I met and the things I have encountered. I made out to get a sense of some of the major issues that need to be addressed, problems that are too pressing to be neglected. Soon I came to realise that education can be that corner stone on a way to a more just society. To take Nic Spaull’s line “unless you can offer decent education to the black youth in South Africa, there is no way that their earnings in the labour market are going to be anywhere close to allow them to live in dignity.”
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Click here to view the documentary.
All images sourced from the documentary with express permission from Stefan Göttfried