“I Was Blind to My Own Blackness by Apartheid’s Design”: Milisuthando Bongela on Milisuthando
The self-described South African “writer, editor, cultural worker and artist”—and now debut feature filmmaker—Milisuthando Bongela grew up under apartheid. Yet she also didn’t, at least not within the straightforward narrative of having witnessed a racist colonial regime heroically toppled by Black liberator Nelson Mandela. Indeed, the young Bongela wasn’t aware of her fellow Black countrymen’s struggle in cities like Soweto. But neither were most of the residents of The Transkei, an unrecognized Black independent region established by the oppressors to conjure the illusion that being “separate but equal” not only worked, but could provide Black people with a wonderfully blissful life. The problem was that for Bongela—and especially for folks like her grandmother, who expresses disdain for Mandela and his seemingly crazy race-mixing ideas—it actually did.
So how does one process such a complicated legacy, one which includes the experience of being thrust into a sudden world of whiteness you never even knew existed? If you’re a thrilling new cinematic talent like Bongela, you make a documentary called Milisuthando, a wildly ambitious and deeply poetic five-part essay film that manages to be every bit as intimate and vulnerable as it is bold and historically sweeping.
Filmmaker reached out to the multi-hyphenate director—who actually began her career in the fashion industry—a few days prior to Milisuthando’s World Cinema Documentary Competition premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22.
Filmmaker: I found it fascinating that not only is the film upending traditional documentary forms with its five-act structure, but also that you’ve restructured the expected hierarchy of filmmaking itself. How did that work with the director not being “in charge” of her own project?
Bongela: Our first principles—learned by trying the traditional route and failing at it—were to try to dissolve the hierarchy and borders between our roles as much as possible without losing the responsibilities inherent in each. Why? Because making a film like this required it. Our shared values of unlearning the patriarchy, apartheid philosophies, fascism, classism, capitalism, etc., in the storytelling meant that this had to be reflected first in the team making the film.
So nothing was handed over to the editor after production. Production and editing sometimes happened at the same time, to test ideas. Our producer didn’t only play a parental role in our dynamic. Her creative contribution was fundamental at each stage of production and in the edit. Ideas that I proposed were always discussed at length with this core team, which gave me the confidence to lead this process creatively, to trust the new directions that the story asked of me. The relationship especially between (producer) Marion Isaacs and (cinematographer and editor) Hankyeol Lee and I was the most important thing to protect, nurture and constantly nourish. Because if they were close to me, they were close to the story, which was not always clear to me. We fathomed it together in many ways. Hankyeol and I were practically attached at the hip. We would read the same books and discuss them. Swap films and discuss them. Cook meals and have the most profound philosophical arguments about love, faith, grace, race, cinema and beauty between and during edits. Spend hours cutting together and never once fighting about what was on the timeline, but thrashing out our differences to use them as something to enrich the story.
Marion would be the person we come up for air to present ideas to after we had wrestled with them in the form of cuts, and she was an excellent barometer for whether things worked or not. We lit candles everyday during editing. We burned a lot of impepho (a sage-like plant indigenous to South Africa used for energy and cleansing space, but also calling one’s ancestors to commune). We noted each time the film said “yes” and spoke back to us, because we understood very early on that it is its own entity and is working with us so that we may learn to speak its language. Of course we extended this culture with other collaborators and consultants we worked with, but ultimately, it was the three of us who had to figure this film out.
Filmmaker: It also struck me that your being raised in the all-Black environment of The Transkei made you blind to Blackness in the same way whites are blind to whiteness, including when it comes to privilege. Your grandmother, for instance, seemed to have nothing but disdain for Mandela—that is, she was somewhat blind to his helping of Black people who were forced into second-class citizenship under apartheid. How do you wrestle with this uncomfortable parallel?
Bongela: Yes, exactly. I was blind to my own blackness by apartheid’s design. That scene with my grandmother and her lambasting of Mandela was very interesting to me because her views are a portal into another worldview, which is what initially got me interested in the world of the Transkei. Why does she think this? Her mutterings were the crumbs I followed that led me to discover the story of the homelands, the fundamental contradiction of their existence and my existence inside them, and how they remain in people’s experiences and memories.
But she also, in other moments of real life, contradicted herself a lot because she also loves Mandela. And even though it’s not in the film, she would go on and on about how wonderful he is. I think the approach I took was to lean into the contradictions, the mismatched parallels, because they are closer to what happens in real life—how one person can hold two opposing philosophies, practices, etc., in one body, in one life. The sweet spot is how the opposing natures influence and affect each other. The film itself doesn’t ask the audience to choose one side over another, but tries its best to show how apartheid, one of the most paradoxical systems in modern history, survives in people’s hearts, minds and memories in contradicting ways, beyond the binary.
Filmmaker: The sound design is really quite striking, which I guess is no surprise since you were raised by musician parents. So what influenced the soundtrack?
Bongela: The soundtrack is very much influenced by the fact that Black South Africans are singers. We are a singing people in response to almost everything, and we are very good and natural at it. Some of the ways that the propaganda of apartheid was implemented was through song, but so was the resistance; and the film had to reflect the musicality that is in the people, as seen in some of my friends and family in the film.
The sound design is one of my favorite elements of the film and I have to credit Hankyeol, our editor, for stepping into this role unwittingly. We both have musical sensibilities and we both sing and like similar music. A lot of it is what we initially thought was temp music and sounds. The film would sometimes not let us move on to the next scene or the next chapter without figuring out the sonic landscape of the scene we were working on. Hankey literally made up some of the sounds by chopping found material up, adding reverbs and manipulating it to express the exact emotion or feeling I wanted conveyed. In Film 2 for instance, we really wanted a feeling of disgust and nausea to dominate. She would spend days listening for it, putting it together, and I would always know if we’d hit the target or not when she would present it to me. She really understood the emotional brief and pulled it out of the story in the same way I did with the poetry. One of our consulting editors, Arya Lalloo, was also instrumental in unearthing the various sonic influences, especially around the archive. And of course our composers Neo Muyanga and Msaki responded to the sound design in such a complementary way that really understood the spirit of the film. By the time the real sound designers came onboard, their job was basically just to polish and augment what was already there.
Filmmaker: The archival material you found is, likewise, astonishing. The interviews conducted with Black schoolchildren—including a girl who cites Afrikaans as one of her favorite subjects—leading up to Mandela’s pending release from prison especially stayed with me. I was really surprised to learn that so much of South Africa’s archival material is in the hands of the West, which charges exorbitant prices to use it. How did you navigate this challenge? And is there any sort of current movement to get the country’s history returned?
Bongela: Finding that archive was one of the most challenging things, mostly because of access and how much this stuff is hidden from public use; but the joy of it was being driven by a particular taste in archive. I was very strict with my team and luckily found people who totally understood that I was not looking for footage of Black people being harassed by white cops or any physical violence (of which there was a lot during apartheid), or a masculine reading of apartheid. I was looking for a more psychological interpretation of how power and race functions in South Africa, a more feminine view of it. Quiet violence. Intimacy. Desire. Domesticity.
We dumpster dived on the internet, and again I have to credit Hankyeol, Arya, Awongiwe Polo and myself for the commitment to finding the spirit of this other kind of violence through the archive. At some point I was given many hard drives worth of 16mm and 35mm film footage that belonged to the apartheid propaganda division; along with a lot of Beta tapes of apartheid as it was crumbling by a man who wishes to remain anonymous, but who was almost like an “archive sugar daddy” that hooked us up with stuff when he learned what I was trying to do. I would sit for hours discussing, for instance, the Transkei and he’d go, “Oh, I filmed the Transkei Independence Day in October 1976.” Then he’d get up from his chair and come back with a CD or hard drive with the material. I think a part of him wanted to hand this stuff over to young people who would treat it with the reverence it needed; but also question it, subvert it, and prolong its life in ways that can make it accessible. And not accessible only for the sake of it, but accessible so that it can help us understand our history and country better. Which is what we tried to do.
Filmmaker: The end of apartheid in South Africa has some obvious parallels with our own history here in the US. For us, desegregation was a landmark achievement that nevertheless birthed some unintended consequences. Especially when it came to education, Black teachers lost jobs and Black children went from all-Black schools to subpar schools. Then there’s the case of a radical hero being cleansed of his radicalness and turned into a safe white-embraced symbol (swap out Mandela for MLK). So do you think the South African experience is a universal one—or are there glaring differences I’m missing?
Bongela: Yes and no. Like with any country, our particular history—the particular forces that collided in creating that history—are particular to South Africa. When you get Europeans invading Bantu nations, it isn’t one homogenous group of Europeans invading a homogenous group of Bantu. So some very unique set of circumstances inevitably take place, just like what happened in the United States. That said, of course there is a universality to the ubiquity of racism. There are so many parallels and shared experiences between completely different places because of the exacting nature of settler colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow laws. The reason why something like Black Lives Matter is resonant in Europe, Africa, South America and North America is because there’s something we all understand about, say, “white fragility” even though it may express itself in different timbers depending on where you are. The South African experience may be unique, but racism is universal. I think our story lives in between these realities; and our storytelling draws from our geographical location but with a cultural eye cast outwards into the world.