Being African has instilled me a sense of history
JENNA BASS is a South African filmmaker best known for her short feature The Tunnel, for which she was the writer, director, unwilling producer and general responsible person. It featured at the Cannes Film Festival. She is twenty-something, a director, writer, photographer, aspiring explorer and retired magician living in Cape Town, South Africa. She says ‘wow’ a lot, dislikes money and excel, likes tofu ice-cream and thinks Werner Herzog should have won the Oscar. She is the brains behind Jungle Jim, Africa’s finest pulp magazine.
The Tunnel is a visually stunning film set in 1980, just after Zimbabwe’s independence. It highlights, in a fictional story, the largely underreported massacres that took place in the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe- which occurred at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s North Korean trained 5th Brigade. Don Omope says ‘Jenna Bass, stands out as a filmmaker for her conception and approach to this dark story. And while this is not an art film in the traditional sense; it’s very much the work of a person with the mind of an artist.’
Tinashe Mushakavanhu talks to her about her work and inspirations.
You describe yourself as a director, writer, photographer, aspiring explorer and retired magician living in Cape Town, South Africa. Where did the aspiration to become all of these characters come from?
I suppose I have been fortunate enough to follow my interests wherever they lead, and sometimes even turn them into a job for myself. I think that’s what most of us hope for, if we can. But film for me encompasses all my past, present and future interests, and has done ever since I realised that cinema is the closest one gets to the science of ‘everything’. Storytelling, imagination and magic, as long as I have these things I think I’ll get by.
How has been growing up in Africa impacted on your worldview?
I’m a strong believer in the idea that the place you grow up in shapes you – that said, South Africa is particularly interesting because often those of us who live here end up traveling between drastically different worlds, or being aware of them. I feel being African has probably instilled in me a strong sense of history and how that leads us into the future. And in history are stories, of course… Also, I think if being in Africa has taught me anything it is that nothing is ever as it seems.
The atrocities of Gukurahundi took place a year before i was born and grew with the legends told of the brutal killings. What drew you into this particular aspect of the Zimbabwean story?
Much of my family comes from Zimbabwe, and I had visited the country as a child. I had nothing but happy, golden-tinted memories, and a probably false perception that I had a ‘connection’ to the country. So when a Zimbabwean friend asked me to come up with some story ideas set in Zimbabwe, I thought I was more than up to the task. I had never heard of Gukurahundi, so when I came across that period of history it was extremely affecting. The story of The Tunnel came to me in about 10min after that, I was so shocked by what I learned I didn’t know… and what with subsequent questioning, I found many others didn’t either. It just seemed like a story that had to be told, so much so I didn’t even give it much thought at first, but started working on it immediately.
Your main protagonist in the film is a young girl endowed with supernatural powers, why was it necessary to tell this story from a child’s point of view?
This was something else that at first I didn’t even question – the story immediately began to tell itself in my mind, through the eyes of a young girl. With hindsight of course, it does make sense, because this was really how I felt at the time – I didn’t feel like an adult, adequately prepared to make sense of the past and its brutality – It was like being a child again, discovering as I went along, only able to deal with it by telling stories, as Elizabeth does. Whether or not she has supernatural powers I’m not sure… but I know when I was little I believed I had supernatural powers. Maybe we all do.
What kind of research did you do before filming? What did you learn and what informed the choices you made for the film?
I did a lot of text-based research, watched as much video material as I could access, but the most valuable input by far was the few occasions I managed to speak to Zimbabweans who had been in the country at the time, had perhaps experienced the atrocities, or their effects, or heard the rumours that filtered down despite the blanket of secrecy. Of course, the Breaking the Silence report was incredibly helpful in terms of hard facts, but I particularly paid attention to the ways stories from the time where told, the motifs as such, and the way information was passed along.
How did you get Ndebele and Shona speaking actors? If these actors were Zimbabweans how did they feel having to enact a painful and not talked about period in their history?
I made as extensive a search as possible for Zimbabwean actors, and was very fortunate to find some wonderful people – some of whom had never acted before. But there were roles I just could not find Zimbabweans for, and for these cases I used local, South African actors, who very bravely agreed to take on the task of learning Ndebele – Elizabeth herself was one such actress. Luckily the actor, Finch Moyo, who played her father, is a Ndebele speaker, so I was able to combine a crash course in Ndebele with rehearsals between the two of them. I was tremendously encouraged by the commitment I received from the Zimbabwean actors – some of them had stories of their own from the time, and they were incredibly helpful in further shaping the screenplay and for their support in general.
In 2010, visual artist, Owen Maseko, was charged and detained for exhibiting a Gukurahundi themed art show at the Bulawayo National Gallery. What kind of reception have you received with the film? Do your audiences appreciate the significance of the subject you were tackling or for them it’s just another story?
I’m assuming you mean the reception from Zimbabweans specifically? It has troubled me very much that I have struggled to get The Tunnel screened in Zimbabwe – the screenings I have had with Zimbabweans in attendance have had a good reception, which is really heartening, but from the beginning I had hoped that I would be able to screen the film as widely as possible in Zimbabwe itself. I am still very keen to do this, so if anyone has any suggestions or ideas to make this happen I would welcome that.
‘We were taught no African cinema at college. I only found out who [Sembene Ousmane] was sometime last year. So the irony: I was only able to see a Sembene Ousmane film once I had made a film. Yet his works are definitely part of what should be inspiring and encouraging local filmmakers.’ What is the significance of Sembene Ousmane in African film?
From a South African perspective, I often see filmmakers striving for commerciality by emulating Western filmmaking trends… there is something to be said for this, and it has its place in a way we can exploit perhaps, but what I so admire about Sembene was his unique cinematic voice in a time when I can imagine it must have been just as tempting as it is now to conform to this idea of what audiences ‘want’ to see. His political commentary, observation and distinctly African story-telling language is something that I will now always admire.
Some critics have assumed Sembene Ousamane’s influence on The Tunnel. Is it because of the film’s aesthetics or subject matter?
To be honest, as you mention, I had not seen any Sembene Ousmane films until quite a while after completing The Tunnel, so I can’t attest to a direct influence – but the fact that some connection is seen between The Tunnel and Sembene I would see very much as a positive, and flattering, comment.
What is the situation of young women filmmakers in Africa?
South Africa is relatively removed from the film industries of the rest of the continent, so I would feel slightly presumptuous commenting on the situation of my peers in other countries. However in South Africa I personally have never experienced any set-backs or obstacles because of gender – though I know of others who have. More because of age or inexperience. I think the obstacles that face both male and female filmmakers are far greater: We are very fortunate in South Africa to have a very established industry, and more resources than I believe are available elsewhere, but we do still face our own problems. Most of our work takes places in the commercial or servicing sectors, neither of which are directly conducive to encouraging authorial talent. But this is another, very involved conversation.
You mention in a blog that you read short stories to remind yourself of real clarity. How would you describe this special relationship between the art of filmmaking and the short story genre?
I actually go back and forth between thinking that cinema has more in common with short form narrative or long form narrative. But it is certainly true that the shared skills required by a short story writer and by a filmmaker are profound – and this is something I learned relatively recently – perhaps the filmmaker may aspire to grander statements and more ambitious gestures in his/her work than a short story writer… but in order to achieve this one requires the discipline, brevity and above all clarity seen in the best short stories – grandness is impossible without simplicity, without a clear notion. I wish I’d learnt this sooner.
Who are some of your favourite short story writers and how have they influenced you?
There are many, and I tend to read around more than sticking to certain authors. Raymond Carver is of course a notable exception, as is JD Salinger, who has recently given me much cause for thought through his peerless humanity and observation. I love the work of South African writer Ivan Vladislavic. I tend to gravitate to two kinds of short story writers – those who write more abstract, character-based vignette’s, which though very different to my work I am inspired by for their perceptiveness and as a reminder of the complexity and bottomless of each human persona. At the same time, I love pulp, especially noir, authors (James M Cain is a favourite) for their audacity in knocking out bold stories with such brevity… and similarly, but earlier, I love Willam Hope Hodgeson. Ben Okri’s short stories had a big influence on me at the time of writing The Tunnel. I’m sure I’ve left some out… and of course, I’m constantly inspired by the writers we publish in Jungle Jim!
Your latest project is Tok Tokkie, a film that has been described as a lo-fi, sci-fi noir, set during one night in Cape Town following a team of misfits who serve as the city’s only ghost welfare unit. What inspired the making of this film?
A few things… and I’ve found I’m never really certain why I embarked on an idea until the film itself is completed. But in this case the idea came partly from my long-time desire to link the parallel universes that make up Cape Town – link them by something they all have in common, but in a way which showcased their diversity and contrast… without any superficial generalizing. It occurred to me that what we all have in common is death, the way we are haunted by it, especially in the dim light of our past. So I suddenly had this image of a taxi for the dead, driving around the city between all these different places, seeking out lost souls to assist, wherever they may be.
The citation of your Hubert Bals Fund Award suggests that your film has ‘enormous commercial promise, that could appeal to South African, African and international audiences alike.’ As a filmmaker, do you make a film with an audience in mind?
Yes and no. I would be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind, especially working in South Africa, where there really is no local market for art cinema. So I’ve always desired a certain degree of commerciality. I definitely would be unhappy if no one saw my films. That said, it’s inconceivable for me to take this the whole way, and make only films that I feel local audiences want. I think here specifically, we really need to be challenged on what we want, or think we want, in terms of art. So that’s another reason to ignore it. But I could never make films I myself wouldn’t want to see and maybe that’s what it comes down to.
Why did you find it necessary to start publishing the pulp magazine, Jungle Jim?
I was becoming very interested in pulp, and how it was such a phenomenon in its day – it occurred to me, as a writer who often felt unable to write because of multiple insecurities, that this must have a been a great way to work – I recognise a certain degree of idealization here, but I loved this image of writers writing without fear, creating story after story, with such a focus on narrative. I started thinking about writing my own stories like this, but then realized there was nowhere to publish them. I began to think that a platform like Jungle Jim could perhaps be very useful to other writers in Africa… and hopefully be great for other people to read too. The timing just worked out well because my collaborator and amazing designer, Hannes, was also at the time wanting to start a magazine, any magazine. So we did!
Jungle Jim seems to be an odd name for a fiction magazine, how is it reflective of the ethos and mission of the publication?
We wanted something irreverent, tongue in cheek, and which ideally played with some kind of popular misconception about Africa… especially the way Africa has been portrayed in Western, particularly colonial, literature and of course in pulps. The word ‘Jungle’ sounded like a good place to start… from then it just happened.