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May 17, 2013

SAF Filmmaker Examines Xenophobia Riots

by Peter Cox

Five years ago this month, xenophobic riots broke out across South Africa, leaving 62 people dead. Filmmaker Akin Omotoso made a movie about the violence in 2011, and has embarked on a project to show the film in areas where the violence was worst. He documented those screenings and reactions to the film with a multimedia project, which is now touring South Africa.

After the 2008 xenophobic riots, filmmaker Akin Omotoso set out with a plan - to find out what happened and why. So he and a few others hired a researcher to help them go into communities to talk to people about the tensions, the riots and the aftermath.

Rethabile Motho is project manager for the resulting exhibition called "We are From Here," which opened Friday in Johannesburg.

"From there one of the people they interviewed was this teenage boy and they asked him well, if you could see your attackers again if you could meet them again, what would you stay to them, what would you want them to know? And his big thing was 'Tell them we are from here. We're all people, we're from here," he said. "Why are you doing this to us?' And I guess that one phrase just stuck with them, Akin and the team that were researching."

Out of this research, Omotoso decided to make the movie Man on Ground, which was released in 2011. The film is a fictionalized story of a Nigerian banker in Britain who comes looking for his brother in South Africa and gets caught up in the riots.

The movie was well received around the world and in South Africa, but Motho said, there was something that seemed not quite right to Omotoso and the film's producers.

"We've made this film, so what? What do we do with it? The people who actually should see it in communities aren't seeing it because there are no cinemas out in townships, there are no cinemas where these riots took place," noted Motho. "So we've seen the film and suburban people have seen the film and city folk have seen the film, but people who should be seeing it, haven't' seen it, so let's get the film to them."

So they did. Over the last few months, they set up screenings in four communities throughout South Africa that were most affected by the 2008 violence.

The screenings opened up dialogue. A camera crew interviewed immigrants and South Africans who attended the screenings, and out of that came a short, 24-minute video that is being shown on a loop in the exhibition.

Fabian Lojede was the co-producer of, and actor in, the film Man on Ground. He went to screenings around South Africa.

"The exhibition for us now and this whole community engagement is perhaps one of best things to happen to our dream in regards to this film, because now the aim of it really was not to become millionaires by making this film," said Lojede. "The aim really was to be able to put our own creative voice to an issue we felt really strongly about. To see it now living and having legs from that perspective is really heartwarming."

Along with the looped movie at the exhibition, there are three television screens on the ground playing videos on loop. On the right side, a video of police dragging Mozambican immigrant Mido Macia behind a police truck; on the middle screen is Gabriel Sibiya, a South African interviewed for the project who said the solution to these tensions is understanding; and on the left is a video of the photo of Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, who was burned to death during the 2008 riots.

The walls are covered with photos of those interviewed during the project as well as two long canvas sheets on which people write their comments on the exhibition.

The exhibition was packed on opening night, and has been open to the public during the week since, said Henrike Grohs, with the Goethe-Institut, which helped to fund the project.

"I think it was just like it was important to take a moment to reflect on what happened five years ago with the different xenophobic attacks," Grohs stated. "But also how it recuperates today. and to keep on one side the memory alive and on the other side engage in a continue discussion on it."

The exhibition will soon travel to other communities around South Africa.