Dad, who looks Bengali but talks like a proper cockney, is a long-distance lorry driver. We grew up on a big estate in Bow. It was surrounded by poverty and people on drugs turned it into drug blocks. I never really did crime, as a kid, just little things in my teens. I was 22 when I found out Chloe was pregnant. It was a fling.
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But it was a joint choice to keep the baby: we thought we could do this. Neither of us wanted to think about the alternative. We used to row constantly, I stopped going to work. Then the baby was born. Then she got back together with her ex-partner and everything changed. I had to go to court to try to see my daughter. The court fees added up. I was suicidal. We did the same thing.
We didn't ask anything. The family members took turns watching [the port] because they didn't trust the government [to not remove evidence]. They set up a watchtower.
At least three to five people, family members, were always on the island at once for three years. What was it like for you and Seung-Jun to be around so much grief and pain throughout this whole process? How did it change your perspective on the incident and in general? GK: I am sure that Seung-Jun had a more stressful time, but for me, I have this strong feeling of responsibility to do something for them, and making a film and making their story into a documentary was the only thing I could do for them.
And also watching their grief, anger, and frustration, actually, as a filmmaker, it was a great lesson.
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That makes me think again about how we as filmmakers should treat the people in pain, when we hold the camera or when we want to make stories; to be respectful and hold that distance. Seung-Jun was the only independent filmmaker the family allowed to get in [to the port].
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After a family member managed to get a personal look at the salvaged ferry and then came out of the gate, this TV cameraperson ran to her and put the camera right in her face. One of the fathers shouted and swore at camera, "Are you happy? Are you happy that you could shoot this woman crying and in pain? This is what you want? When the mothers came out of the gate, Seung-Jun just [fell] back. We moved aside just enough to get the whole scene. What do you hope future audiences will learn, gain, or feel when watching this film? Time makes us dull. It is like a black hole absorbing our [emotions].
I want people to remember the day, remember what happened on that day and what was going on, what we told each other. And I hope people do not forget that if some system fails to operate correctly, it results in terrible pain in the end.
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The pain might not be curable. Please wake up and keep your eyes on [those responsible]. These vignettes are juxtaposed with images of a drought-stricken reservoir and the network of canals that carry an ever-decreasing trickle of water to Cape Town. Verster and Wood recently spoke to Field of Vision about their award-winning film, what it was like to blend their filmmaking styles, and what they hope audiences will glean from their work.
What inspired you to make a film about the water crisis in Cape Town? At the beginning of last year, the public were suddenly receiving warnings that the taps may be turned off, and predictions were being made, ranging from exploding sewerage pipes to typhoid epidemics to social insurrection. Many wealthier Capetonians actually left the city for Johannesburg, the supermarkets ran out of bottled water after panic ensued, people started stockpiling, and there was a general sense of simply not knowing how life would proceed should there be no water.
The government issued photos of water distribution points, which would be controlled by the army and would mean queues of tens of thousands of people every day.
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The public was asked to befriend elderly neighbors and to assist them when the time comes. Schools issued warnings of possible closure. We were both intrigued by the way hidden social dynamics were coming to the fore in the process, and we both saw a great opportunity for a film that looked at Cape Town through the vehicle of a crisis that went across the board. I had made a film called Sea Point Days that consisted of vignettes of life in a specific part of the city, and Simon had made a film called Orbis, which uses powerful single visual scenes as a medium for storytelling.
And we both felt that the situation presented a golden opportunity to deliver a highly creative insight into the bigger societal issues we have explored in our other films. I was in discussion with various people about doing something, and when the opportunity to do something for Field of Vision came up it totally made sense, both because of the urgent timeline and because of being able to contain a very big subject in a tight, limited form.
Simon Wood: Every man and his dog wanted to make a film about Cape Town being the first major city to run out of water last year. Most of these films were expository documentaries positioned around a sensationalist armageddon.
I am not and never will be an environmental impact, social justice type of filmmaker. I saw an opportunity to use water as a lens to explore societal dynamics in a place which is rife with inequality. How did this collaboration come about? Had you worked together before? Because of the urgency involved in doing something on the water crisis, and because there were so many facets to cover, it made sense to try to work with another director.
We at one point considered making a longer film that involved different directors from different parts of Cape Town, but in the end the short documentary form worked out very well for us. My films have been driven primarily by a strong visual aesthetic and less concerned with narrative, so I thought if we collaborated it would be an interesting clash of documentary personas, and by God it was!
I hope these contrasting styles, opinions, ideas lead to something unsettling that connects with a broader idea around perception and reality. You discuss showing not only the environmental impact but also the social and economic impact of the drought. Why did you think it was important to show those aspects as well? Verster: I am primarily a social documentary filmmaker, so the human side, which is of course inseparable from environmental issues anyway, was always the entry point for me.
What was also illuminating was how many wealthier people would, for example, vocally complain about how car wash operations in the poor townships were wasting water, without any acknowledgement of the fact that in many of those areas a single tap could be serving an entire street. Or of the structural economic advantages involved in being able to dig well points or boreholes to keep gardens and swimming pools going in the wealthier areas. The water crisis cost the region over 30, jobs in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and of course the poorer employees were the first to go.
The cost of municipal water itself shot up, and this was of course much harder for poorer households to accommodate. In the wealthiest areas, some house-owners continued watering their lawns as before, opting to pay the hefty fines—because they had the funds to do so—rather than saving water. On the other hand, there was also a very positive sense of people pulling together across race and class barriers towards a common cause. Wood: I guess because people from privileged backgrounds, myself included, love to bang on about the environment, whilst for the majority of people in South Africa the main concern is how they will be able to provide for themselves and their families on a daily basis.
These raw realities are somehow ignored and rarely discussed. What was the process for gaining access for the ride-along with a member of local law enforcement that is featured in the film?