“I spoke to someone recently who said I seemed attracted to artists in extreme circumstances, and I guess there’s some truth to that,” says Petter Ringbom via email a few weeks before he lands in South Africa to debut his new documentary, Shield and Spear. “I like stories where art, or artists, and society collide somehow.” “I like using art or music as a really engaging way in which to explore something else, whether that’s political, personal or whatever.”
Ringbom’s new film explores the theme of freedom in South Africa. As you may gather from the title, it is a film that at its very core is interested in idea of freedom of speech. “I felt like I had a theme when I read about The Spear controversy in the New York Times. I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it a feature-length film until I decided to explore the theme of freedom and what it means for this varied group of artists and musicians 20 years after the end of apartheid,” says Ringbom. “And, each story needs to work within the larger context,” he says. “Each piece or subject has to add something to the whole.” This is what makes Shield and Spear revealing viewing, an interwoven tapestry of artists and their work.
I have one major gripe with this film and I am going to just come straight out and say it, because Ringbom’s film takes an interesting look at artists in South Africa, and explores their struggles and politics. It’s just a pity that Brett Murray’s The Spear ends up playing such a central role in this documentary. After all, we are talking about the lame dick joke that got taken way too far. Why did this piece of infantile art come to represent a much broader, more nuanced fight that is still ongoing? Is it because of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s tendency to get riled when they are directly attacked, which causes them to fall back on their usual position of having to defend the president’s dignity and in the process resurrecting rigid cultural fascist defences like “respect for elders” and “in African culture”.
That may have been the ANC’s defence, but the reaction to The Spear was about much more than just Zuma and his supporters trying to censor an artist. It touched a raw nerve in the way South African society handles race relations. The reaction to The Spear was not just in defence of Zuma, but in defence of the black South African, ridiculed in racist depictions over the years, some very similar to some portrayals in Murray’s exhibition. And so his lame dick joke became caught in the middle of a torrent of reaction and public outpourings of opinions, and the middle class white establishment rallied around Murray, defending what many saw as racist work in the name of free speech. To have this piece of art represent our young country in this fight for free speech for artists is unfortunate, to say the least. And the film really could have explored all of these narratives instead of just some of them.
“I would argue that The Spear was the tipping point,” says Ringbom. “There were moments before The Spear, and we touch upon one of these events in the film concerning Zanele Muholi, but none of them reached the magnitude that The Spear did. “The Zapiro lawsuit was certainly a big thing as well, but I think that The Spear saga really brought these issues to the forefront. “Judging by the collective response to the more recent Joburg Art Fair controversy around Ayanda Mabulu’s painting, I would say that South African artists are now more united and ready to tackle these questions head on.”
Ringbom says he was surprised that South Africans were in general incredibly politically engaged. “You guys talk more about politics than any other place I’ve visited,” he says. I received a similar response from Indian writer Satyajit Sarna when he was here earlier in the year for Time of the Writer festival. “You guys talk about race all the time,” he said to me. “Is that a problem for you?” I asked. “No, I couldn’t trust you if you didn’t,” he replied. But in Ringbom’s film, the race aspect of the The Spear seems to have been stripped out.
Murray is allowed to defend himself at length. He points towards his “struggle history” and casually mentions that Zuma “fucks around” and says how this makes him fair game for lampooning with the now infamous painting. The ANC and SACP would not talk to Ringbom about The Spear, so they are absent, and in the face of their silence we are offered a handful of media commentators to talk about the artwork (full disclosure: I am one of those commentators) and we do not get any of the other black artists in the film talking about or commenting on the painting. I asked Ringbom why.
“I thought about that issue and had conversations with my producers about it, but at the end of the day I chose to include people who I thought did the best job articulating the issues around the painting,” he says. “Talking to artists specifically, it wasn’t my experience that opinions about The Spear were divided along racial lines.” “There were a number of people I interviewed who didn’t end up in the film, and a pretty common thread I encountered was an indifference to the artwork itself, but a strong belief that Brett should have the right to make a painting like that without eliciting lawsuits, death threats and such things.”
But none of this thread, not even one comment, made it into the film, which I find problematic. Was it all just dire footage or was it inconvenient to the film’s narrative of setting up Murray as this brave artist taking on the state with his art? Ringbom is an outsider filmmaker, so what does this mean for the film?
“This is something I’ve thought about a lot,” says Ringbom. “I think it’s even more important not be exploitative as an outsider filmmaker than as an insider … I need to feel completely comfortable showing the film to everyone who participated, but, ultimately, my biggest responsibility is to make the best film I can possibly make. “It’s become a bit of a theme of mine to travel to different places and make, what I think you could call, portraits. Making that kind of film, there’s an advantage to being an outsider in that you’re hyper aware and observant in a way that you’re not when you’re at home. I’m not that interested in filming in New York. I’ve done very few projects here. I like to take the viewer on a bit of journey and let them see what I see. “I understand that there’s a different dynamic at play filming in South Africa than, say, in Russia, where I shot my last film, especially since I am a white, middle-aged, heterosexual man. I don’t begrudge anyone questioning my motives or being suspicious, but the fact is that I experienced very little of that while filming in South Africa. First and foremost, I connected with the subjects of the film just as I would with fellow creative types here in New York. It’s important to note that this is not a film where I’m giving a voice to the voiceless. Most of the artists in this film are successful in their fields and don’t need me to make a film about them. They were all just kind enough to participate. It’s about the stereotypical white Western filmmaker; African subject matter and power dynamics isn’t really at play here.”
Some more questions with Ringbom
So how did this film come about? Where does it start?
It started when I met Xander Ferreira (Gazelle) while screening my last film at Tribeca Film Festival. We became friends and had some conversations about the cultural climate in South Africa. From there it grew into a project. Xander introduced me to several of the musical acts in the film.
How did you go about choosing the artists to feature? They all have really different things to say and different issues and politics to discuss …
Many different criteria. For example, I wouldn’t include anyone whose work I didn’t respect or like. There also has to be an interesting story or angle to explore. In this film I was working with the theme of freedom, so I there had to be something each artist says that would touch upon what freedom in South Africa means now, 20 years after apartheid. And each story needs to work within the larger context; each piece or subject has to add something to the whole. I think that’s the case with all the artists in the film. They all add something to a larger portrait. I should note that I met and interviewed a lot more people than ended up in the film. They were all fantastic, but not all worked for the film.
Was there anyone who came to your attention late in the day and ended up featuring significantly in the film?
Well, some were a bit later than others. I happened to catch a show with The Brother Moves On during my first trip to South Africa, but I didn’t have a chance to shoot them at that point. They instantly intrigued me, and I think they add something pretty important to the film. Beyond Siya’s prophet-like qualities and wisdom, they represent something that I think is fairly new. It’s a brown band (I think that’s a term they would use themselves) that’s completely comfortable questioning the political authority, whether it’s ANC, DA or whatever.
What were some of the biggest stumbling blocks and surprises you encountered in making the film?
This is a hard question to answer. I became kind of emotional towards the end of filming and that was surprising to me. I’m not sure why. I just felt really heavy and exhausted, maybe because I was constantly poking at pretty heavy stuff during the interviews. It’s an interesting psychological thing spending a lot of time with a ‘character’ or subject. It’s like a really intense relationship that’s not based on true friendship or closeness, yet you end up knowing a lot about this person and you care about him or her. Anyway, that’s not about South Africa specifically and it’s not really a stumbling block, but it’s what popped up in my mind. I guess it’s more about the stuff you go through in general as a filmmaker.
After making the film, what is your opinion on the state and health of South Africa’s creative, arts and music scenes?
There’s an incredibly vibrant and exciting artistic community, specifically in Joburg, which has a creative scene that operates on an international level. One of the most important things about this film is to show the rest of the world that South Africa is globally engaged. I find that I have more in common with artists in Johannesburg than I might have with my neighbours here in Brooklyn, and I believe that our audience, so far, has shared that sentiment. That’s a surprising thing to many people watching the film outside of South Africa, and it might even be a surprise to people within South Africa as well.
What’s the plan with the film in terms of release, screenings and festival appearances?
In terms of festivals, our African premiere was at Durban now and then we’ll have our New York premiere at Lincoln Center. After that we’ll just keep doing the festival circuit until they get tired of us. In terms of distribution, we’ve just signed a worldwide deal and we’re pushing for a theatrical release in South Africa. We’re also working on broadcast opportunities in territories across the globe.
What work have you done previously that readers can check out?
I would suggest checking out The Russian Winter. It’s a doc I made about the musician John Forté and the Russian tour he went on after receiving a prison sentence commutation from George W Bush.