In this short conversation, Lesedi Mogoatlhe, a filmmaker from South Africa and participant of the 2012 Road Trip shares her intimate responses to the journey with Emmanuel Iduma, writer from Nigeria.
Emmanuel Iduma: Why did you come for this trip? I know it’s simple, but I’m sure it has several layers of interpretations to it.
Lesedi Mogoatlhe: Like you said, there are several reasons. The first reason being, travelling the continent – it’s a long-time dream of mine. I want to travel as many African countries as possible and as we all know, a flight to Germany costs half the price of travelling to Ghana by air. So I think this project overrides that obstacle by travelling by road. Now you [can] travel several countries by road and not have to pay your child’s school fees to get there. That was one reason, not having to break my bank to travel Africa. And secondly, I mean, I’m a documentary filmmaker and what that means in my country is that most of the films or projects we make are commissioned and are for the national broadcaster, which does not allow a lot of artistic freedom. So, it’s usually amazing when you get an opportunity where you can be in a space that’s unrestricted in terms of what you can create. And I really prefer to do abstract, experimental kind of documentary stuff, which you never get to do. So this was an opportunity to create work that was completely personal and sort of unrestricted. And then to collaborate with other artists, African artists at that, especially people who focus on the visual image, that’s my thing. I wanted to learn, collaborate, network, and just to meet other artists, beside the people I’m travelling with; I came to see, why not.
Iduma: Has this happened for you, so far on the journey? It might be too early to ask – we’ve not completed the journey, but we’ve done a substantial part of the journey.
Mogoatlhe: Completely- it all happened by week two. I met people, I collaborated, I started creating work, we were travelling. Now the new experience is how it’s happening. It’s experiencing the how that’s really intriguing – just expanding in ways I didn’t imagine. It has required me to tap into mechanisms in my thinking that I didn’t know existed, in my feeling too. That’s been an amazing part of the trip.
Iduma: You know, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this journey is laced with a personal encounter and yet has a collective backdrop. It’s you travelling, but it’s like having to be in a space with other people and then experiencing first on a personal level, and then with the backdrop of a collective experience. Do you see it that way?
Mogoatlhe: I mean, the nature of my art, or my medium, is that I constantly work in a collective space. My work cannot happen on my own; film does not really exist as a one-man art. So, I’m constantly immersed in the energy of bouncing off and dealing with the collective. The personal and the collective Is not separate for me. I don’t feel it differently. It’s just all personal, and I’m personally in a collective. Yeah, and of course it impacts the work in a way that I can’t necessarily articulate – you get influenced by other people’s work and their outlooks and their philosophies, and you compare, sometimes you imitate, sometimes you take, sometimes you give. For me, that is quite a common thing, it’s the nature in which it comes.
Iduma: I think we should talk about this some more, because I’m coming from a medium where solitude is more or less always required. You try to create in solitude and then it just takes a leap from there into the public. That’s quite interesting for me; on one hand we have a mix of people who are working through different mechanisms of thinking. Is this something that enriches the project, in a sense, or it something that can be dismissed as uninteresting?
Mogoatlhe: Of course it enriches the project in so many ways. I mean, the few sessions we’ve had where we shared work and discussed approaches and evaluated each other’s ideas and directions, has been the most profound part of our process- because at that point we are just completely focused on the result and the force we’re creating. So, it’s almost like that session is the wind that’s going to determine the direction of what people are thinking and where people are going. It’s been necessary, and this trip would have been nothing without it. I was completely fascinated by how some people approach their work, how they can distance themselves from their work- work is just work. Whereas for some, having a bowl of cereal with a particular kind of plastic utensil, that’s foreign to their everyday life is the art. It is enriching, it is for me a new way into my own work.
Iduma: I know you have been interested in musical spaces. What kind of music have you encountered so far, and how is it different from the music you’re used to in South Africa, and then as a filmmaker, and a person even?
Mogoatlhe: I guess the musical theme is so abstract- if I just had to think on this one level, a lot of the music I’ve heard is Nigerian music, every country we’ve gone to- that’s like the dominating sound. I hadn’t heard a lot of Nigerian music before, just your big artists here and there- you know, you hear a Flavour song in South Africa or D’Banj. So I got to know the sound well here and it’s funky, dancy, repetitive, it’s what it is – in many ways it’s kind of the commercial sound. What I’m looking for really, is not what the song is or what I’m hearing, it’s really about what makes me feel, what wakes me up, and that doesn’t always happen in a place full of music. There are places full of sound and I’m not moved – in fact, the only song I’m hearing is the one in my head, because it’s better. And then, some places have just surprised me, like walking in a market and then there’s this song playing and I’m following, and I find this little television, playing a DVD of an absolutely terrible music video but there’s incredible sound happening, and I would wonder what is this!?
Like when we went to Calabar, I went to the slave museum looking for slave songs. Then after the tour, what I found was this guys CD, Chief Inyang Henshaw – a singer in Calabar who sings in Efik. I play his stuff and it’s just beautiful, it’s like Buena Vista Social club. I didn’t encounter that necessarily in a space, I encountered it in my room, through my Mac, through my phone. It’s been completely varied the way I’ve been moved by sound. Also, sometimes what motivates me to shoot is really the sound in my head more than the sound outside. It’s about what I’m feeling, it’s the music in myself that I’m following more than anything.
Iduma: Now, I know that dialogue is a very important in your work as a filmmaker. We’ve been travelling through these spaces where the languages are different. How have you coped with the fact that dialogue is an important element and you’ve not been able to access the dialogue that happens on an everyday level, in Cameroon and now in Libreville?
Mogoatlhe: For sure, Cameroon was a lot easier. I just happened to encounter, quite immediately, people who were bi-lingual, and I was also very lucky to find people who were quite selfless and gave all their time to help me out to do my thing. Here it’s been very difficult – what you do is use the people around you to translate, and you alter how you communicate. You communicate a lot less, you get to the essence of what you’re trying to say; no complicated metaphors, descriptions and whatever. And you also see the importance of body language and facial expressions. You keep it simple. Actually I’ve been able to have conversations with someone who spoke French and I spoke English and somehow we understood each other on a certain level, maybe ten times slower than the usual English conversation…but.
Iduma: I think that’s the most important thing, that somehow comprehension happens. Communication is stripped of its complexities and becomes a bare necessity. It’s the same thing for me because I don’t speak a word of French and you necessarily have to communicate. If you have to be in a space, you have to communicate. The other thing is that you know there’re voices in your head that you can’t share, which is one of the big challenges. It’s the most appalling part of it.
Is there a temptation, as we travel across these places, to generalize? Since we’re in places we might not necessarily visit a second time.
Mogoatlhe: To generalize each country?
Iduma: Yeah, to generalize people, ways of life, and all of that.
Mogoatlhe: There is a temptation often. It’s not always easy to be present with the external world when you’re also on a voyage where self-preservation seems to be the most important thing. It takes like a conscious thinking, and moment, to realize that you’re completely lost in your own world. There are points when I stop seeing, stop hearing anything outside myself, which is really just a tool of self-preservation. There’re times when the reality just wakes you up, like when you need to get a taxi and no one can understand you, trust me you’ll look around and see what’s around, who’s around you, how they’re behaving. And so you also have to learn the nature of the ways and the culture. Sure, a taxi is a taxi, but the taxi driver in Libreville is completely different from the taxi drivers in Cameroon. The taxi drivers in Libreville, when you are trying to negotiate with them they’re driving off, there’s just no time for your non-French speaking. So you learn that fast; when you stop a taxi, you know you have to say price and place in a matter of five seconds or that guy is driving off.
The difference is not that the people are this or that way- it’s little elements in cultural practices that vary. And landscapes as well, that’s an obvious difference. The minute I came to this place, I said, ‘oh, it’s so grey!’. Novo took a picture, and everything was grey, so different from Cameroon. I’ve got a shot of a bird’s eye view in Yaoundé – yellow cabs and colours; you see that kind of difference. You spot things like open gutters – Libreville has no open gutters, like sewage gutters, whereas it’s something you encountered in all the other countries. There’s no way I feel all these places are the same; but most of the difference I’ve experienced is really in a feeling. That’s what happens to me when I travel; driving from the airport I already know how I feel about a place- and even though I may encounter people or whatever, that feeling always remains.
Iduma: I relate to that. It’s just like the immateriality of encounters that we have when we’re in new places. Then you realize that when you’re in your country, you can actually tell the subtlety that comes with being in Cameroon as different from the subtlety that comes with being in Libreville….