21 Feb The Boers at the End of the World: Filmmaker Richard Finn Gregory shares some insights on meeting this remote community
Earlier this week, the teaser for a documentary entitled The Boers at the End of the World was released. Just three and a half minutes in length, this video about a community of Afrikaner descendants eking out a rural life in a remote corner of Patagonia, has captured the attention of thousands of people and re-sparked questionings about what it is to be ‘South African’. We spoke to Cape Town based filmmaker, Richard Finn Gregory who directed and produced the video, to have answered just some of our myriad questions about this amazing project.
How did you first find out about this Argentinean Afrikaner community?
A friend mentioned it to me about two years ago, and being a documentary filmmaker, I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open for a good story – and this one sounded like a cracker. I started doing research, and the more information I dug up, the more I was amazed that this has become an almost-forgotten part of South African history. I knew that this was something that more South Africans should know about and would be inspired by, and was the perfect job for my production company, The Good Work Picture Company.
It took me a while to actually find some of the descendants – some people told me that they had been out to Patagonia to look for them, and had no luck, so they didn’t think anyone still spoke Afrikaans there. The breakthrough moment happened when I managed to track down a descendant, Ruben, via Facebook. He was immediately welcoming and said if I got myself over there, he would introduce me to his parents, who still spoke Afrikaans everyday.
What was it like first meeting and interacting with the different members of this community, and did this change over the course of the project?
The first thing that struck me was how hospitable they were. Right from the start, they insisted I stayed in their homes, different families had me over for dinner, they took me to the sights of the area – and this generosity of spirit continued throughout my stay, so that didn’t change. What did change, however, was my own sense of identity while being there, which was an interesting experience. Before I went, I was a bit apprehensive about being an English-speaking South African, because they originally went to Patagonia to get away from the British – I wondered if there would be any lingering resentment. But this was completely irrelevant to them – all that mattered was that I could chat to them in Afrikaans over endless cups of ‘mate’ tea, and that I was from their ancestral homeland. It was completely comfortable. And that made me realise that perhaps there’s a bigger Afrikaans influence in the make-up of my personal identity than I thought. We all speak multiple languages here, so what’s important is the identity of being South African, rather than splitting hairs over where our ancestors originally came from. Funnily enough, they generally referred to themselves as coming from Africa, rather than South Africa!
How long did you spend in Patagonia with the community?
I was there for just a week. That’s as far as my development budget could stretch for this first trip. From here, I’m going to be using the teaser to attract more funding so that we can go back and complete filming the feature-length documentary.
Watching the teaser is quite a surreal experience – everything is so familiar yet at the same time completely foreign. What emotions, thoughts, feelings where stirred up for you during the making of this documentary?
Being there was similarly surreal. Patagonia is a dramatic, sometimes harsh place where it certainly felt like being on the far side of the world – but at the same time, it reminded me of the Tankwa Karoo. The way the old guys looked contrasted with how they sounded was also odd – they often dress like guachos (South American cowboys) with neck scarves, berets and bombacho riding trousers – but as soon as they started speaking to me, they sounded like Karoo farmers. It was a strange mix of nostalgia and novelty.
How isolated is this community? Has local Patagonian culture infiltrated into their lives? Are there any interesting cross-cultural foods, new traditions, words or expression?
They are in a pretty remote location, but that doesn’t mean they’re separate from the Argentine population. They are, in fact, Argentine – they just happen to have another layer of identity as well. Most of their food and lifestyle is Argentine – they drink ‘mate’ tea rather than coffee, they drink Fernet Branca and Coke rather than Brandy and Coke. They chat to each other in Afrikaans, and will pull out the accordion and play “Suikerbossie” or “Tannie met die Rooi Rokkie” from time to time. But they’re really a part of the local population. In previous years, they tended to marry amongst themselves and have a more insular community – part of this was for religious reasons, as they are mostly Protestant and the Argentines are mostly Roman Catholic. But in 1938, on the centenary of the Great Trek, the South African government offered to repatriate anyone who wanted to come back, and up to two-thirds of the expat Afrikaners took them up on the offer. After that point, there wasn’t really a big enough Afrikaans population there to remain insular, and so they became a lot more integrated with the local people.
Do the members of this community keep up-to-date with local (SA) news? What do they think of South Africa today?
They don’t really keep up to date with current affairs in SA, as far as I can see. Of course, they knew Madiba had recently passed away, but didn’t know much about our geography or politics. Even when I mentioned apartheid, they only knew about it in the vaguest terms. They are intensely curious about South Africa today, though, and asked me questions for hours: about the size of the Afrikaans population, about the various languages in South Africa, about what kind of sheep and horses we have – lots of agricultural questions I had very few answers to!
How much of the documentary was pre-planned, and how much unfolded during the process?
I did as much research as I could before I went – in terms of the geography, the people, what to expect, and so on. But in the end, I had to just take a leap of faith, head over there, and see what I could discover. I had one serious moment of doubt: I had flown into Buenos Aires, then 2.5 hours south to Comodoro Rivadavia, then picked up a rental car with a broken windscreen while trying to drive on the wrong side of the road, when the GPS got me lost on a dirt road up a mountain, my phone didn’t work, and it was heading towards sunset. I just stopped the car and thought, “What the hell am I doing? I don’t know where I’m going, to meet a guy I’ve only ever emailed in Spanish via Google Translate, who says he knows people who speak Afrikaans, and I’ve got to somehow turn this into a movie!” I just started laughing, figured it was way too late to doubt myself, and just kept driving. It all worked out beyond my expectations.
In the teaser people say that they feel more South African than Argentinean – what are your thoughts on this?
Well, I don’t think I can argue with that – purely because every person will have a different interpretation of what being ‘South African’ really means. Is it being born in this country? Is it speaking a South African language? Is it a collection of cultural habits? Is it blood? I don’t think one person can define this for someone else – so I accept how they feel as valid. However, I also know that this feeling of being South African isn’t true for all of the Boer descendants there – many of them simply feel Argentine, with a South African heritage. I will say, though, that I suspect when some of the Argentine Afrikaners come to South Africa – which we intend to make happen in the film to reunite them with their distant family here – they will probably experience a bigger culture shock than they expect.
The fossilised pieces of wood at the beginning of the teaser are a poignant metaphor of the history of the Afrikaner volk. What are some of the themes that emerged which the documentary will explore?
One of the central themes is identity: how we define ourselves, how others define us, and what happens in the gap in between. This trip made me think a lot about how nuanced and complex a construct our national identity is – it always seemed a lot simpler to me before! Another theme that comes out is that of movement. The Afrikaner people have a history of movement that is one of the defining features of the culture – from Europe to South Africa, to the trek inland to establish an independent state, to this ultimate trek to the far side of the world. Has that movement stopped, or will it continue? I’m not sure, but it’s an interesting question worth exploring.
When will the full documentary be released, and where will we be able to see it?
We’re still in the production phase, and we won’t be able to shoot anything for at least the next six months, as winter in Patagonia is a pretty miserable time and the road to the farms will be closed with snow. We’re busy fundraising now through various channels so that we can shoot enough for the feature-length version, and we’re hoping that it’s done in time to be submitted to some of the film festivals locally and abroad in the middle of 2015. After that, it’s up to the local cinema chains to decide whether they want to screen it.
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