15 Jul Fatherland | An Interview with Director Tarryn Crossman
Fatherland, a controversial documentary by filmmaker Tarryn Lee Crossman, will be showing at the 2014 Durban International Film Festival which opens on Thursday this week. The film – unscripted and difficult to watch in parts – is a revealing look inside bootcamps for teenage boys run by the extremist, right-wing group Die Kommandokorps. Tarryn and her team stayed at the camp and were, remarkably, given complete access, under the condition that the film be made in a vérité style – capturing and sharing the happenings without bias, opinion or narration.
The documentary follows three particular boys who spend nine days at the camp and focuses on the conflicting views developed by the boys, who, under the strict leadership of their camp leader, struggle to find their own identity within their own communities and within the ‘rainbow’ nation at large. The children are forced to participate in a physically and mentally grueling process that tests their values, beliefs and identities on many levels.
The aim of the film is to expose the truth of what is happening in these camps and to open dialogue.
We asked Tarryn about her experience making and releasing Fatherland.
Please tell us a bit about your journey so far. What were you doing/making pre-Fatherland?
I worked as the Senior Producer at MTV for about 4 years. It was amazing because I got to produce content all over Africa. Eventually, though, I felt like I needed to make one of those bold life moves, so I went to New York to study further. I did a masters course in documentary filmmaking. When I came back at the end of 2012, I really wanted to make Fatherland and create content I was interested in, so I opened my own production house called TIA Productions.
When did you first hear about Die Kommandokorps boot camps and how did this lead to the making of a feature-length documentary?
I was living in New York and I read about the camps in the Mail and Guardian online. As soon as I read the article I wanted to make a film about the camp. It took me about 6 months to get access. I first called them in June of 2012 and asked if I could come to the winter camp, but that didn’t work out. After a lot of begging, they agreed to let me come and do the film at the summer camp of that same year.
Why was this an important film for you to make?
I now knew these camps were taking place so for me it was simple, I felt like everybody should know exactly what was happening inside these camps. It was also my first feature film and I really wanted to make a vérité style film. The way the camp worked allowed me to make a film like that. So it was also important for me from a filmmaking perspective.
Why is it an important film for people to see?
I struggled a lot while we were in post production with this film. I was so worried that the film was going create more hatred. But after months of wrestling with it, I realised that this is the biggest problem in South Africa; we are so scared of what happened in the past that we now just hide racism behind closed doors. It’s that same feeling that allows us to make racist jokes when we’re home with friends, but never in public. I resolved to make the film so that everybody could see what hatred really does to people. I thought of the film as a mirror, where no matter what colour you are, you will leave feeling the desire/need to accept and love the person next to you more.
How did you approach the telling of the story and what were your reasons behind these choices?
I have been criticised for not taking a stand in the film or not showing the other side of the story. A lot of people have asked why I didn’t interview the black people in the area and ask them how they felt about the camps. This was a very calculated decision for me; I wanted to understand how these camps worked, why these people thought this ideology was okay. I didn’t want to judge or make a film that tried to evaluate them from an external standpoint. I wanted to make a film that said, “this is us, this is what we do, this is why we do it” so that when the viewer watched it they could have a deeper understanding of the right-wing ideology in this country. I believe that no one is born bad and sometimes we just need to take a minute to see people from within their own world to gain enough understanding to stop hating. I know this is completely idealistic, especially when we’re talking about such a right-wing organisation. But that is all I want to do as a filmmaker: go into new worlds, make films and hopefully help people to understand each other better. Then maybe we can all live happily ever after. 🙂
Was it difficult to remain impartial in the making or the telling of the story?
Yes and no. I had to take off my Tarryn hat and put on my filmmaking hat. I can be super opinionated, but when I’m telling other peoples’ stories I become like a vessel for them to talk through. That sounds so cheesy, but it’s exactly how it works.
What were some of the challenges making the documentary?
Funding, obviously. Physically is was also really difficult. We were staying on the farm in a stone house with no electricity and for the first few days I think the DOP and I actually shared one sleeping bag because I didn’t bring one with me, thinking there would be bedding. Our car got stuck in the mud all the time, so we had to walk into camp by foot with all of our gear. We had two different sound engineers but on some of the days I was doing sound; running after these guys with cables wrapped around my neck. There were no shops nearby and we lived on Big Corn Bites and cheese rolls. But in a way, these things made it a better film because we were no longer in our reality. We didn’t go home at the end of the day and disconnect from their world; we lived in their world for nine days.
Dealing with such distressing subject matter, what were your fears or concerns with regards to the reaction it would incite? And what motivated you to make and release the film regardless?
Discussed in answer 5.
What has been the biggest misconception about the film, and what is your response?
That it’s just another South African film talking about racism in the most obvious way. It is so far from that. When you watch the film, no matter what colour you are, I think you will find yourself feeling a strange kind of empathy for the people you least expect.
What has been the most rewarding response/outcome so far?
When we did screenings at the Bioscope people stayed afterwards to debate for hours. It was amazing because that is exactly what I wanted the film to do; open dialogue. Also, the empathy people felt for the older guys running the camp. It’s an emotion I don’t think anyone wanted to feel, but a lot of people spoke about after the film. There has also been a reaction to the film from parliament and the NPA, which I can’t talk about in detail yet, but it made me believe that documentaries can actually create real change.
What is your biggest hope for what people take away from the film?
I read this great book recently, A House in the Sky. It is a biography about a Canadian woman who gets kidnapped while working as a reporter in Somalia. The most amazing part of her story for me was how she manages to see the victim within her perpetrator. After months of being held hostage she begins to empathise with the men that are torturing her. If we could all just see through it and find that human connection, the world would be a better place. I never wanted to create more segregation, I want people to think more about who we are as South Africans and question how far we have really come in terms of race relations.
Where can we see it?
Durban International Film Fest:
At the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on the 19th of July at 7pm and at Elangeni on the 21st of July at 5:30pm.
Coming to a local broadcaster soon.
DVDs from the website in August and iTunes soon.
What’s next for you?
TIA is busy, we do a lot of branded documentaries and TV stuff. We are also busy with distribution for Fatherland. It is represented by Sideways Films internationally, but we still have the local rights. Then we are also working on distributing a short documentary we did in Nigeria, called Hyena Boys. Carte Blanche screened a bit of it a few weeks back. Feature-wise, I am in development on a film about refugee children being held in detention in Australia. I want to create a documentary using animation for this one, so it is an exciting project. Now, just to get the funding in place. 🙂