How do rural white South Africans deal with their fears?

Forest of Crocodiles is a new fifty-two minute documentary film by Mark Aitken.  The film is currently being screened at international festivals and is being broadcast on BBC World, TV3 in Spain, the Documentary Channel in New Zealand, RTP, Portugal and MNET, South Africa.

A cut down 20 min sensationalized version was broadcast on national Dutch TV in April 2010, causing a lot of discussion.  You can view the trailer here or view the full version by clicking here


‘One of the most refreshing docs to have emerged from South Africa in years’  Journeyman Pictures

What choices do white South Africans make when addressing their fears of crime and violence?  Some are well resourced while others are ingeniously resourceful.  The consequences are regression and isolation or freedom from fear.

Like crocodiles, fearful and well-resourced people can survive without evolving.  But some people refuse to submit to their fears.  For them, the future is an unknown country to be explored.

How does this divided community co-exist?  These people are being pushed to the limits of their imaginations.  To understand them is to feel their fears and walk in a forest of unknown things.

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2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 25 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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London Charity Screening

On Wednesday 6th April Forest of Crocodiles was screened in south London at the Roots and Shoots Cinema.  We raised £165 and all proceeds will go towards building a new community hall in Sunrise Park township.

Here’s a message from Johannes Kelber, the pastor who appears in the film.

Hi everyone,
Its always important to state the reason for using any donation especially in South Africa.

For those who know S.A. you will realize that our African friends tend to associate in small groups, communities. Even with modern transport today the daily and weekly life is lived in a village setup. Even in big cities people asociate with their own group of different cultures and interests. If you really want to get close to them you must get to know such a group starting with the leaders.

Building a huge hall with the idea to reach as many people at the same time on a regular basis does not work here, especially in Rustenburg.
That is why even great church groups exsist in many smaller “church” groups with their own leaders. My church, the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa for example consits of 20 such groups each trying to be accomodated in some form of structure.

The specific town ship called Sunrise Park, has ‘n group of about 50 to 80 members old and young. They have been given a site by the local municipality and have alreadu erected a corrugated building 8 x 5 meters. They have received a donation from a builder, of 15 000 bricks. We expect them to get their own builder whom they must pay etc. etc. We have a idiom which says Mphe, mphe e a lapisa. Motho o kgona ke tsa gagwe.  Translated: Being asked give me give,me, makes us tired. A person succeeds with what he has. So we expect them to do a much as they can. And it does work !

It will basically be a building for worshiping BUT in our communities theirs a great need for recreational & educational facilities. Therefor it will be used by the women and especially the youth who organize activities that willl keep them out of mischief.

Johannes Kelber

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Crocodiles stored in Observatory Archives

Forest of Crocodiles has been accepted into the prestigious Observatory Archives in Barcelona, Spain.  The programmers working with the archives offer a selection of documentaries for screenings around the world each year.  Their archive may also be accessed for study and consultation purposes.

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Forest of Crocodiles to be broadcast in South Africa

The film will be broadcast on MNET on March 14th at 10.30pm and on March 15th at 11pm.

On Wednesday 23 February, Dr Penzhorn, the owner of the crocodile farm in Kroondal where we shot our crocodile scenes, died tragically after falling into one of the pools inhabited by the reptiles.  Dr Penzhorn was very generous when allowing us to shoot on his farm and we were sad to hear that his life ended in this way.

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Forest of Crocodiles at Frieze Art Fair, London

In association with London based arts radio station Resonance 104.4 fm, Forest of Crocodiles will be streamed on the Resovision channel at Frieze Art Fair from the 14th – 17th October 2010.

Frieze Art Fair takes place every October in Regent’s Park, London. The fair showcases new and established artists to an international audience.

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Crocodiles in Colombia

Forest of Crocodiles is screening at the Beeld voor Beeld festival in Bogotá, Colombia, October 11th – 16th.  Director Mark Aitken is attending the screening and running documentary workshops with local film makers.

Beeld voor Beeld in Bogotá is the touring version of the festival held in Amsterdam in April.  This year there’s a centrepiece programme of South African work including great films by François Verster and Saskia Vredeveld.   

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Screening at Tri-Continental Festival, Johannesburg

We’re proud to announce our first festival screening in South Africa in the city where the director used to live. Try and catch the film on the big screen with the atmosphere of a local audience and hopefully some discussion afterwards.

The Tri-Continental Film Festival is screening Forest of Crocodiles on:

Sat 2.10 at 4pm – Maponya Mall, Soweto

Sun 3.10 at 2pm – Rosebank Nouveau

Sun 10.10 at 16.15 – Rosebank Nouveau

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Selva de cocodrils

Forest of Crocodiles is broadcast on Televisió de Catalunya in Spain on Friday 11th June near midnight and a second run on Thursday 17th June at 17.15h.  It’s also available online at their website –

Quines opcions tenen els sud-africans blancs quan s’enfronten a les seves pors del crim i de la violència? Alguns tenen els recursos adequats i d’altres són enginyosament resolutius. Les conseqüències són la regressió i l’aïllament, o la llibertat de la por. Com els cocodrils, la gent espantada i amb bons recursos poden sobreviure sense evolucionar. Però algunes persones refusen sotmetre’s a les seves pors.

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Roger Ballen on fear in SA

‘The fears and the conversation that goes around the fears is part of the mythology of the country itself. So it is a way that people relate to each other. In some countries when people get together they spend time talking about the weather or the schooling or the food, in this country people talk a lot about fears and it’s hard to distinguish what’s a real fear and what’s an imaginary fear. The consequence is that people become more insular, more insecure and more anxious so the more you hide the more you need the hide, and you can’t get out of the syndrome.  It gets to the roots of the soul, to the bottom of the person’s personality and they become immobilized in terms of their own growth and their ability to expand their own consciousness.’

Roger Ballen – quoted from the film

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Forest of Crocodiles poster

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Why I made this film

In early 2008, I had come to visit my mother in Rustenburg and every white person I met had nothing positive to say about their country or the future.  Rustenburg is in the North West of the country and supposedly the most conservative area , which is saying something.  Eugene Terreblanche lived in a town nearby and it’s not a part of the world I’d normally visit but now by chance, my mother runs a restaurant there and lives on a farm.  And like most places you think you don’t like, Rustenburg became very interesting for me.

Ever since I left South Africa in 1983, I had wanted to make a film there.  In 1986 I made a Super 8 short that was supposed to lampoon reportage (the country was in a State of Emergency at the time) and address a reporter’s encounters with ladles of irony.  It was a crazy time and very hard to settle on what your point of view was if you were an open minded white person.  It was easy if you were racist as the (now shaky) status quo still provided you with all the answers you needed.  But what could I say about black people?  They didn’t need me to say they were being oppressed – Biko had made that clear.  And what could I say about white people?  At least the white people I knew – we thought we were all heading for oblivion and I don’t think anyone imagined that the iron fist that held power would collapse and compromise only four years later.

But now in 2008, crime was out of control, the liberation government was corrupt, people were getting attacked in their houses.  And the more everyone talked about it the worse it became.  I listened to talk radio at night on my mother’s farm and a listener phoned in with a sighting of a giant iceberg off the coast of Cape Town.  The presenter doubted the possibility of this as the water is too warm there for icebergs but the listener insisted that she had seen it and that it was a hazard to ships.  Then another person called in and said that they had seen it and suddenly it seemed likely we were in danger and someone ought to do something about this.  The more they talked about it the more they worried and the more they worried, the more we should worry.  As if maintaining anxiety was some kind of duty.

Since 1994, a whole industry of moaning has come about in South Africa in the form of talk radio and all the chattering that goes on around it via other media.  Where I was in Rustenburg, people I met generally came down to the same conclusion, ie: They are going to ruin everything.  While I was on the receiving end of all this negativity, electricity blackouts started which served as the perfect metaphor for some sort of regression to darkest Africa.  I thought that there has to be someone out there with something positive to say.  I went to my mother’s restaurant and started phoning numbers from business cards left there by patrons.  I had a camera with me and before long I was running around and filming them telling me about their views.

I met the De Beers family who had been held hostage in their house; Jan and Lettie who worked 19 hour shifts with their security firm; Burt, the estate agent (who later almost killed us with a shotgun) who hadn’t heard about Mandela until he was released and Dave, a Canadian miner who had moved to the area a few years ago with his family, set up a mine safety business, adopted a local Tswana girl and had recently been attacked and nearly murdered in front of his family by two burglars with guns.  I met Franz – a church caretaker who wanted local black people to dig up the roads and rebuild them as they had recently changed all the names.  ‘They’re not their roads to rename – they can build their own bloody roads.’  All these people told me stories about their lives as if they were under siege.

I often suffer with insomnia and all this running around and hearing all these stories kept me awake for three nights in a  row.  Especially Dave’s story.  Here was a very intense man without the baggage of an Apartheid past who was being tested to the limits of his imagination.  He had a remote control device that opened his electric gate from a kilometer away so that he could drive with speed into his garage.  If he slowed down or stopped to open the gate there was danger he would be attacked.  He had cut down the branches of all the trees surrounding his farm house so that he could get a clear view of the veld beyond with no shadows for anyone to lurk under.  He employed a security guard to patrol his house and he slept with his family of four in a bedroom behind an iron gate with two killer dogs.  He was not going to be beaten.  He had come to SA to spend more time with his family and live in the wide open spaces.  But he said you needed big cojonas to live here and it was a case of survival of the fittest.  And as if this wasn’t difficult enough, the mining establishment wasn’t too keen on his safety improvements – and all this coming from an uitlander – a Canadian.  I filmed Dave as he told me these stories and he ended up saying that I couldn’t use anything without his permission first and he wouldn’t sign a release form.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with the material – it wasn’t a film – just research or sketches that I found over 10 days.  I ended up with 20 hours of it and decided that there were too many good stories here and that I needed to do this properly with a crew.

But before I came home to London, I discovered a crocodile farm near my mother’s restaurant.  It was like a cattle farm, only instead of slaughtering cows for beef they slaughtered young crocs for skins.  The farm manager, a Zimbabwean called Trevor, had worked with these animals for years and was happy to show me round.  At feeding time, I watched as the skinned carcasses of the young crocs were barrowed over to the pond where the ‘breeders’ were kept.  The monstrous jaws cracked the skulls of their offspring in their mouths.  The parents were literally eating their children.  ‘Crocs are the best opportunists – you either love them or hate them.  It’s difficult to tell if they’re looking through you or at you,’ said Trevor.

Crocodiles seemed to have only evolved to a point and then managed to survive.  Seeing them eating their offspring made me think of people living in fear who have stopped evolving and then forcing this condition on their children.  Fear was keeping these white people in this rural area in a trapped state – unable to even sit by a window at night while being surrounded by miles of empty farm land.  All the road signs in Rustenburg have pictures of crocodiles on them.  There’s a Crocodile River and then I discovered that the local African Nation was called the Bafokeng who are the people of the crocodile.  So my metaphor was becoming very mixed up but I liked the (co-incidental?) connections and visited a school where a lot of Bafokeng kids atteneded.

I met with a group of history students and they talked about Apartheid as if it were in the distant past.  I told them that a lot of white people lived in fear and they said that they fear crime as much as anyone.  They also asked what happens when people refuse to accept that they’ve lost a war and said that some people in SA cannot accept the rapid changes occuring all the time.  These kids seemed a lot more relaxed than the white people I’d met.  The Bakwena people – people of the crocodile seemed to know their place and weren’t living in a state of siege.  Perhaps I could contrast them with the other people I’d met?  And perhaps the crocodile could be the metaphor that links everything together?  Or would these connections all be too tenuous? I also discovered that the Bafokeng were a very rich people due to the fact that they bought land of the Afrikaners in the 19th Century that was (unknown at the time) rich with platinum and somehow they still owned the land.

I was reading an interview with the writer Richard Kapucsinski published at the end of his book, The Soccer Wars. He discusses how he tries to describe life in communist Poland to Africans living in a rainforest.  Snow, food queues, short gray days – all of these things seemed outrageous and impossible to the Africans.  Surely Europeans all live in big houses and have people waiting on them.  Kapucsinski concedes that trying to describe the world he’s from is like walking through a forest of things and the things can’t be named because they don’t make any sense – they are just things . This divide reminded me of the people I was meeting in SA – all these people connected by a crocodile – a forest of crocodiles full of divided people.

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Director’s Production Log (and other misadventures): South Africa 2008

This log was kept during the first shoot of Crocodiles between Sept-Oct 2008 and covers everything from the confusion of making up a film as you go along to being attacked by a drunk estate agent with a shotgun.

At this stage I’d already visited the town of Rustenburg where my mother lives in January of that year and shot about 20 hours of research material.  I’d returned to London with ideas pinging around my head and written a treatment for the film.  It was a sprawling piece, attempting to pull in connections between the diverse groups of people living in the area by using the crocodiles as the common motif.  Pursuing this ambition is perhaps a lesson in the difference between writing a history book and making a film.

In April I returned with only a sound recordist to assist me and we completed the shoot – now much more focused on the subject of fear in this community.  This log reveals how we reached that point.


I’ll begin with some action, or inaction as the case may be.  Trying to keep my head from unravelling on the last day before I leave London – I’m running around crossing off the things-to-do list feeling like I’m falling off a Charlie Mingus big band number.  I get a text message from my brother.

‘I’m parked outside arrivals – where are you?’.

My brother and I have our jokes….’I’m just getting on my bike in Vauxhall’.

‘Very funny – I’ll wait in the car.’

‘No, I’m serious.’

And so on until we realise that somehow leaving on the 15th doesn’t mean arriving on the 15th – especially when it’s an overnight flight.

So our best laid plans for my brother taking a day off and us having a little r & r in Joburg before I start work turn to dust.


The rental car firm is called Rent-a-Wreck.  It’s the cheapest I could find and rental cars don’t come cheap in South Africa.  The car is a light banana coloured Mazda that looks like it’s been bent back into shape a few times.  The man who rents it to me is called Naughty and he says his name is easy to remember.  He also assures me that the car won’t break down but if it does then I mustn’t accept being towed by a tow-truck because they’ll put a gun to my head and take all my money.  Am I meant to take this literally?  He also believes that someone who had something to gain by it instigated the recent ‘xenophobic’ attacks on immigrant workers in SA but he isn’t sure who or what could have been gained.  I think he may have a point there – maybe they were chased back to Mozambique and Zimbabwe simply so that people could take their houses off them?


I drive over to Rustenburg listening to music I’ve brought with me.  A Fall track comes on – one about getting out of town – somehow it fits in here while taking me back home and I wonder if I’d have found all this music if I’d never left SA in the first place.  Finding English music here in the late ‘70’s was hard work and I can remember sniffing record covers of imported vinyl – even the smell supposedly exhumed quality we didn’t have.

I pull into my mother’s restaurant and almost immediately, people want to talk to me about ‘my film’.  She introduces me to a friend.  I tell them that the film is partly about the Bafokeng Nation and their history of land reform.  Her friend tells me that, ‘It’s terrible how the Bafokeng are treating the mines.’  It’s hard for me not to see a racial slant to the comment – Bafokeng = Black; Mines = White.  But the mines being treated badly?  By black people?  That’s like saying that police are being treated badly by protesters.  But I just nod and smile and she says that she looks forward to seeing the film.

Then another man in the restaurant wants to talk to me.  He knows someone else who can tell me all about how badly the Bafokeng are being treated by the mines, ‘It’s a sin’, he says.  So within twenty minutes and barely twenty metres apart in the same room I’m offered completely opposing views.  Isn’t it great, I say – everyone has a different story.  ‘Ja, but this is true,’ the man says.  As I write this the next morning on my mother’s farm, I can hear the wumph of a blast somewhere in a mine – telling a very straightforward story.


I visit the school for the first time today.  Most of the kids are laughing and smiling – like this is a Disneyland school – I can’t think of a school in London I’ve ever been to like this.  The head is very keen on helping as much as he can with the film but we have to run it past an anthropologist who’s employed by the Bafokeng king to ‘sell their side of their history’.  The Bafokeng king funds the school.  This is the purest example I’ve heard of where history is totally intertwined with commerce.  The Bafokeng bought land from the Boers in the nineteenth century.  That land now makes them very rich as it’s full of platinum.  So the details of who bought what, how and where are crucial but apparently even the Bafokeng Queen Mother and her son, the King, differ on the details.

There happens to be a film crew at the school.  Other people always seem to think that film crews like to meet one another but I’d like it to be ships passing in the night.  The Director looked very tense and I know that’s what I look like when working.  I watch them film some kids for a reality TV show and it’s pretty grim stuff.  Some sort of half arsed play about being proud of who you are and achieving your goals – the stuff kids think adults want to hear – and they’re right.  But it shows nothing of the kids potential.  It reminds me of how much work we have to do to tap into that.

I meet the Bafokeng ‘spin-doctor’ as she calls herself and immediately my plans sound too ambitious –

‘Research, write and perform a play in three weeks based on a very contested history?  Really?’

‘Well, maybe not a full blown production…’

Sue Cook is American and straight talking so her agenda is clear.  She thinks it might be interesting if the kids visit their older relatives and interview them about history – an oral history – that would serve as a resource of the Bafokeng as no-one’s done this before.  I’m worried about being talked into something here but it does make sense – the trick for me is to work out what the kids might do with those stories in terms of representing them.  I leave with some questions –




I discovered that another crew from SABC had been filming in Rustenburg.  They shot an hour long special in three days and I’m worried that five weeks won’t be enough for our shoot.  ‘They were just taking photographs’, said my Mum’s partner, Roy.  Yes, and I’m sure they knew what they wanted to film before they even got there or met anyone.

Still waiting to find out whether two of the crew have got their visas to come here.  This is a gnawing worry along with many other potential problems that kept me awake from 2am.  I read the paper and saw a piece about people using blogs to express their feelings about diseases they have.  Cancer, heart transplants, brain surgery.  So let’s not use this one to talk about insomnia.


I visit Lebone 11 school again and sit under a thorn tree with the group of kids we’ll be working with.  They listen to me carefully.  I tell them a little of what I know about Bafokeng history – the land deal King Mokgatle made with Kruger and how their ancestors walked 500kms to the Kimberley mines to earn cash to buy their land back off the white settlers.  They didn’t seem to know much of the story so I suggested that their role in the film would be to find out.  Who would they ask?  Their grandparents, their parents?  They would know – and they tell me that a goat might be slaughtered while contacting the ancestors.  I feel privileged to be surrounded by such enthusiasm so let’s see what they can deliver.  My struggle is to keep it all on track and not veer off on tangents.  I take the names and mobile numbers of the group.  In English they mean, Beauty, Thanks, Forgiveness, Joy.  One of the boys is called Kagiso –  a name I used in the synopsis before I arrived here.  I found it on a website and used it for the main character in the group of Lebone kids.  It means peace.  My mistake was casting Kagiso as a girl.

I’m getting calls from people on my mobile now.  Word is getting out.  I meet a Bafokeng businessman who lobbies the king to make more money available from his coffers for business.  I feel he wants me to include his cause in the film somehow.  The word truth keeps being used and I think of all the mini-cab drivers in London who have tried to convert me to their religions on early morning drives home based on the same pretext – what I say is the truth, you can’t disagree with that – the truth is the truth and that’s all there is.  But this man, appropriately called Ernest, is more convincing than the cab drivers and it seems the distribution of wealth around here is far from perfect.  A platinum mine down the road that’s been in action for forty years still has houses nearby that don’t have running water.

Much as I understand Ernest and agree with him, I’m not sure how he fits into the film but let’s see.  The challenge is to find something interesting to film rather than information to record.  Later, I meet his friend Joseph, who tells me the whole Bafokeng/Afrikaner history in one sitting.  This is the first time I’ve heard it told as a story – other than in dry history papers.  I’m relieved to hear that I know most of it – apart from the fact that Rustenburg means ‘place of rest’ and was called that because it was where the Afrikaners rested after fighting the Zulus.  They won this battle with the help of the Bafokeng, who were also at war with the Zulus and King Mokgatle gave the land to the Boers in gratitude.  The Zulus headed north to Matabeleland or southern Zimbabwe.  And so began the intertwined histories of the Afrikaners and the Bafokeng.  But this, of course, is only one version of the story and I’m interested in finding more and what conclusions are drawn from them.

Today the ANC imploded and they sacked President Thabo Mbeki.  I don’t really understand the convoluted array of charges against him but the country doesn’t have a leader right now and there’s a very naked power struggle going on.  I meet four people who are going to be in the film and not one of them mentions the news.  I am told, however, that it’s been scientifically proven in a communist book that black people are less intelligent than whites.  I’m also told that terrorists run the government and Mandela is the biggest terrorist of all.  These aren’t common views held by people around here but they still make my stomach turn as they riddle your mind with contradictory nonsense.  And as with every extreme, there are a lot of quiet moderates who subscribe to the same beliefs.

What’s hard to accept is that these people are always warm and accommodating – one wants to start a butterfly farm for kids to visit and the other is a caretaker of a church.  These are the contradictions I want to show.  Another man I saw runs a firm pumping sewage out of septic tanks.  We agreed that sewage was another form of history and fitted into the film.  Shit is history – history is shit?

I ended up in a small cottage in the bush with Margaretha, an old woman making the most of her life painting watercolours based on fairytales and myths.  The last time we met she talked the hooves off a horse about fear, fairytales, myth and racism and played Bach on her piano.  The sound lilted through the bush and I knew I needed to come back and film her.

Margaretha lives on her own and we tried to come up with some ideas for filming – I didn’t just want her talking to me.  She showed me some paintings – one in particular about a mountain giant that met Portuguese explorers in the Cape hundreds of years ago.  The giant warned the explorers that there would be trouble in the land.  I thought this story could work for the film and then she reminded me that I’d commissioned the painting via an email in the interim.  I’d completely forgotten about this.

The day ended with a visit to Margaretha’s neighbour – a Frenchman and his French friends serving us French Champagne and food.  Everyone was enthusiastic about the film and they talked in detail about French history – kings, queens, royalty, Templars, Cathars, Freemasons….history I know little about although I did ask about the history of ‘ordinary’ people in those times but no-one had any ideas.  Finally we hit on South Africa.  The neighbour worked for the government electricity board here and was convinced that the country is cannibalising itself – the leaders want the white people to leave and they will consume all the resources until there’s nothing left.  And this was coming from a man who moved here fifteen years ago full of optimism for the country’s potential.  I find that sort of pessimism hard to swallow but what if he’s right?  This is what spurred me to make this film in the first place.  The Frenchman says that people who don’t plan for the future are managing the country.  He says that in Europe we plan all the time but right now it’s all doom and gloom and maybe we’re responsible for destroying the planet.  So perhaps just living in the present is the best way to be.

I leave feeling naïve and misinformed because I cling to a belief that the cannibals are the exception even though they may be in charge.  The meek will simply be eaten.


They have karaoke type message boards with lyrics ticker-taping by over the heads of the congregation.  Two men lead the singing at the front of the church – themselves looking up at a board overhead.  The rest of the people scattered in the church don’t seem to know the songs very well.  At one point, the man at the back – in a sort of Wizard of Oz role – gets the programmed song on the computer wrong and the men up front correct him and it starts up again on the right track.

I’m sitting in the back row and I look along the pew towards a man wearing a raincoat, a lime green shirt and a large yellow kipper tie.  He notices me and stares for a long time but I don’t look back.  Of course, to him, I’m the most incongruous thing in the room.  This is the oldest church in Rustenburg and it’s where the Dutch Reformed Church meets every Sunday.  Everyone is white and I’d say, Afrikaans as well – the ancestors of Paul Kruger.

Straight after this service, an African church takes over with a full band and lots of loud gospel singing.  And I’m told that everyone is black in that congregation.  None of this is especially strange or unusual but just outside the church there’s a brass statue of Paul Kruger looking down at his empty hands.  A few years ago someone stole the bible he was reading – probably for scrap.  And Paul Kruger sits there because King Mokgatle gave him this land after they jointly defeated the Zulus in battle.

I’m told that there is talk of amalgamating the white church with a black church – a sort of reformed Dutch reformed church.  Of course, not everyone agrees with this idea but my feeling is that they’re only returning to where they started.  If they can fight and die together – why not pray together?


The first phase of preparing the film is coming to an end.  Today I move out of my mother’s place into a farmhouse I’ve rented for the crew.  David, the Production Manager arrives from Capetown and I need to start delegating.  I have a horrible sensation telling me that I want it all to go away.  Now I have to explain myself to other people and they’re going to want to know why I’ve brought them to work on this film.  Making films can swing from being total follies to well oiled production machines.  The latter is holding sway today.

I hear that we now have both work visas approved for two of the crew and that the third one is more enthusiastic than I thought he was for coming over here from London.  The plan is that I have everything set up in the two weeks prior to their arrival.  I have to remind myself that I have done a lot so far but my feeling is a need to consolidate.  I’ve been meeting new people every day and every new person is interesting, has a story – an angle and needs to be assimilated in terms of how they might fit into the film.  In other words – each new person is another tangent and the film gets bigger rather than consolidated.  But I also discover that I’ve lost one character – an intense Canadian man who is away.  I’m not entirely unhappy about this as the last time I filmed him he refused to sign a release form.  I’m offered a replacement in the form of a wealthy extended family that have built a secure fortress of houses – a sort of compound – after being burgled at gunpoint.  So I need to meet these people and see how they might fit in.

David keeps asking me if there’s anything we need to do.  All I can think of is that we need to relax and get to know each other a bit.  I cook us a meal in the new farmhouse.  It’s a beautiful old building where you can live inside and outside on the porch.  A perfect sanctuary for the crew.  A place for me and us to plot our moves.  I’m pretty sure we’ll be happy here and I can’t wait to stick pieces of paper on a wall to map out the people and places of the film.  I don’t sleep very well even though the night is as silent as can be.


We meet the kids again at their school.  I’d asked them to suggest some people we could talk to about their history but they hadn’t come up with any results.  Someone’s grandparent even said that it was too dangerous to talk about their history as they might get something wrong.  We should go to the civic centre and get an official to tell us.  Being documentary, this is interesting in itself but I’m still looking for stories.  Worry starts creeping in.

Then Kagiso, one of the boys, asks a woman who works at the school about their history.  He comes back and tells all of us stories about snakes eating cows, cauldrons swarming with gods and why it’s bad to be near a grave at mid-day or mid-night.  We decide to visit the places where these stories took place.  One of them is the site of their new school with diggers and graders carving up the red earth.  Kagiso points out to me that the hill in the background is the shape of a crocodile – there’s the head, the lumps in his tail…  This is why they’re building their new school there.

I explain to the group that Aborigines define their creation myths through the lie of the land and shapes of animals but none of them seem to have heard of Aborigines.  We walk to a small mound with bones sticking out of it.  More cow bones are nearby.  This is the spot where the snake ate the cow but it’s also a spot where forensics has visited due to the discovery of human bones.  Apparently a human sacrifice was made here.

All nine of us jump back in the banana and David’s car and drive to a cemetery where Khosi Mokgatle and other Bafokeng kings were buried.  The kids are very careful not to stand on anyone’s grave.  Someone notices it’s just gone mid-day and they all want to leave the cemetery.  This is a sort of turn-around point for the ancestors where they all briefly wake up and you shouldn’t be near them when they’re awake.

I’m trying to focus the group on crocodiles and we go to a river where crocodiles live.  Only it’s more of a small lake and there’s no crocodiles – only a small bull drinking.  The kids say that the bull could be a snake – the snake can change shape.  Now, if these were London kids, I’d say they were playing a game and being entertaining.  But these kids genuinely believe this story – so much so that some of them have run back to the cars.

I look at the small bull and feel that it could be malevolent – if I actually felt it to be.  And this is what the kids say:  it’s up to you if it’s real – sometimes we believe it, sometimes we don’t.  It makes me think that it’s not so much about belief but more about feeling.  It’s not literal at all.  Just feelings that determine your path or your fears.

I feel vindicated that working with these kids was a great idea.  We could have filmed that scene with the bull.  Now I just need to wait for the crew and cameras to arrive and they can go on and discover their stories and show us how they feel about them.  We move on to the Bafokeng Civic Centre where we find a brass crocodile sculpture and ask a receptionist if there’s anyone we might speak with about crocodiles.  She asks me what company I’m from and I tell her, ‘London’.  I know this sterile government edifice isn’t going to help us.  Sure enough, we all troop into a lift to the top floor to see someone and discover that the person isn’t even there.  We leave the building.

A one armed man sits waiting near the receptionist and I can’t help but feel that he’ll be there tomorrow with the same pained expression on his face.


We visit the crocodile farm today.  It’s a sort of crocodile barracks with grey concrete enclosures with muddy ponds and thousands of crocodiles sitting motionless in the sun.  Each enclosure houses a different size croc – right up to the breeders who loiter in the biggest pond.  The last time I was here, I filmed them at feeding time.  They ate dead chickens – stinking ones that had died in the cages of a battery farm.  Each croc stuffed as many feathered carcasses down its gullet until there was room for no more and a chicken would be hanging out the end of its mouth.  That time I missed the cannibalistic ecosystem of this farming.  When the little ones are shot and skinned, the meat is fed to the breeders, which in turn enables them to lay more eggs.  And so life goes on.

I speak with Trevor, the farm manager.  This time we’re going to film the whole cycle from birth to death and he’s going to show the Bafokeng kids how it’s all done.  The owner, a Dr Penzhorn, wants to know why we want to film.  The last time I saw him, he said it was ok, providing I wasn’t from the Green Party.  Today he’s wearing a green shirt and shorts and I comment on his choice of colour.  I don’t get a response but when I tell him that I’m bringing kids here because of their name, the baKwena – people of the crocodile.

The Doctor tells me that it was his ancestor, Lutheran missionary Christoph Penzhorn who brokered the land deal between the Bafokeng and Paul Kruger.  But the Doctor bristles when he adds that the Bafokeng now want to take his farm away and deny that his missionary ancestors bought the property legitimately.  He wants to know where I get my stories.  For what it’s worth, I feel like I should say I sucked them out of my thumb as I can feel what’s coming.  He tells me there’s only one true story and it’s written in a German history book.  We take his phone number.  The last three digits are 007 and the Doctor adds, ‘shaken, not stirred’.

I’m not sure if history books are adequate conduits or even containers of true stories.  Details are denied, whole versions are turned upside down and all at once, everyone is right.  It’s a rat’s nest of righteous belief, claim and counterclaim.  I think it’s always been like this around here.  Just like the crocodiles sitting in the sun waiting for their next portion of rotten meat.


I go to bed reading the end of Kapuscinski’s, Travels with Herodotus.  Last year I was on a jury at a reportage film festival in Poland and Kapuscinski was the festival patron.  I started reading his books on travelling in Africa.  His curiosity of people and places in flux while trying to understand history made me wonder how history can be brought into the present in a film.  ‘The past does not exist.  There are only infinite renderings of it.  People only remember what they want to remember.  Not what actually happened.’

We meet Kagiso and visit the Bafokeng football stadium.  It’s being renovated for the World Cup.  An old idea returns to me where we might film the kids playing a game while the site workers carry on working.  I can see how the two elements would cut together but I don’t know what the affect might be.  Maybe we should just shoot it and see.

Kagiso gives me a written history of the Bafokeng and the purchase of their land from Paul Kruger.  He was given accounts by relatives and wrote them down.  This is the first time he’s asked his family about their history and he’s really happy to be learning it.  His great grandfather actually walked 600km to the mines in Kimberley to earn money to buy the land.  He must be over a hundred years old.

Most of the story is familiar to me but there’s some nice new touches like the land deeds being buried in a jam tin and Kruger being on the receiving end of much Bafokeng kindness and generosity.  I know that if I showed this account to anyone else who claims to know the history, it would be pulled apart and corrected.  Certainly the question of who was more generous – the settlers or the natives – would be the most contentious point.  Yet this account is charming and talks of feeding animals and long walks in the sun.  It feels connected to a landscape.

Earlier in the day I was on the phone to a historian who told me that a 19th century missionary was a ‘nasty man’.  How did he know this?  How could he be so sure of a personality – dead over one hundred years ago?  Did the missionary have friends who thought he was nasty?  How nasty was nasty?  It gets ridiculous as soon as you question these so called facts.  But if we have a nasty man in a fable or myth it all makes sense and we have no problem with it.  It’s perfectly believable because we know it isn’t true.  Do I have to present this history as a myth for it to be believable?

In order to bring history into the present, I need to find how the accounts/stories/renderings make people feel.  It’s not enough to recount events – the consequences have to be felt.  Maybe that’s how I bring history up to date.


This morning I plot out the characters in the film on a big roll of brown paper.  I need to see how everything connects – or doesn’t.  This isn’t a straightforward film with a few people and how changes affect their lives.  It’s more like a mosaic.  We’ll be hopping around disparate individuals and groups that are connected in ways that sometimes they don’t even know about.

In some ways, the film is about what connects these people.  My circles with lines connecting them back and forth make sense to me.  I can see how these things will bump up to one another.  It works on brown paper – will it work on film?

David and I look at the schedule for the first time.  We find that the first few days are full of holes and I panic about keeping the crew busy from the start.  Otherwise they’ll wonder why they’re here.  We seem to be busy at the end and slow at the start.  This is largely determined by a myriad of logistics out of our control.  Not least of which is the amount of driving.  We’re forty minutes from the nearest location and mostly an hour and a half away from everything.  Then there’s various four to six hour hikes.  We’ll be driving at least three hours a day.

At the moment we have to drive an hour and a half to access a landline and the internet at my mother’s restaurant.  I get an urgent email to call Vaughan, the cameraman.

I call Vaughan and he’s snarling at me down the phone.  If he speaks like this to me directly, I wonder what he’s been saying while not being able to get in touch.  He has to return five days earlier; is very angry that I didn’t call him sooner and is unsure about what equipment he’s bringing over.  The conversation is very tense – unnerving, considering how closely we’ll we working and living together over the next few weeks.  I try and explain that it’s very different over here and we have to drive an hour just to reach a landline or internet.  He’s clearly not interested in this and tells me that I should have set up a production office.

He’s the second cameraperson on the shoot as well as a good friend – something of a luxury but he’s also a director and my plan is to have him work more or less independently with the kids while I shoot sequences with the camerawoman.  Only now, he won’t be here for the climax of what the kids are doing in the film and he seems mightily pissed off with me as well.  We’ve had previous exchanges of sharp emails and conversations revolving around logistics and me not organising things well enough.  I’m not sure exactly what he’s trying to tell me.  The subtext seems to be that he might be wasting his time coming over here.  It’s not my role to tell him how to behave but I can’t help but compare the behaviour of the other three crew members who have been a lot more accommodating in terms of assisting me or in actuality, the film.

Will this continue when he comes over?  We’re not that organised and wings and prayers will play major roles in the production.  I once directed a commercial where the whole crew turned against me (there were only four of us) and I can’t risk that happening again – even with one person turning against me.  The film could be hijacked by a bad atmosphere and the breakdown of a friendship.  I could be struggling to work out how and why I’m frustrating my friend while the film wilts on the sidelines.

I sleep outside under the stars but wake up with the day’s phone conversations rattling my head.  A slither of moon slowly rises.  A star drops from the sky.


David and I visit a special Bafokeng event.  The Bafokeng have a monarchy that holds royalties from the mines in trust for their people.  They also have teams of lawyers who have won battle after battle to ensure that anyone from multinational mining companies to apartheid regimes don’t steal their land from them.  The event is set in a marquee in the front garden of the royal family.  The speeches are laboured but charming and I chat to the headmaster of Lebone school.  He warns me of certain people I may speak with about Bafokeng history who have agendas.  I feel that everyone has agendas – some are just more self-serving than others.

A historian delivers the keynote speech about oral history.  He says very little about oral history and contextualises the word, ‘tribe’ as a patronising European term.  His preferred word is monarchy.  I’m confused as surely a monarchy refers to a family and not a nation of people?  Perhaps, I think, he’s trying to please the Queen Mother and King sitting in front of him.  The only thing he says of interest for me is that South Africa was the first battleground for mineral rights – between the British and the Boers.  Now, of course, it seems most wars are fought over resources.

I have to call Vaughan to ask him not to come over here from London.  I can’t put a friendship and the film on the line at the same time.  I’ll lose a friend and the film will suffer.  I tell him this on the phone.  He feels like shit and regrets building up such a head of steam over the past few weeks.  We’re both sad on losing the chance of this collaboration.  At least the conversation is affable.  He sends me a message later saying that it’s like being kicked when you’re yawning.  It feels worse than that and I now have to change the way we make the film as we only have one camera.  I still don’t know exactly why he kicked up such a fuss over what amounted to nothing.  Perhaps he’ll tell me one day.

We visit a compound of houses that suffered an armed robbery.  Ten men with guns entered their house and tied everyone up.  They then called various buyers on mobiles and took orders for everything from cars to kettles before leaving the house with their shopping list.  The family are letting us film the houses that are surrounded by electric fences and spotlights.  They’ve even cut down all the surrounding trees near the garden to prevent intruders hiding.  We speak of this as being a regression to the first days of Europeans arriving in Africa – protecting them from the wild.

I know a woman who is a descendent of John Cormack Sutherland – a 19th Century naturalist who worked with Darwin.  Colleen works in a blood-testing lab and her speciality is watching dangerous microbes grow on glass plates.  She shows us a stack of test tubes.  Each one is HIV+.  About three hundred come in each day from twenty-two clinics in the area.  I want Colleen to speak about evolution in the film as it seems that people are regressing here rather than evolving.


Nora, the Romanian camerawoman arrives today.  We meet at my mother’s farm and I try to imagine what she’s thinking of everything around her.  Her opening line to me is that she doesn’t know what she’s doing here.  This feels ominous but I brush it aside.  We’ve had months of exchanging emails with treatments and outlines of the film.  How can she not know what she’s doing here?

As we drive back to our rented farmhouse I offer a brief history of the places we pass through.  She wants to know where all the people are, ‘I thought in Africa there were always lots of people’.

We pick up an old white man hitching to Zeerust, a town a long way up the road near the Botswana border.  Nora’s feeling sick and we pull over for her to let it pass.  The old man starts complaining.  ‘It used to be good in Mozambique, Rhodesia was great, Angola, Namibia, they were all great.  But look what happens when the white man goes.  They fuck it all up.  And now it’s happening here.  It’s revenge.  They want revenge.’  I feel like asking him to get out but I can’t see what difference that would make.  He wouldn’t have said it if a black person was in the car so it was actually for our benefit.  Some sort of solidarity.  In some ways he’s right.  In his world, I will always have more in common with him.  In my world, I will always see him as a sell-out – someone who gave into his fears.  But here we are sitting in the same car.

We let him off just as it’s getting dark.  He’ll struggle to get a lift now on this empty country road under the stars without a moon.  And from a distance he’ll look just like everyone else with a dark face.  Stranded, trying to get home.


Nora and I go to ask permission to shoot in the front garden of the Royal Bafokeng house.  A woman hears our request and says to hold on while she asks the Queen Mother.  Five minutes later she returns and the Queen Mother has said it’s ok to film.  Easy.  We then go on to the Civic Centre where I want to show Nora a brass crocodile statue that we’re going to film with the kids.  She takes a few pictures and a security man collars us and says we’re not allowed to take pictures.  We go inside the building and a woman at the desk calls someone, ‘These people were ‘cutting’ pictures of the crocodile without permission.’  I tell her that they should put up signs if they don’t want people to take pictures.  She says we have to wait to see someone.  I say we have to leave.  She points to a seat, ‘Wait.’

Nora offers to delete the picture of the crocodile.  ‘Delete,’ the woman says.  Nora then deletes the pictures in front of the security guard.  We’re allowed to leave.  And this was the location where we were just going to turn up with a carload of kids without permission to film.  I think we better go back to the Queen Mother.

We go on to visit a woman who has invested all her money in building a castle.  The castle is going to be a luxury hotel and it’s like one of those Las Vegas ideas of a castle.  I’m interested in the fact that she’s pursued her dream and want to know why she’s had this dream in particular.  The building is totally incongruous with everything around it and it may either be a complete folly or a total success for that reason.  The woman shows us around the building, room by room.  It’s a building site but we’re told that it’s the only castle that will have jacuzzis in its turrets and an odd mixture of Venetian, French and Scottish murals and finishings.  There’s also a Michelangelo replica on the ceiling that probably looks like a Michelangelo if you don’t know what a Michelangelo looks like.  The woman is very tense and breathless.  This is the kind of thing ‘knowing’ audiences laugh at as it makes them feel they have better ‘taste’.  Or perhaps more aptly nowadays, a knowing audience would consider it ironic that the woman is so obsessed with a folly.  I have to work against this kind of sneering to avoid coming across as a Louis Theroux or Nick Broomfield impersonator.

I ask the woman why she has sunk all her money into this fantasy building.  She says she was a chemist for the mines – testing rocks and dirt for chemical properties.  I imagine there’s a lot of money in that but she’s sold her business to pay for the castle.  Then she tells me that nine years ago her three-year old son died and to prevent her self-sliding into oblivion she decided to build this castle.  Finally I have a reason to film her.

Nora and I then drive to visit the Sterkfontein Caves – site of the where the oldest human remains were discovered.  There’s a theme of evolution in the film and this could be good location.  Only, I try a short cut and pick up two men hitching along the way.  They’ve walked to look for work and are now walking home, having found a roofing job.  They haven’t got money for transport.  I discover all this while driving miles out of our way and we realise that we’re nowhere near the caves.  Our map is useless and no one we ask seems to know anything beyond their local area.  The men realise their lift is over as we turn back.  Nora suggests that I should stop giving people lifts when we’re working.  She’s right.

Tonight, we’re a full crew.  Lina has arrived with an array of mics, cables and the camera from London.  The gear is spread out and tested.  People slipping into their roles and literally plugging into one another.  I cook a big meal for everyone.  I’m worried about holding all this together.  My ideas for filming seem to be like disconnected fragments at the moment even though they all made sense the day before.  I tell everyone that we’ll try and have an easy day to start with – a trial day to test everything out.  If we shoot anything worth using then so be it, but let’s not be too worried if we have problems.


The day starts with a nightmare.  The computer that I brought over for storing our film as we work has lost certain programmes we need.  The camera uses memory cards and they needs to be downloaded each day for reusing.  I’d spent months researching how to do this, bought a new computer, borrowed and begged software and now the thing had been tampered with by David.  He was trying to sort out internet settings so that I could upload this blog every day.  I’m fully aware that this is just the sort of distraction that fulfils all the first day nerves of a shoot and serves as the perfect disaster metaphor.  Once things calm down, we realise that we can go on without the programmes I had and need to just get on with the job.

The job begins with us sitting in a dusty car park in 35C+ heat waiting for an hour and a half for no one to turn up.  Another metaphor for the shoot or maybe just a taste of things to come.  So we go to the school to meet the kids and some of them arrive.  They want to know what we’re going to do but I need to know what research they’ve done.  Do you have any stories you can tell me about crocodiles?  Your history?  One of them tells me his grandmother has a friend.  It’s too late for vague leads.  The kids trickle in.  I tell them they should devise a story and tell it to us.  We wait somewhere else while they work it out.

I notice Lina setting up her mic.  I decide to shoot the kids telling their story.  Nora films them working it out.  The camera is running and a boom is in the air.  We’ve finally started.  The kids put on a performance for us.  It’s hard to film and record because it’s literally all over the place.  Plus, the crew aren’t used to working together.  There’s sighing and tutting at mistakes and bad communication.  I keep remembering that today is just a rehearsal.  You have to start somewhere.  I’m not sure if we’ll use anything we shoot.  The idea for the kids doing a play was meant to come at the end of the shoot so who knows where it’s going to lead now?  The kids finish and leave.

I ask Nora to film the empty space where they performed – a dusty shaded area under trees.  I find this space more interesting than the performance.  The performance was a bit like receiving information while this is an atmosphere – something you feel and experience.  You can hear the wind and see the trees move, the shadows creep, the ants walk.  There’s no hurry in filming these things.


Our first dawn call and we meet the kids for a trip to the hill that’s shaped like a crocodile.  There’s a whole construction site digging at the base of the hill with graders and bulldozers.  We have the kids perform part of the play they devised the previous day with the hill in the background.  The idea is to see how different locations affect the way they perform their story.  Their performance isn’t that special but when they forget the camera is there and devise a song and dance it seems to have more feeling and is worth filming.

We also want to film the hill in relation to the big digging machines.  The dust and bulldozers are great to film but I’m not happy with them.  I could have hours of this footage and still have no use for it.  For some reason big machines are always very seductive when filming.  So are factories.

Finally, I realise that the hill is the subject and the machines should be in the background and that sound should evoke the machines rather than us seeing them.  We find an angle to define this approach and it works.

The second half of the day is far more problematic.  The man we’re going to film had said he didn’t want to be filmed but I’d persuaded him otherwise.  He’s worried about me interpreting what he says as ‘political’.  He’d made a statement about local road names being changed and he posited the idea that if names are changed then whole streets should be dug up and rebuilt as well.  How could this not be political?  The man had strong feelings about this and my theory was to have him walking the streets and expressing his feelings.  Maybe even ranting at a road sign.

Walking and talking shots are always hard to achieve technically and this was no exception.  Traffic, noise, people, kerbs, poles, cables – all conspired to get in the way.  And then your subject doesn’t say what he feels but instead waters it down with some complaints about litter in the streets.

None of us are happy after this experience.  I look at the rushes and I know there’s something there worth salvaging.  There’s normally something better than you think lurking there after a first viewing.  But it still wasn’t the statement I wanted.  This could be a perennial problem as I’ve ‘set up’ a lot of people to talk about things.  I have to find ways to create spontaneous situations.

I resolve to return to the street names man and speak with him on mic and see if I can get him to express his feelings better and use it as voiceover.  Two days of shooting and I still don’t feel lucky.


I really don’t feel like working today.  I’m dreading that things will go wrong and we all start wondering what the hell we’re doing here.  I had Lina and Nora tell their embassies in Romania and Lithuania that we were doing a film about plants and insects – seems like not such a bad idea now.

We go back to the lake where the kids had seen the bullock that they imagined to be a snake.  We need to film the crocodile hill from a distance to give an impression of the whole shape.  It’s reflected in the water and looks like a postcard.  For me, postcards in films are to be avoided but this one has a function – the hill is a crocodile and crocodiles live in water.  The more I look at it the more I like it – it could be an opening shot or even one that we return to in the film.  This shot is about the soul of the landscape.

Later we drive to the big mining area where we are hoping to film.  For a change, the sky is overcast and it suits the desolation of mine-heads and mine-dumps or big flattened artificial hills made from excavated earth.  The landscape is scarred inside and on the surface.  Vents poke out of the earth blowing air form the shafts.  We need to connect this desolation with people who exist within it.  Two men walk with a herd of cattle right past the camera.  Our first lucky moment.

I spot a white mine-dump that jumps out from the grey, brown and black.  Behind it in the distance, I can see the crocodile hill.  It’s a shot we need permission for.  Within fifteen minutes we’re sitting with the general manager of the mine and he’s happy for us to shoot and even offers to let us film underground.  He looks at my sandals and says they’re not very practical.  Like lots of people around here, he’s only concerned if we’re environmentalists.  As if people concerned about the environment are a different breed.

We then spend a long time sitting in a hot car park waiting for Ernest and Joseph.  We have a plan whereby we’ll record sound inside a car with the two people commenting on things they see as we drive.  They have a beef with local government not distributing mining royalties fairly enough.  The camera will pick them up as they arrive at a specified destination.  I like the idea of hearing and not seeing people.

However, it all starts going pear shaped as Ernest complains that I hadn’t told him my plan and that we’re disorganised.  I’ve had reservations about this guy using us to promote his cause and now I regret asking him to appear in the film.  But we follow our plan and the conversation is quite dull until one of the men tells us about the neighbourhood he grew up in and how special it is.  He has feeling in his voice.  We drive past Nora who’s waiting for the car to arrive to film it – only she’s pointing the camera in the wrong direction.  I ask Ernest to drive up again so that we can film their arrival.  Again, he gives me a lecture on being disorganised.  And of course, when David has him sign the release form, he wants money.

I’m feeling that we may have blown an afternoon here until someone asks if some kids playing trumpet and drums can be filmed.  Of course, live music has to be better than cars arriving in the wrong direction.  And then a whole brass band assembles in front of us and they blow and thump for ages.  We get lucky again.


The day starts at dawn with a long shot down a lonely dirt road near where we’re staying.  We want to film farm workers walking, silhouetted against the rising sun.  It could be a clichéd shot but sometimes these things work.  We have ages to set up.  The workers are dropped off and begin walking towards us.  Lina is positioned up the road with a mic.  A small dog appears from a farm and starts yapping at Lina.  It yaps throughout the entire shot.  Our camera isn’t positioned correctly and most of the people leave the frame too early.  I make friends with the dog and he follows us home.

Finally we’re visiting a ‘friendly’ character in a friendly environment.  Maybe we should have started this way.  Margaretha is happy to see us and talk about anything in depth.

Filming seems to go well – although most of her talking is directed at me so I can’t see the camera or the frames Nora is setting.  The garden has great ambient sound as well although four Jack Russells conspire to yap intermittedly.  We talk about myth, nature and our relationship to the land – ‘I belong to the land.  It doesn’t belong to me.’  This seems to be one of the central conflicts amongst the characters of this film.

We follow Margaretha walking through the bush with a friend.  The sun is setting.  The sound is wonderful and she pauses a lot and just stares at the long grass around her as if discovering it for the first time.  I hope other people enjoy watching this as much as I do.

Margaretha has a stand-up piano in her small cottage.  She plays Mozart for us and we shoot from outside as the sky turns dark blue.  I’ve had this shot in mind since I met her in January.  I’ve been wearing binaural mics in my ears all day – they’re very good for perfect stereo recordings.  I leave the kit on a table outside for no more than five minutes and then notice than part of it is missing – the part with the two microphones.  The shredded remnants are scattered around the garden.  The Jack Russell puppies start yapping again. Will the insurance company believe this one?


Today was supposed to be a day off to catch up on all the things that get overlooked when we’re running around shooting.  I go through the rushes with Nora.  Up until this film we’ve only worked together for a week and I was doing sound with her on camera for an observational film about shepherds in Romania.  She seemed tough and willing to push herself and was quick at reacting to spontaneous action.  Now that I’m looking at our rushes I see some great shots but a lot of camerawork that is merely recording the action and not really seeing it as far as I’m concerned.  Shots are in focus, correctly exposed and the subject has a nice border around it – everything is general – like a postcard.

This is one of those things that is easier to describe in the negative than how it should be.  It’s about getting into the moment with a camera (the same works for sound recording) and finding details that make the whole subject more interesting. Filming is discovering and seeing.  I think that people often refer to a shooting style in terms of camerawork but I feel that style comes after the fact.  For me, style is pretty much irrelevant until I’ve used my eyes to look at the subject.  The moment should dictate the style and you have to get into the moment whether you’re directing or whatever you’re doing.  Is this too much to ask from a crew?  I’d rather have one moment of revelation than an hour of recording.

I even think that filming the back of someone’s head is more interesting than seeing their face – if only because it engages your imagination.  I’d say that a camera should scrutinise someone’s face the way an architect might look at a mountain.  A face is something that’s just there and it’s up to the camera to discover how it has been shaped and at best, reveal what’s going on behind it.  Again, it’s about the emotion of the shot.

I have to take these rushes home with me, so I’m obliged to criticise camerawork that’s merely recording.  It’s just like the camerawork I had from someone who shot my first feature.  He’d light a scene so that everything was lit evenly and then put the camera in the middle of the room and place everything in the middle of the frame with a nice border around it.  It looked like a Woolworth’s window display.  I know that I can’t let this happen again so I have to sit on Nora and even take over camerawork so as to set an example.  And all this has to go on with an understanding that egos must remain intact and that there’s no agenda driven one-upmanship going on.

In hindsight, I’d recommend doing a test day with the cameraperson and sound-recordist to see where they’re coming from and how they respond technically and aesthetically to a subject.  It would be a lot more useful that talking about scripts and style.

We go out to the local shopping mall.  It offers a strange democracy to this divided place.  If you have money, you shop.  This desire crosses all the barriers people put up here, although of course, most people have hardly any money.  This could be a good place to film, if only because it’s a relatively neutral place where people are drugged by material desire.  This is most evident when you go in one entrance and leave by another and spend ages trying to find your car because everything looks the same.  Ballard would be proud.

I suggest we stop at a local bar on the way home.  I think we should make some social contact and we may film there.  People getting drunk are always fun to film and Afrikaners are no exception.  I shoot a lot and enjoy it.  Nora takes over and we get a chance to compare footage later.  Our shots could cut together so hopefully we’re making progress.


This morning I drive us to the location in the Banana car.  There’s something about driving a crew around that emphasizes the fact that I’m leading them to recesses I consider worth filming.  I’ve always had doubts weather anyone in a crew knows or even wants to know exactly why we’re shooting in a specific place and why they’re being dragged there at some ridiculous time in the morning.  Taking the wheel means they can all sleep while I deliver them to the right spot.

We start shooting a Dutch Reformed Church service in the oldest church in Rustenburg.  It’s all very stiff and serious with hymns that stick in everyone’s throats, restless kids not hiding it and lots of young couples dressed up to look like the older versions around them.  This is the conservative Afrikaans community – the one that used to run the country and now feel very marginalised.

I work with Nora on camera and push her into realising the type of framing I want.  It’s impossible to explain an aesthetic, as it must come from the subject in front of you.  I clock a good example when I frame a close-up of a man’s face and a woman’s dislocated ear in the frame.  The ears are prominent and that what this service is about – the people are receiving a sermon.  For me, this is how the aesthetic should be determined.  It seems obvious to me but I know I shouldn’t take it for granted.

Once the Afrikaner service is finished there’s a strange shift change and we film some well-dressed African men carrying speakers and keyboards into the church.  This is the African congregation – invisible to the previous one as they leave in their cars, yet beautifully visible to us as we film the crossover.

While setting up their gear by the alter, everyone starts singing about getting higher and feeling great and letting joy into your heart.  The atmosphere couldn’t be more contrasted with the leaden drone that pre-empted it.  I’ve got goose bumps on my arms and we shoot hands waving in the air, smiling mouths and stomping feet.  Take me higher.

We stop at my mother’s farm for lunch.  She’s being very supportive and happy to feed us whenever we drop by.  The fact that there are two women on the crew and me being single at the moment prompts her to remind me of the latter.  I’m not exactly unaware of this but I’m married to this film and have been for some time while hoping to set a date for divorce before long.

Nora and I speak about the way I want her to shoot.  I know her confidence has taken a knock since I’ve been more hands on with the camera but I can’t help it if her framing isn’t working for me.  I ask her to trust me and hope that we get in sync soon.

Our second location is back at Margaretha’s to film her painting.  She sets up a blank piece of paper and starts painting – like Rolf Harris used to do – talking about colour, spontaneity, freedom, prison, folktales, history, myth, religion and of course, crocodiles.  She’s like a guardian angel and gives me more than any actor has ever done.

This is the first day that I’ve recovered the feeling that we could have a special film on our hands.  Margaretha is like a character out of a Herzog film and we could make a whole film about her except she appreciates that I want to show a bigger picture.  This is why she wants to give so much.  I think she understands what I’m doing better than anyone else, which is an amazing privilege for me.


I’m excited about today because we’ve two locations that link up thematically and I like the themes.  They’re to do with living in gilded cages – a way of life that’s been refined in South Africa.  It’s easy for outsiders to sneer at white people living in fear of black intruders with the inference that they somehow deserve it.  Once you go down that road there’s no room for understanding how people feel in these conditions and that’s what I’m interested in.  My theory is that living under high security causes people to evolve in particular ways and that’s what I want to catch.

The family we’re filming live within a compound of four or five houses – all of which are homes to relatives one way or another.  Electric fencing, spotlights and sensor beams surround each house.  The trees surrounding the houses have been cleared to prevent anyone hiding behind them.  A few months ago these people were robbed by six men (or more) with guns and were held hostage for four hours.  The men took orders for stolen goods on mobiles while they were in the house so it was a very organised operation.  Luckily no one was raped or murdered.

We film the family playing on swings outside – they have three toddlers and tons of colourful toys.  The bright colours on the HD camera make it look like an ad for the perfect family.  Then we film outside the perimeter electric fence.  The two shots cut together will say it all.  Nora and I are still a little tense working together but we just need to get on with it.  I keep feeling that we’re not quite catching the contrast between the outside surrounding bush and its inherent threat and the perfect suburban homestead.  I had an Errol Morris type idea in the car about filming mundane domestic items and laying the voiceover of the crime over them.  So we shoot those as well.

Night falls and the house looks much more interesting form the outside.  Now they really are surrounded by darkness.  Nora gets some great shots of moths by the spotlights and the family behind bars.  I speak with the couple and they recount the crime as well as discuss how they recovered.  The most depressing thing I hear is that they wouldn’t go on holiday anywhere unless there was a similar array of security on tap.

Nora and I go on to a night patrol with the security firm that installed all the paraphernalia for the family we’ve just visited.  The firm is run by another family and I went on the same patrol in January when I was researching.  They work days installing fences and alarms and nights patrolling the farm properties.  Firms from town don’t bother to come out to rural areas.  What amazes me is that these people don’t seem to sleep.

The patrol is pretty uneventful which is common and unlike all the crime shows you see on TV.  We find some markers on the road – bottles placed by syndicates indicating that a place should be robbed or attacked.  Of course, this is open to interpretation.  They once found tags of tape along a road and followed them for ages, thinking they were on a trail except the tape was there for a mountain bike race.

At about half two we return to their base.  We film the four or five people manning the phones and computers for a few hours.  These hours take on a dreamy somnambulism.  The woman in the control room is like the woman out of Fassbinder’s Fear eats the soul and spills a pile of stories and revelations about herself without any prompting.  She’s reading a book called Sex in the Afternoon to keep awake.  Jan, the man running the firm has about two hours sleep a night and has a bad heart condition.  He drinks Coke and coffee and swallows a box of caffeine enriched headache powder everyday.  It’s the only thing that works, he says.  I think he’s killing himself.  We film his eyes darting in every direction in front of a static computer screen. He’s on a tourism web site that features ‘great’ cities of the world.  If I’d scripted this, I would have thought it too crass to film.

The next day is a day off – the first proper one as the previous one we ended up working.  Nora and I look at rushes and she’s doing great work – at least from my perspective.  I thank her for her patience and hope that she’s getting something from the experience.  She says she’s still not really understanding this place.  We’ve only been filming for a week – a third of the way into our shoot.  I think she will get to understand more but any new country is a mass of contradictions.  The four of us are really working as a unit now and getting on well.  It’s impossible to plan these dynamics so I’m really pleased it’s coming off.


We go to a soup kitchen outside the church we were filming in on Sunday.  The group of men queuing up are broken alcoholics – only the ones I speak with are ex-miners promising to get off the bottle one day and go back underground.  They’re very frank and we film them eating and watching parked cars in a parking lot for change.

We then go on to meet some of the kids at a crocodile farm to film them talking to the owner, Dr Penzhorn – a bristling character not unlike a crocodile himself.  Although when we arrive it feels like he’s been given a makeover by a PR firm and he’s all sweet smiles.  This is the first scene we’re filming of the kids making an enquiry into why the crocodile is the symbol of their people.  It doesn’t feel very interesting to film – more like a school project, which I suppose it is.

We then take the kids to their Civic Centre where there’s a large brass crocodile statue.  No one there knows anything about the significance of the crocodile.  It’s a dull experience and I expect even more flat on film – I can’t see how I could be using this stuff in the edit.  We go on to meet someone who does know the history of the crocodile and he sits the kids down around a big table.  It feels very formal and I’d rather do it under a tree except it’s too windy outside.  The man is very eloquent and speaks in Tswana and English.  I need this story for the film so it’s not a wasted experience – even though I still haven’t seen a great shot today.

We finish the day driving around the mining area looking for something special to film.  It’s not happening.  Then we drive down a short dirt road and find a woman we recognise from the bar we filmed in.  She’s watering her garden next to some railway tracks.  On the other side sits a smelter – a massive concrete structure with flames raging out of chimneys all day and night.  Machinery clunks and bangs and dust and smoke fill the air.  She tells me that they built the smelter seven years ago and before that it was just open fields next door.  She’s used to it although the skin on her arms is peeling off.  Her husband works in a shaft down the road.  The whole set-up looks like an extension of hell.


Today starts with a visit to a man who in some ways appals me.  He once said to me that black people were put on the earth to serve whites – it says so in the bible.  When I see him this morning he lectures me about the sin of condoms and how they encourage sex – this is why so many people are dying of AIDS.  I don’t argue with statements like this.  Too much flows from these opinions that completely upsets any balance of reason and compassion I could muster.

My idea is to introduce the group of kids to this man and see what happens.  I’d like to see them challenge him – not just because they’re black but also because they’re young and might sweep away this anachronism.  Visually, the encounter could be interesting as well as the man is six foot eight while the kids are all barely five feet tall.  The kids listen to him talking and he tells them about how the people of the country need to be saved and about how people he met in Uganda greeted him politely every day while here people just try and rob him.

I wanted to butt in and say that the Ugandans have even less money than people here and that maybe they were friendly because he was a big white tourist but this wasn’t my encounter that was being filmed.  The only time the man displayed any feeling was when talking of his eighty four year old father being murdered for his wallet.  The kids empathised with him on that.  Unfortunately they empathised with everything else as well.  I’ll need to get more spunk out of them if they’re going to appear in this film.

The heat is crushing us.  It must be 35C and every time we want to go anywhere it’s at least an hour’s drive away.  The encounter this morning sends me back to wondering what I’m doing here and why I’ve dragged all these people into shooting scenes that I can’t even watch in real time – let alone on film.  You’re only as good as your last sequence in this game.

We have a gap for a long lunch and I manage to lose my doubts.  The crew are laughing a lot now and there’s good spirits all round.  It rubs off on me.  Nora discovers that Olympic Airlines are striking on the day of her return to Athens from here.  They refuse to put her on another airline so we’re wondering what to do.  In Greece, they have a reply for when you complain about things not working – pare ta arhidia mu – look at my balls.  I want to give them a call and hear this for myself.

The afternoon shoot is of an event to launch a new ‘lifestyle’ development.  I’ve wanted to film an estate agent selling a piece of barren land to us with all the verve and imagination of a pioneer on the new frontier.  Originally it was going to be an estate agent called Burt who I’m renting the house from but he’s not great on camera and seems reticent.  But this event is perfect.

Gradually people arrive and gather around little models of a large housing development centred around a golf course.  This is called a golfing community and you have to play golf to be able to live there.  Apparently these developments are common here but I’ve never heard of them.  The people are keen and the developers make speeches and they have a golfing celebrity attached to the whole thing.  We shoot lots of great stuff of prospective buyers and I do a reportage thing with binaural mics – speaking to people about their dreams and how the land is transformed by dreams.  I also take a drive over to the actual land that’s being developed.  It’s very flat, stark farmland with mountains in the distance and mine-dumps and shafts nearby.  Exactly what pioneering real estate was invented for.  The developer assures me that the area will be landscaped to remove any industrial ugliness.  He has absolute conviction in his dreams.

Everyone I speak to mentions security as the most important factor in the development of the land.  They cherish the gated community in wide-open spaces.  Of course there’s much irony here but that’s only a reflection of what’s going on.  The reality is that this is what people want and there’s also a lot of money swirling around.  Fear feeds the need for security and security comes at a high price.


I’m wound up this morning because I still have my doubts about this big trip to Kimberley with the kids.  Their ancestors walked six hundred kilometres to dig the diamond mines there and left a giant hole in the ground.  I’m hoping that the trip there and the sight of the biggest hole in the world will stimulate some feeling from them.  But with kids today – why should a big hole mean anything?  My main worry is that they act up to please the camera and me.  The trip is going to eat three days out of our schedule and I originally intended it to be at the end of the shoot but now it’s bang in the middle due to last minute changes.

We film an assembly at the school.  It’s a special one where older pupils wash the feet of younger ones – a sort of symbolic act to prepare them for growing up.  The Queen Mother is there and she tells a story about someone looking out of a window each day and seeing a dirty sheet.  One day the person notices the sheet is clean and wonders who washed it.  She’s informed that the window has been cleaned.  Somehow, I can’t imagine the English queen cracking jokes like this.

We’re making the seven-hour trip in a mini-bus and a follow car.  The kids are very excited and I give them a pep talk about why we’re doing this.  The driver insists on prodding his foot on and off the petrol willing the bus to go faster.  This means Nora’s camerawork goes the way of a dodgem.  He tries to overtake going up a hill and nearly hits an oncoming car.  The windows are shut and the air-con doesn’t work and the kids have their mobiles playing distorted Timbaland and other whining hip-hop all at once.  My head’s about to explode.  I realise that I need to give this time.

We have to do some exterior shots of the van passing.  I find a good spot.  The sun is going down.  There’s dust in the air, cows in a field and power lines crossing the orange sky.  Nora sets up and we drive past her.  She’s pulling faces and has her hands up in the air telling us to go faster but also winking with her fingers opening and shutting.

A lorry is heading straight towards us so we veer off the road to avoid a head-on collision.  Peter the driver is very cool throughout.  I’m expecting him to tell us where to get off any minute.  We realise that we’re stuck in a one-way roadwork’s lane and all the traffic is now coming at us.  Nora’s winking fingers were to do with turning off Peter’s emergency lights – understandable under the circumstances in terms of saving our lives – but not looking good for the camera.

We try a few more passes before the sun sets and Nora gets her shots.  She says they look like the final shots of the film Seven but I can’t remember it.


We have only one day at the Big Hole in Kimberley.  The words ‘Big Hole’ say it all – we’ve brought six teenagers to look at a big hole in the ground and I somehow expect them to emote something from the experience.  I can’t see why they would give a toss about the Big Hole.  It was dug by thousands of African workers employed by white prospectors and as the biggest man made hole in the world it’s impressive but there’s not much to say or do with it.  It’s a bit like trying to catch an authentic gasp at the Grand Canyon.  So I need a plan to build up the moment.

I tell the kids that we can’t see the hole due to health and safety reasons.  We have to find our own viewpoint.  So we drive around the perimeter fence and peek through barbed wire.  There’s some frustration at not being able to get a good view.  Maybe I’ll get some sense of feeling from them but I’m not sure.  It must be over 35C so it’s probably the heat that’ll get to them first.

Finally we return to the tourist viewpoint and discover that we can view the hole properly after all.  We film them looking at the hole saying that it’s amazing, big, fantastic, etc.  Nothing interesting as far as I’m concerned.  But I do get a shot of the hole reflected in a pool of water that reminds me of Tsufi Hill – the Crocodile shaped hill we filmed reflected in a lake.  This connection sort of saves the day for me.  At least I can cut this stuff in somewhere.  But ultimately, the kids feel little better to me than place mats on a nice looking table.  I’m really disappointed and have no one to blame but myself.


We leave before dawn to catch a sequence of the kids sleeping in the van as the sun rises.  I’ve had this one in my head for a long time.  At first it looks as if the kids won’t sleep but eventually they all conk out and we get beautiful shots of them splayed over the seats like babes in a forest.

We stop at a Wimpy for breakfast and I’m tempted to have a crème-soda float for old time’s sake but it’ll probably make me feel sick.  I offer to buy breakfast for Peter the driver but he says it’ll make him fall asleep so he wants the money instead.  This annoys me and then David asks for cash and then I discover my cards don’t work in the machines.  So a bad mood settles in.

We set off in the van again and I have one last shot at getting the kids to be engaged.  I ask them about the trip and tell them about people I’ve filmed who live with a lot of fear and build walls around themselves.  An argument starts up between those who think people should change and adapt and one girl who states that some people don’t want to change and shouldn’t be forced to.

Like any real argument, personalities come to the fore and one of the more dominant boys is put in his place.  I’m really engaged with what they’re saying and swing from both viewpoints even though I’ve come to realise that some people are happy being cut off from the wider world by their fears.  They even throw in an analogy – with a prod from myself – about two crocodiles encountering each other.  One wants to evolve and the other doesn’t and they can never reconcile their differences.

These kids are around 16-18 yrs old and they share a mix of hopeful optimism and realpolitik.  We do a few more exterior shots of the van.  Finally I can picture this little vehicle crossing the country with words and feelings burning inside it.  And just when I had given up on them.

We get home and I go for a long swim in the river at the bottom of the farm.  I still haven’t managed to convince anyone to join me in the muddy water but it’s like rolling around in satin with trees, nests, birds and butterflies overhead.  On the way back I drop a pair of mics down inside an anthill.  I record a very creepy atmosphere of buzzing, groans and crackles for half an hour.  It’s the best recording I’ve done in ages.  The ants somehow manage to eat most of the toxic wind protection material on the mics.


Another dawn start and my body is beginning to rebel.  I wake up late and we head off to the croc farm.  We film Trevor, the manager, digging up freshly laid eggs from the sand.  This is a farm and a business that happens to use crocodiles for produce.  Little ones are skinned when their torsos are about 30cm long.  Today we get some of the kids to arrive and watch the crocs being stunned by a cattle prod, measured and having their teeth clipped.  The whole process is pretty grim but not unlike most farms.  The crocs behave like snapping dogs and some of them try and escape from the concrete enclosure.

The most extreme thing for me is when a stunned croc has a stick shoved in between its jaws and an angle grinder is used to flatten its teeth.  You don’t get that on the NHS.

We’re getting a sense that time is running out so we need to do pick-ups and linking shots whenever we can grab them.  There’s lots of things we pass every day in the car and think that we should grab it in much the same way that you want to grab a photograph.  Only, when you do stop and set-up the camera it seems to lack the life you want.  Filming static objects can feel really mundane sometimes.

David has managed to track down an Afrikaans preacher who has worked with a Tswana congregation for forty years.  He sings in Tswana and I feel he could be a good bridge between the segregated congregations we’ve filmed at the church.  Lina and Nora want to know how we’ll shoot him and how to record sound.  I feel irritated as I’ve never met the man or been to his house so how can I know anything about how to represent him?  I’m reminded that we’ve spent a very intense two weeks together and probably need a break from each other.  I’m tired of repeating myself.

We get to the preacher’s house and immediately start recording and filming.  I hate doing this.  Apart from anything else, it’s really bad manners and makes me feel like some cheap journalist.  But the man is amazing and wants to engage with me and my ideas about fear and crocodiles.  He’s totally enlightened and not just by his god – everything I hoped he would be.  His character is too interesting to be reduced to sitting in a chair for an interview.

Then Nora runs out of card space on the camera.  A blessing in disguise, as I think we should start again and do this properly.  Running out of time got the better of me again and we shouldn’t have been filming on the first meeting.  This is one of the reasons I wanted Vaughan, the second cameraman over here.  He would have told me to calm down and take stock or maybe he’d still be snarling at me – who knows?

And so like a gift offered to us, the preacher suggests we film his visits to factories where he does ten-minute services of song and prayer at 7am.  I couldn’t have scripted a better scenario to add to the religious communities in the film.  The preacher is a bridge between divided communities.

We finish the day by filming the blank wasteland that will become the gated golfing community estate.  I’m very uninspired by the location and I feel tiredness is getting the better of me.  Another hour and a half of driving around in the dark and finally we get home.  Lina says she had a great sleep in the car, drifting off to Nora and I talking about this country as if it were a fairytale.  I’m just pleased I managed to get us home without sliding off the road.


We need to rest this morning and I need to look at the rushes and work out if the film is making sense.  We’ve been doing fourteen-hour days and the voices of everyone I meet and the crew are swirling around my head.  Sometimes my thoughts are pronounced in Nora’s Romanian accent and I keep noticing how we’re taking on each other’s mannerisms.  I wonder how astronauts get on.

The rushes are fine except I can’t find a sequence of a brass band playing that we filmed.  I ask Nora where it is.  She admits to maybe not having pressed the trigger on the camera.  This worries me.  How many other times did she think the camera was running when it wasn’t?  Collaborating can be painful at times.

We look at the footage of the crocs being stunned and measured.  It’s powerful stuff in that it’s very brutal and visceral – more so on a computer screen than in real life.  We wonder why this is – why is a detached viewpoint more powerful?  It reminds me of the film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer where the main character loves killing people but draws the line on watching video footage of it.  Watching violent acts is somehow more morally decadent than the act itself.

We go to the school in the afternoon to film and record a marimba practice session.  There’s a mini orchestra of them and the music sends me straight up.  It’s very charming and seductive and I’m ambitiously trying to find something that I could use for the soundtrack.  We record everything and just when I start hearing something I like, we have to run off.  It was like finding a bass line and not letting the instruments join in.

Tonight we have to drive a six-hour return trip to Joburg for the talk radio show we’re filming.  This has been an on/off event for the past three weeks so we have to grab the chance.  The problem is that we’ll only get home at 2 and then we have to get up again at 5 to film the preacher.  The station is very near where I went to school and lived 25 years ago.  Everything has changed and the suburbs have grown into a strange city of malls and office blocks.  We eat falafels in a mall restaurant.  The dull humdrum of the place sucks away any conversation.

The talk show host is very keen to help and oblige.  My idea is to get people to call in and talk about how people change themselves, how environments change people and how some people choose to stop evolving socially by fencing themselves in.  And of course, I want people to use my metaphor of crocodiles.  It’s a lot to ask for and I get a few links from the host that I might use and a couple of callers who are resistant to any kind of change.

The host says that the days of referring to people as black or white are over.  Coming from the city, that’s probably true but it’s not the case where we’ve been filming.  I’m told that we had the second highest ever number of calls in the first hour of the show.  I’m not sure if we’ve wasted our time but hopefully it’s another thread I can add in the edit.


I couldn’t sleep last night so I took a sleeping pill.  After two hours I have to get up but the pill seems to reduce the pain of tiredness.  Or maybe it’s the subject we’re shooting.  We’re back with the preacher Johannes, who sets up his ten-minute choral service in factories at 7am.  He’s a truly enlightened man – beyond anything I’ve ever seen religion offer.  Johannes turns up in overalls and sings his heart out in Tswana with the workers.  I know we’re filming something special.  Once the service is over, the men and women go to work – stitching giant nylon bags on commission like demons for the mines.

I’m wondering if we should call it a day and go home to sleep but we decide to stick to the schedule.  We’re shooting in a Disneyland style castle with a woman who is very nervous of the camera.  The castle looks like a Vegas folly but what touched me was that the woman was inspired to build it after losing her three-year-old son nine years ago.  It’s taken her this long to build this memorial.

We film the castle and the men working on the site.  All the action is in slow motion and I think that the bag stitchers from earlier would have the place up and running by the weekend.  I chat with the woman about her dreams and how this place connects to her grief.  She tells me that she’ll never get over losing her child and wants to build another castle.  She has tears in her eyes and says that, apart form her family, she’s never told anyone this.  I don’t know how I manage to get people to open up but it adds a mutual sense of trust to my job.  I record all the sound while she speaks – the castle is far more than a folly.

We carry on with the schedule and visit the house that has ox-wagons parked inside it.  Unfortunately, the man who restores the ox-wagons isn’t in so I speak to his pregnant wife who is far more interested in talking about babies than the ox-wagon parked in her bedroom.  I think we need to return when the man is in.

On the way home I drive us back to the little dirt road that has a few houses on it next to a smelter belching out dust and flames.  I find a couple in their yard.  The man is fixing a car engine while the woman sweeps leaves and petals.  The smelter spews on behind them.  They moved here five years ago and the men of the house all work across the road in the smelter.  They hated it at first but it’s ok now.  It’s like another circle of hell to me but then I don’t live there so it’s easy for me to say.


Today we have our third and last visit to the croc farm.  They shoot ten little ones in the neck with a pellet gun and then slit the back of their heads with a knife.  The corpses are skinned – more like peeled – by a man called Orlando who knows what he’s doing.  The whole process is very thorough and clinical but death affects everyone and there’s a sober atmosphere when the killing takes place.

The man with the gun stands in the pond with the small crocs and they don’t try and wriggle away although they must know that death is imminent.  I notice his bare feet and assume that Nora catches them on camera.  She doesn’t and once again I think her peripheral vision is entirely different to mine.  She wants to catch the killing process while I’m looking at the small contradictions and details in and around it.  Sometimes it’s like we’re not seeing the same things in front of us.  The farm has a single bull roaming around the grounds.  It passes the slaughter pond and I hope Nora has it in frame.  She does.

We finally film the part of the life cycle on the farm that epitomises the harsh economics of this business.  The carcases of the skinned crocs are feed to the giant breeders – some 5m long.  Trevor throws the skinned corpses onto the sand and we actually film big live heads crunching on little ones.  It’s hard to watch and I know it’ll be even harder to view.

Trevor asked me earlier if I was going to use the footage to show what inhumane bastards they were.  It would be difficult to see this action in any other way except I don’t think this place is different to any other commercial farm.  It depends on where you stand with animal rights.  But one look at this footage and I would never be able to argue that farming isn’t brutal.  I’ll need to be very careful with how I position this crocodile cannibalism.  It’s a very powerful metaphor that should be handled with care.  I’m amazed that Trevor trusts me like this.  In England it would be hard to get a camera near a chicken.

We eat at my mother’s restaurant and it’s clear the croc slaughtering has done everyone in.  It’s only 9.30am.  I’m on the phone having trouble with Burt, the man I rented the farm from.  He’s demanding cash and I haven’t enough days or time to withdraw my card limit each day.  I’m trying to get an electronic transfer done and I need his bank details.  This seems to be a big problem for him and he’s also saying that he wants £400 a week rather that R4000.  I’m not paying anyone in pounds in a country that doesn’t use them and a well of distrust seems to have opened up here.  He then accuses me of being difficult.  I also didn’t like the fact that he stayed at the farm with his chums while we were in Kimberley and emptied my bottle of whisky without even leaving a note.

We go to the house with the restored ox-wagons again.  Deon is available and tells us stories about restoring them while tinkering with a wagon in his yard.  The light is very harsh and there’s a wind up.  Lina asks me if she should plug into the camera or not.  I say yes but then when we shoot I realise we need all the sound to lay over other shots.  Otherwise, we’ll just have the bits from when the camera is turned on.  Luckily Nora keeps the camera running.  I gave Lina the wrong instruction but then I know that just before shooting, I’m focused on the scene and the character so technical questions completely fox me.  I give Lina a hard time for hitting me with questions at that point as she should just know what to do – it’s her department.  But then it’s my film.

Our last sequence is to shoot a football match in front of a factory.  We covered the training the day before which somehow seemed a lot more interesting than the game itself.  Maybe it was the anticipation that made it more interesting or the way the boys almost danced when they exercised.

Tiredness is running us to the bone and we’re all edgy and dreading each 5am start.  It feels like we could just tread water these last few days rather than make the most of them.  I hope our spirits lift.


The morning starts with Nora telling us that the camera batteries aren’t charged.  This is like the driver telling you that there’s no air in the tyres.  We’re going down a mineshaft with half an hour of battery.  I settle into a mood of my own making.  It’s an easy mistake to make and I top it off by forgetting my phone at home.  At least I won’t be getting text messages in capital letters from the estate agent today.

We sort out how to charge the battery at the mine.  We’re also shooting an exterior but the official is half an hour late so the day is collapsing and it’s only 7am.  The trip to the mine is an official tour so we have a few Afrikaners show us round the tunnels and eventually to the face itself.  Here, black miners lie in metre high caverns drilling holes in the rock for dynamite.  It looks like hellish work and I feel awkward being on a tour watching them.  I wriggle forward closer to them with the camera but it’s near dark where they work so I can’t see much.

The white men make a point telling us that the shift for the men working on the face starts from when they clock in and not from when they start drilling.  It’s an eight-hour shift so they drill for six hours.  I sense that they’re trying to make a point of how generous the mine company is.  And I think film making is difficult.

I need to get the money sorted out for Burt and his rent.  So I go to a bank and try and get a cash transfer done.  There’s a long queue and I reach the counter after half an hour.  Nora and Lina are sitting in the car melting in the sun.  I have the funds in my current account.

No, we only do transfers from credit card accounts.’

‘Ok – here’s my credit card.’

I wait twenty minutes.

‘Sorry, we called your credit card company but they only want to speak with you.

I call them back. They put me on hold while a Goldfrapp tune plays.  Finally I speak with them.  Can they authorise a transfer?  Yes, they say – you can withdraw the money.  Yes, I say, but can you speak with the bank here to authorise it?  No, they say.  We only speak to our own customers.  After over an hour of this I end up withdrawing R3000 lumps from a machine in the street.  And this, after them telling me that I couldn’t get that much money from a cash point.

I deliver the cash to Burt’s office, feeling like a drug dealer counting it out in the car.  Suddenly I feel a lot lighter.  I call Burt to tell him he has his money and he tells me that we don’t have to argue any more and that I’m a good guy.  There’s a lot I could say to him but I just don’t think he’d get it.  Maybe it’s because he’s an estate agent he feels he needs to behave this way over money and treat business as a power trip.

The mood in the car lifts and we go and visit Kele, the girl who set the tone for the fiery discussion in the van returning from Kimberley.  Her grandmother doesn’t want us to film at her house.  I have no problem with this and I want to visit her to tell her that.  I much prefer to meet her and say that she should be proud of her granddaughter.  Sometimes I think film making should be done without cameras and sound.  It’s just a licence to meet people.  Kele’s grandmother is warm and dry humoured and a pleasure to meet.

We film Kele walking to the shop and back and I then sit down with her and record a conversation.  She tells me about her dreams and hopes.  She’s a real loner and doesn’t feel she has any friends.  She tells me that our presence has given her a platform to express herself like she hasn’t done before.  It’s the kind of film making that is of mutual benefit for all concerned – without the woolly nonsense of thinking that by simply giving people cameras being an automatic recipe for an ‘honest’ representation.  Here, I feel that I’m using my skills to get the best from people.  We trust one another.  Kele cries when revealing how vulnerable she feels but she knows that all she needs to do is shine.

We drive home.  There’s a big electrical storm brewing – the first of the season.  The wind is up and forks light the sky.  We’ve had no rain since we’ve been here.  Nora drank a couple of beers in the car while I was speaking with Kele and we turn the music up.  Spirits are up again.  At home, Nora asks if we have anything to play music on.  David had brought a sound system up from Cape town but we’ve been so busy we never even plugged it in.  Nora connects her ipod to it and dances around to Tango music.  I’ve been calling her ‘little croc’ because of her snappy temper but she also wriggles like a croc when dancing.  We cook a great meal and laugh a lot.  These last days are going to be ok, I think.


Is this the last day or not?  I don’t know how much more I can push the crew.  We’ve had two half days off in three weeks and I think we’re past our limit of 14-hour days.  Saying that, Nora and I go back to Tsufi Hill or the crocodile hill that we previously visited.  We shoot a long pan of the shape of the hill and then return to the lake in front of it.  Three boys are shooting stones at ducks in the water with their catapults.  We film them and it reminds me how different it is when people are in the frame.  There’s always a story.  It’s as if by their very existence, people create narrative.  Perhaps this is some kind of basic instinct triggered by having people in shot.

We drive on and turn a bend where a brass band are playing in the road.  It’s too good to miss so we film it.  Twenty years ago, turning a bend in a black township could have meant encountering someone being necklaced or police attacking a crowd of people.  It’s hard to believe things were so bad then.

We reach the shopping mall where I’ve decided to shoot sequences on my own while the rest of the crew shop and have a break.  Suddenly I’m on my own with a camera, tripod and sound kit.  It’s a real wake up call to be working solo and I’m crying out for help.  The first problem I have is not having my glasses – so I can’t even focus the camera.  I also get a sharp reminder on how hard it is to set the right exposure, focus and set the frame while filming live events.  I’ve gone solo before at the end of a shoot and it’s a humbling experience.  I want my crew back.

We visit Margaretha for the third time and it’s soon realised that neither her nor I are on form so there’s little point in trying to film anything.  We leave at dusk just as a storm blasts out of the sky.

We’ve planned a celebratory meal as it’s the last night we’ll all be together.  Unfortunately, Burt, the man we’re renting the farmhouse from has turned up and wants to join us for the evening.  After all his bullshit about paying the rent in cash, he’s the last thing I need to have around.  He also invites a neighbour who tries to challenge us with some old style racist nonsense about the bible telling us how superior white people are.  I tell the neighbour to leave before it gets nasty and thankfully he disappears.  It’s raining and the night is feeling dramatic even though we want to celebrate our good work.  It’s clear we don’t want our uninvited guests around but I don’t know how to throw a man out of his own house.

Before I go to bed, I hear from Burt that his wife is having an affair with his boss’s wife.  I really don’t need to hear his problems but tell him to put his energy into his two kids.  At about 4am I’m woken up with crashing and banging.  Burt is smashing up the house.  He’s been in Nora and Lina’s bedroom and everyone is up trying to protect the kit and computers.

The entire film is stored on three drives on a kitchen table where Burt is throwing his tantrum.  I grab the long Maglite and have a very strong urge to clump him over the head with it.  David stays with him at all times, talking in Afrikaans – trying to calm him down.  I stand in the shadows.  This isn’t the kind of film we want to be in.

David and I sit near Burt after he’s collapsed on a sofa.  I still feel like beating his head with the torch.  David says Burt has a shot-gun in his car.  I guess it all could have been a lot worse.  We’ll have to clear out as soon as possible.  I can’t believe this has happened and I write this as I watch him sleeping.


Burt finally wakes up and leaves at about 9am.  He wanders around in a stupor for a while.  I tell him to fuck off and he refuses but eventually goes on his own accord.  We’re all shocked by what’s happened – it’s hard to believe it.  We try and ascertain why he chose to behave like this – he doesn’t even know us and I’d just paid him a grand in rent.  Some of us are thinking of malicious revenge – we are still in his house after all.  I want to spread tinned tuna in-between his clothes.  I’d already chucked some keys away.  But revenge isn’t the point.  I take a black marker and write on the wall in large capital letters, ‘Your self loathing will send you to hell’.  David finds a sentimental tin plaque on the floor, ‘Beauty is the soul of the heart’.  He sticks it up on the wall next to my message.  Talk about wasted words.

As we pack up we unravel the night.  Lina recorded some of the goings on and David tells us in detail how he managed to remove a shotgun from Burt’s hands while he wanted to load cartridges in it.  It’s not an understatement to say he saved our lives.

We drive to my mother’s house.  We’re all wired and not wanting to talk about it but having to, all the same.  My mother loves drama and used to surround herself with it in the form of violent intimidating men.  But now she lives with a softie so our news charges her up.  Nora and David leave to go back to Greece and Cape Town.  I hate goodbyes and can’t believe what an extreme note we’ve ended on.  I’m really sorry it’s happened but hopefully it fades in relation to everything else we’ve done.


Lina and I get up at 5 and drive to the school to shoot school kids arriving.  I’m unsure of myself with the camera and used to having Nora present.  So I shoot some of the kids and it looks ok but later I look at the rushes and they’re either soft or the kids are looking at the camera.  Unusable.  We also film a life sized model elephant by a motorway.  It watches trucks roaring past and I hope the shot conveys some of the sadness this makes me feel.  Or maybe I’m just overwrought with exhaustion.

We shoot a couple more pick-ups and head to my mother’s restaurant to say goodbye.  We start talking about Burt again and she has a great idea of calling his boss who works at Remax estate agents.  Burt was renting us property after all, so does he treat all his clients like this?  So I call Burt’s boss and find myself telling him that I hear his wife is having an affair with Burt’s wife and this is what pre-empted his night of intimidation.  The man listens and doesn’t comment but says he’ll speak with Burt.  I doubt I’ll ever have a conversation like this again – it’s totally absurd.

My mother also wants to tell all the people who frequent her restaurant.  This is probably the best way to deal with violent fuckers – register their behaviour loud and clear.  I call Burt’s boss back to let him know that we recorded the night – we are film makers after all.  Then I visit the farm supply shop next door to buy some honey for my Mum and tell the woman about our night.  She says that we should expect this kind of behaviour from blacks but how can this happen with a white man?  I say that his kind used to run the country.  She looks at me like she doesn’t understand what I mean.  So many white people here use the high crime rate as a distraction from the past and depend on amnesia and ignorance to get by.  Gun toting Burt and his ugly neighbour are by far the worst thing we’ve experienced here.

Lina and I drive down to Joburg and meet my brother, his girlfriend and my old friend Leah.  We drive to Soweto for a meal.  I’m so out of touch.  The last time I visited Soweto was for a job in 1986 and I drove into a crowd necklacing someone.  I happened to be driving a canary coloured Golf at the time and the whole mob stopped and stared at me as I cruised past the black smoke and charred body in slow motion.  Yellow was the colour of police cars in those days.

There’s rows of Mercs and other expensive cars outside the restaurant.  Soweto is a different place nowadays.  Lina and I are so tired we can hardly speak and I manage to fall asleep with my eyes open at the table.


We’re on our way home.  Amazingly, the check-in at the airport doesn’t squeeze cash from us for being three times over the baggage limit.  I briefly lose my passport and for a moment it looks like I won’t be leaving but luck is on my side.

We stop at Nairobi airport where I write this and I look over at the bag with the drives.  There’s over 30 hours of footage to play with.  I’ll be back in April for my brother’s wedding so maybe I’ll shoot some more stuff then.  Already, I’m thinking of what we didn’t film rather than what we did.

The caper with Burt ruined our last morning of shooting – we were going to film a family who hunt wild pigs for dinner.   They don’t lock their doors and aren’t scared of anyone.  They’re the opposite of all these other people who live in gilded cages.  Yet both ends of the scale feel secure in the way they live.  One lives in fear and the other ignores it.

There’s a lesson here – especially when you consider that people like Burt sell gilded cages to people who live in fear.  Time and again, all we heard from white people here is that security is their priority.  They’re wrong.  They nurture and maintain their fear and their fear grows and flourishes – unchallenged.  It forces people to regress and return to a settler mentality where they live barricaded behind walls in wide open spaces.  These people simply react to their fear.  There doesn’t seem to be any analysis or understanding of it.  Security is a by-product.  Yet, we’ve met so many people – Margaretha, Johannes the Preacher, the woman and her dream castle – who contradict this culture of fear by turning it into something else.  So many different crocodiles in the forest.


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