08 Jul Featured: Wim Steytler | Where Realism and Surrealism Collide
Currently working as a director for Picture Tree, Wim Steytler is a photographer and filmmaker whose work crosses the boundaries between documentary and the surreal.
In the music video he directed for Haezer’s track Minted, we see an Afro-punk character (‘Hero’) and a voodoo sorcerer (‘The Rat Catcher’) working together as African superheroes, fighting for the oppressed and marginalized. Over and above being visually striking the music video tackles the issue of xenophobia in South Africa in an unexpected way, and it is this unique approach for which Wim was awarded a prize at the CFP-E/Shots Young Director Award last month.
We spoke to Wim about his early creative pursuits, the photographic project that inspired the music video for Minted and his plans from here on out.
Tell us a bit more about yourself…
I grew up on a farm (Diemersfontein) in Wellington in the Western Cape, living a very normal, sheltered life, playing rugby, doing my homework, family braais – nothing too out- of-the-box. At 16, everything changed – I was hit by a car on a highway, and I barely survived. I was immobile for about a year, and I had a lot of time on my hands. While in a wheelchair I started drawing and taking photographs to keep myself busy. This time reprogrammed my focus in life and propelled me in a creative direction – the rest is history.
Growing up, was there ever an indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
I went on to study graphic design and visual communication at Stellenbosch University. This helped me to develop an ‘eye’ and I learned to think conceptually but I was never at home in the medium. The moment I picked up a video camera, it gave me an excuse to go out on adventures and explore subcultures and meet interesting people. I loved how film gave me space to play with sound, images and story all at once. I never turned back.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career as a director, and how did you go about doing so?
I worked as an editor for about six years. This is where I cut my teeth and learned to tell a story. I have always been producing my own mini-documentaries on the side, though, but never had the guts to take the leap to directing because I knew it’s a very difficult career path financially and it’s super competitive. But that burning desire to tell my own stories and initiate projects just did not go away. One day, I woke up and the penny just dropped – I had to take the leap.
I had no romantic illusions of my change in career trajectory and knew I needed to earn my stripes, and get some solid mentorship from the best. I then did a three-year stint in creative research, with my last two years at Bouffant and Picture Tree. This was an invaluable time of expanding my knowledge and understanding of what it takes to be a good director and getting a bird’s eye view of the industry.
I started directing fulltime this year and it’s been great so far. I have been lucky to build a showreel in a relatively short period of time and I am pumped to keep on shooting as much as possible. Hint hint.
Your music video for Haezer’s ‘Minted’ won you the CFP-E/Shots Young Director Award. How did the concept for the music video originate?
I always go through a very intense research process before I make a film. In this case, I started photographing the hijacked and abandoned buildings of Johannesburg’s CBD. This helped me study the environments and the people inhabiting these spaces. Some of the photographs stood out and happened to have strong characters that helped me develop a narrative. The ‘Minted’ track by Haezer came at just the right time and picked up on all the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the images. It was a perfect fit.
What inspired the characters ‘Hero’ and ‘The Rat Catcher’?
Kenosi Dlamini, who’s actual nickname is ‘Hero’, is one of my close friends and we have been exploring these buildings together for months. He happened to light a torch one day, because the building was very dark. I took a picture as a joke and afterward we had a great laugh because he looked like a proper African super hero with his punk hairstyle, golden chains and flaming torch.
I met Tsepo Mbewe on the street one day and he went to show us his building. It was a very hectic place – completely ripped apart. People were sitting around fires and constructed makeshift shelters with cardboard. Rats were everywhere. The stench was almost unbearable. I started photographing Tsepo on his roof and we dressed him in a red cloth we found on a rubbish heap. He just stepped into character and started doing these bizarre trance-like dance movements. When I looked at the photograph afterwards he appeared powerful, like a sorcerer talking to the rats. And so ‘The Rat Catcher’ was born.
I mainly built my narrative around these two images.
The underlying story is centered on the Somalian community in South Africa and the xenophobia they still face. How did you become aware of this, and why is it important to you to relay this message?
I believe xenophobia is an overlooked issue in our country and people don’t realise how big the problem still is. According to the UNHCR, xenophobia left 99 dead and 1 000 homeless in 2011 in South Africa. And I believe we need to create greater awareness around this issue.
Throughout my research, I have encountered and photographed many African expats who experience serious oppression and are for forced to live in the direst conditions imaginable. The Somalian community, who are hard workers and very entrepreneurial, have been particularly victimised because they pose an economic threat to locals.
What drew you to the realm of surrealism, as opposed to a strictly documentary angle?
These days – with the upsurgence of DIY filmmaking, Instagramming and the DSLR revolution – any person can just go out and take nice pictures of what they see around them. I feel it can be very dangerous – as it makes you lazy and you don’t think anymore. I love to use documentary merely as starting point. Then I would look for deeper layers, absurdities or contrasts. I like to amplify and reinterpret these elements and produce something where realism and surrealism collide. I am deeply influenced by guys like Harmony Korine, Romain Gavras and Werner Herzog. I love how they irreverently break the rules of genre and are unafraid of dealing with harsh, dark, realities, while still making space for the subtleties of incongruous and magical forces behind things. I find this kind work much more challenging and satisfying.
Stylistically, what was your vision for the video?
I wanted to make a film that felt confrontational and visceral but still had a sense of crafted cinema to it. The look of the film is completely based on my photography. The worlds are gritty and feel ‘found’ but there is still a sense of classic, structured composition, therefore my use of steadicam and slow motion. I wanted to make a film that is dark and moody, capturing an African urban underworld that feels geographically neutral.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since you first started out?
I would call it stylized documentary for the lack of a better term. I did a lot of work in documentary in the past – and I love the immediacy, unpredictability, intuitive and honest nature of the medium, but at some level I always felt a bit frustrated to just stay in reality as is, and I wanted to push it further. I like to craft my films, give it a look and add fictional and foreign elements so that it moves more into the territory of magic realism.
What are your thoughts on winning the CFP-E/Shots Young Director Award?
For decades international artists have been borrowing influences from Africa. But, now, homegrown artists are starting to stand up for themselves and making work that’s unapologetically culturally rooted but still internationally relevant and influential. Our voices are being heard and Africa is having its moment in the sun and becoming the new creative frontier. It’s a great honour for my work to get recognised on such a huge international platform. I hope this gives me more opportunity to make films that are brave, honest, and don’t hold back any punches.
What else are you working on at the moment?
In between shooting commercials, I am going through the exact same process again and developing another video for an exciting local artist. Watch this space!
What are your plans going forward?
My focus is now to build a strong foundation for my career as commercials director at Picture Tree, make beautiful ads and still make time to pursue proactive projects where I can have the space to develop my own voice as a filmmaker and tell stories that are important and brave – be it through short film, photography, and even features in the long term.
Part of the original series of photographs taken by Wim in the Johannesburg CBD, which inspired the concept for Haezer’s Minted music video: