CityLife Arts

Film curator Toka Hlongwane excavates archives for pan African films to screen at Bantu Scope

This weekend, Saturday,November 28, Bantu Scope in Maboneng will screen Have You Seen Drum Recently? at 3pm and 6pm. This film about the history of Drum magazine as well as the life and times of the late legendary Drum journalist Henry Nxumalo is directed by the late Drum photojournalist Jurgen Schadeberg.

By Edward Tsumele

Like many children in growing up in the East Rand township of Thokoza, of Thokoza in the early 190s, film curator, writer, TV director and producer Toka Hlongwane, got immersed in the township’s rich cultural heritage. Going to see films at the township’s only cinema house, Paragon Cinema, was part of that cultural experience, and this is where his love for movies began.

But as he expanded his film horizons and attended major film festivals and screenings around the country, an uncomfortable picture emerged of how certain kinds of movies, were marginalized and not given the same respect and screen time frame they deserved. This is because, Hlongwane argues, gate keepers made sure that they did their job properly, and that is to censor certain kinds of content by limiting their seasons on the big screen. This in effect denied certain audiences to see movies that represented them well on the big screen, and not be subjected to content that is sometimes contemptuous of the black experience, including showing black excellence.

That unfortunate culture, sadly continues till this day, and fortunately this has created agap for film entrepreneurs like Hlongwane to fill the gap by curating this ‘censored’ content, and film lovers are “incredibly receptive to the films,” according to Hlongwane.

“That is when I realized that pan African movies are controlled by certain gate keepers, and what we often see on the big screen is decided upon by certain people. Often the movies shown do not reflect our experiences as black people. That is when the idea of Bantu Scope came about. I sat on the idea for quite a long time.

“At one point as I pondered about the idea of bringing relevant movies to the people, I even contemplated using the Yeoville Hill, a vintage place on the Eastern side of the city to mount a drive by movie with screens mounted high up where people would come in and park their cars, pay the entrance fee and watch movies on the big screen. However that idea became a logistically complicated as it needed the collaboration of several stakeholders, such as Metro Police to control traffic –the land is private land owned by a church, and so forth and so on,” he told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview yesterday, November 24, 2020, as he sipped his coffee at the Anthill Building (formerly Museum of African Design).

In fact, it is within these premises where the film curator and entrepreneur has found a home to realize his dream of taking movies to the people after he temporarily abandoned the idea of using Yeoville Hill as a screening space for a drive-by movie house.

The first movie screened in this new space was on September 24, 2020, marking the official opening of the Anthill Building under new management, and Gallery Fanon, among other arts projects housed there.

The visionary young film curator and entrepreneur, negotiated with a Swedish director of the movie Concerning Violence, Göran Hugo Olsson, which looks at the life and philosophy of Frantz Fanon, borrowing a lot from passages of his seminal book The Wretched of the Earth, which deals with the precarious lives of the downtrodden in post colonial Africa.

“The choice of this movie could not have been more appropriate. Initially I had wanted to put up another movie, but then I realized that Gallery Fanon was opening here. I decided instead, to go for Concerning Violence by Olsson, as this was more appropriate. The director himself was happy and he offered us the movie for free, as he said the film was important in locating the voice and philosophy of Fanon within contemporary South Africa. He said this was important in light of the emergence such as Black Lives Matter and current efforts to decolonise the curriculum on the African continent. Though the movie is directed by a white person, a seeming contradiction as we have positioned ourselves as a platform for screening pan African movies, the :point is the content is suitable and fits in nicely into our pan African frame,  irrespective of the colour of the person who created it,” explained Hlongwane.

Hlongwane who spent the past seven years until last year, based in Cape Town, where he worked mainly on children’s TV shows, focusing mainly on financial literacy for SABC, revealed that the idea of having Bantu Scope at the Anthill came as a result of a conversation he had with Megan Megan Theunissen, director and chief programs manager at Gallery Fanon last year, whom he had known for sometime back in Cape Town.

“When Megan told me about the initiatives she was working on at the Anthill, I asked to make a pitch for Bantu Scope, which was fortunately accepted. What we do is every last weekend of the month, we have two screenings of a movie, old or new, for as long as it has a pan African narrative as these continue to be censored within mainstream movie circles.

“You will be surprised to learn that there are several movies that were banned during apartheid, often films that showed black people in good light. Also there are movies that were commissioned by apartheid authorities for propaganda purposes, often showing black people as gangsters, inclined toward violence and materialistic. All these movies are found in the South African National Archives as I found out in my research. You will also be surprised to learn that even on the African continent, in post colonial Africa, there are movies that remain banned today. These are the movies Bantu Scope wants to excavate and show to the people,” he said.

Bringing Bantu Scope to Maboneng could not have come at the right time as the bustling neighbourhood, during lockdown, lost its once popular only cinema, Bioscope, which relocated to its new home at 44 Stanley, in Milpark, north of Johannesburg, leaving behind film lovers that frequented it in Maboneng, dry and hungry for filmic entertainment.

“No. We are not replacing the Bioscope. To tell you the truth, I loved going to the Bioscope when it was still here, and I remember well how I also used to take my girlfriend to its restaurant Chalkboard on several dates after which we would watch a movie. And yes, when they moved, I was one of the people who was devastated. The point is, we are not replacing The Bioscope as both our directions are different. One, The Bioscope focuses on showing new movies, whereas we focus on showing pan African movies made several years ago, but were not properly screened to reach the people. But of course yes, If there are people who used to go to The Bioscope and now want to watch different kinds of movies, they are most welcome to come to Bantu Scope,” the film curator explained.

Last month, Bantu Scope screened Fools, directed by Ramadan Suleman and co-written by Bhekizizwe Peterson. This coming Saturday, November 28, film lovers will be happy to know that they will have an opportunity to watch Have You Seen Drum Recently?, a film about the history of Drum, as it is about the life and times of the late legendary Drum magazine journalist of the 1950s, Henry Nxumalo. Known for his investigative journalism skills, he epitomized Drum of that time as he got himself the nickname Mr. Drum, especially in his Sophiatown neighbourhood of the 1950s. Unfortunately he died tragically, stabbed and left for dead while on duty, on another investigation. Till this day that crime remains unsolved.

“Bra Henry was a legend. He was the first black person to be employed at Drum magazine as a writer. In a way, he opened doors for the other black journalists such as Can Themba, Casey Motstsi and others who later joined him. Drum was started after the end of the Second World War, and it really struggled to connect with its black readers at first, and when Bra Henry arrived at the magazine aimed at black readership, that changed everything as black people connected with the publication,” argues Hlongwane.

There will be two screenings for Have You  Seen Drum Recently?, directed by the late photojournalist and a colleague of Nxumalo, Jurgen Schadeberg, who died this year, leaving behind his wife Claudia, who also worked on the film as producer.

.Have You Seen Drum Recently? screening is at 3pm and 7.30pm at the Anthill Building, 281 Commissioner Str, Maboneng, +27 76 213 0442. Tickets cost R50 each, and can be booked here:
https://www.quicket.co.za/events/124074-have-you-seen-drum-recently/#/

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