Just as the Time’s Up and #WhyWeWearBlack campaigns keep the sexual and gender politics of cinema in the mainstream, Alina Khakoo talks feminist filmmaking with award-winning documentary maker Pascale Lamche. In 2017, Pascale won Best Director for International Documentary at Sundance in recognition of Winnie, her portrayal of the life and career of one of the most misrepresented public figures: Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Winnie’s identity was highly constructed – in the film she refers to herself in the third person, she’s ‘Winnie the communist’, ‘Winnie the adultress’, ‘Winnie the criminal’. Did you feel that you were also constructing her as a filmmaker?
I felt that I was deconstructing images of her. What exist are attempts to discredit Nelson Mandela on the part of the Americans and the British by smearing Winnie in all directions. Knowing that people all over the world thought she was a murderer and a traitor to her cause, but that in South Africa she was revered, seemed a shocking divide to me. As a woman interested in history and politics and how oppression functions, I wanted to recover a significant person in South Africa and tell an important story about how women are so definitively neutralised in politics.
How do you navigate the ethics of being a white woman telling this story?
My view on the matter is that it depends entirely on the context, on where you’re coming from, on your work until that point. I’ve had a long relationship with South Africa and my late partner, to whom the film is dedicated, was Sowetan. I’d made films about Nelson, about Sophiatown. My heart lay in South Africa but I was a white European woman. I believe that any honest work which opens up the terrain should be tolerated. The industry has a duty to open its doors as wide as possible so that enough people can explore a subject that is in turn colonised by no one.
What is your opinion on the diversity issues in the film industry and how they’re being tackled in the mainstream media?
They’re reiterating something that needs to be endlessly reiterated: the criminal lack of representation of women and people of colour in this industry is a reflection of a patriarchal society in which all of the power structures are governed by white men.
The more discussion we have about it, the better it becomes. The Harvey Weinstein issue, the reality that men will suggest sexual favours in exchange for a woman to do – or even talk about doing – the work she wants to do, was taken for granted throughout my life and career but has now exploded into people’s consciousness.
The only thing I’d counsel is the identity politics that can narrow an argument. I still believe that there are correspondences between different forms of oppression, say race and gender. There are horizontal and vertical issues to do with race, gender, class, etcetera, and the current discussions are not intersectional enough.
I would also argue that legislation and quota systems need to be put in place. We’re talking about generations of undervaluing and under-educating minorities, failing to give people the skills and education – how to operate a camera, how to edit on an editing bench – to enable them to tell their stories.
How does the activism of celebrities in front of the camera relate to the women operating behind the camera?
If you’re a cinematographer, an editor or a camerawoman, you are behind the scenes and don’t generally get a platform to speak. The women directors get a platform, although there are very few of us. How do we get our point across? Through our work. Is this more effective than being an actor and using your currency, your fame and the fact that people want to hear what you want to say? Perhaps it depends on what is being said, whether you’re a Meryl Streep or a Catherine Deneuve.
Do you feel that being a feminist and a documentary maker has helped you to push the boundaries of the genre?
Interestingly, the film where I attempted to do that the most was too avant-garde for distributors and broadcasters to accept. I have always stuck to my political and historical perspectives, but I hope that as I move through my career, I will manage to secure more [aesthetic] freedom for myself. It’s a struggle because there is such a prevailing sense of what should be, what a documentary should look like, in order to be nominated for an Academy Award. I’m pushing further and further, and it frustrates me, but hopefully in that push and pull good work keeps emerging.
What is your advice to our readers who are budding documentary makers?
You have to have a hard carapace; don’t let yourself be taken down because it’ll happen to you a lot. Believe in your subject and your project, be willing to do it whether you have money or you don’t. Making independent documentaries is such a wonderful expression and women have such magnificent things to say. I know it’s a gross generalisation, but a woman’s way of seeing the world is an incredibly important one and it deserves to be documented.
Winnie will be available on Netflix from February 2018.
Images: @winniedocumentary Instagram.
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