Kurt Orderson is a film director and producer whose heart lies in telling honest stories. In his up-coming film, “Not in My Neighbourhood”, he pursues the topics of spatial violence, post-Apartheid planning and current-day gentrification, comparing Cape Town and Johannesburg to New York through a series of interviews. “I make films to heal the people,” he says, with an aim to always tell both sides to a story. He’s relaxed, easy to talk to and very passionate about uncovering common threads between people who live miles apart. Having just got back from Los Angeles, we spoke with him over Skype to find out about his background growing up in Mitchell’s Plain, his interests, new film and life living between South Africa and the US.
Where are you now?
I’m back home. I just got back a day ago.
You must be feeling quite tired then.
Yeah, but it’s all good. We’ve got to keep it moving.
Why did you choose to tell this story?
It’s a very personal film, but everything we do is personal, right? I’ve been at the centre, where people have been victimised for centuries. An ongoing process of spatial violence has affected my family and ancestry. My parents both lived in Woodstock/Salt River and were victims of the Group Areas Act in the 1960s. The film really came about after conversations with my father. He would reminisce about his days living in Woodstock as a kid. They were eventually moved to Bonteheuwel, though. He would tell me stories about going to the Salt River swimming pool and jumping over the wall. Those were the kinds of stories I heard from my father. I remember one day we were driving along Salt River Main Road and he was telling me how the space had changed. Most of those spots were factories, textile or screen-printing, and that was his stomping ground many years ago. He told me that he was quite surprised about what is happening now and that triggered the idea for the film.
Where do your interests lie and how does this film relate to other work you’ve done?
I’ve made a number of films that touch on similar subjects. Whether they are about farm workers, people who live on the streets, or land reform, the issue of land and land ownership has been very close to my work for many years now. I made a film about farm workers in Citrusdal, and a film about the legacy of land reform and the empty promise of the 1930s Land Act post-1994.
How did the concept develop?
What inspired the film was the issue of how to reconcile and confront the question of spatial violence. It’s been happening for centuries, whether we’re talking about the arrival of the Dutch in 1652 or what we know now as architectural Apartheid or gentrification. I’ve wanted to make a film about architectural Apartheid for many years. Having grown up in Mitchell’s Plain understanding that there is a legacy behind how people ended up there, I’d been dwelling on this issue. The story came to me one day in New York when I was in Harlem and saw a graffiti piece that said “get out of our neighbourhood, gentrifiers”. That’s when I realised it’s a global phenomenon. I wanted to tell the story about how people ended up in spatial situations of that nature, looking into the legacy of spatial planning. It’s been with me for a while and it just happens that the term ‘gentrification’ has become very topical. So I thought “boom” the time is now right to make the film.
How did the film making process progress?
Obviously I had a set of ideas and plans. As human beings moving within the natural flow of life, everything happens in the mystic. You might have a set of your own utopian ideas but then you meet certain kindred spirits who add to your vision. That’s what happens and that’s what normally happens in my film making process. As a film maker I call for response, not a physical calling but rather a telepathic wave, and then the receivers come to me. I like to think of my films not just as art for art’s sake.
Tell me about the title “Not in My Neighbourhood”.
It stems from the term “not in my backyard”. It’s a term that describes middle-class communities who show their support for urban interventions, but as long as it doesn’t encroach on their space and their property values. But at the same time, in the diversity of a city like Cape Town, how do you consider who should be in that space but not this space? These large-scale inequalities can be tracked back to colonialism and slavery, and they are not being confronted. We are putting a cloak over the idea of what reconciliation really means. We talk about social cohesion and a rainbow nation but those are all utopian ideas, fantasies. We must confront the idea of inequality and the legacy of institutional racism.
With the name ‘Not in My Neighbourhood’ the intention is to set it right from the other side of the encroachment. It’s about the idea of re-colonising spaces from the perspective of previously disadvantaged people.
Many of my ideas pop into my head, freestyle, you know, without being able to pinpoint exactly when and where they came from.
We’re super interested to know your reasons behind choosing New York as a comparison to Cape Town and Johannesburg, especially since many other cities throughout Africa, and the world, have similar urban conditions. What inspired you to feature these three cities?
For me, New York is the catalyst for the ‘global city’. It’s the epicentre of contemporary culture and arts. It’s where everyone wants to end up. For many, from developing countries, the ambition is to get to New York and make it big. And then Cape Town and Johannesburg, being emerging world class cities eager to achieve in the global marketplace, admire New York’s identity. Whether you’re hanging out in Maboneng, Johannesburg, or Braamfontein, or here in Cape Town in Long Street or Sea Point, you can see how people play out certain things that are inspired by New York or the States. Whether it is a food truck or outside market, all these things came out of the States, and New York is the central space where it has been happening for a while. There is a connection; Cape Town and New York were both colonised by the Dutch. The Dutch came to New York in 1626 and 25 years later they end up in Cape Town. Immediately there is a link. Both were victims of spatial violence that came out of the Dutch colonial project and I wanted to tell the story of what happened to them afterwards. After colonialism you have the legacy of slavery both in North America and in South Africa. There’s the Civil Rights Movement in America then Apartheid in South Africa. Black people in North America are spatialised into ghettos or townships and the same thing happens in South Africa. There are so many similarities between the two cities that I’ve witnessed and experienced.
Had you been to New York before setting out to make this film?
I moved to the States in 2006. I wanted to travel. I wanted to see what was happening on the other side of the hemisphere. I was working at the SABC at the time, producing and directing current affairs and news and educational programs. That was my gig for a while and I realised I needed to get out of it. After three years of working there I was like, “yo, peace out”. I applied for a job to teach visual arts in New Jersey. From there I then moved to Baltimore. New Jersey was cool but my highlight was really working in Baltimore. This is where I had many revelations and found out the real story of America, not the fictional story. It is there that I was confronted with American realities. I was working in the heart of the ghetto. Baltimore, being one of the most violent cities in America, and I was working in the crux. I was working with youth at risk, with parents in prison and/or on drugs. What was interesting for me was that there I was, a boy from the Cape Flats, coming to Baltimore which was also a ghetto or township. And I was experiencing a similar legacy, people who had gone through many forms of oppression. We had the same story. It was similar to home.
I used to travel to New York on bus over weekends. And I’ve been travelling to New York for almost 10 years now, and have familiarised myself with the space. I guest lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, working in their anthropology Department in what’s known as visual anthropology. So I go to the States once or twice a year.
You’ve spoken about many of the similarities, but what were the differences between Cape Town or Johannesburg and New York?
In terms of infrastructure and aesthetics, the typography, we’re talking about two worlds. We’re talking about a supposed first world city versus an aspiring and developing nation. New York has a fascinating history and it’s a globalised setup. If you want to meet people from all over the world, you go to New York. People have gone through various processes of change, whereas in South Africa we’re only really tasting the idea.
Although, at the same time, there is fictional hype around the States. You might assume that there are no poor people in New York but people are struggling to get by. Especially after the recent recession and property meltdown that happened just over 5 years ago, people are struggling and have 2 or 3 jobs just to get by. I tell them that I live in a developing nation where I can work one job and I’ll be fine. America is a first world country living with third world realities.
I’ve met some really amazing people in New York, who have become really good friends of mine, people who support my work. Whenever one of my films is made we know that New York is one of those places that will facilitate three or four screenings. But I want my films to be more accessible in Cape Town and South Africa. I want more people to support what I do here, in my own country. Most of my films are produced independently but to be honest I’ve had more success outside of South Africa.
Why do you make films?
A lot of my past work has focussed around the African diaspora, people who were taken to the US by force through slavery, and what it means to be of African diaspora decent, questioning how these people connect to Africa. A lot of my work has uncovered common stories. The idea of taking this hidden knowledge and questioning how to rewrite curriculums about Africa, has underpinned much of my work. At school, Americans learn about stereotypical Africa, as the “dark continent” where everyone has AIDS. Working with school kids in Brooklyn or Harlem or Baltimore, I’ve really had an opportunity to explain that there are people just like you; they may sound different to you or have a different accent but they have the same struggles and similar issues. How do we share our stories, so that collective healing can take place?
I make films to heal the people. There’s a saying that with no justice there can’t be peace. It’s about bringing justice to the people and restoring their dignity that has been broken, like my mom and dad who have had brokenness in their lives for a very long time. What I can do is make these films to help them heal, to show the animosity but also say that we can conquer it. I believe in a positive outlook in life.
And how does your film ‘Not in My Neighbourhood’ achieve that?
It’s about being a voice for the voiceless. It’s about telling the story of the truth of what has happened. It addresses how history has been compromised. Let’s be honest. And ‘Not in My Neighbourhood’ is an honest portrait, telling the chronological history of spatial violence within the context of architectural apartheid and gentrification.
Post-Apartheid (and post-colonial) planning is a challenge. How do you feel about gentrification?
To be blunt, it’s a human rights violation.
Did you feel like that before making the film as well?
When I was growing up, to come to town was a 30 minute trip. It was a special outing. “We’re going to town!” we’d say. But it was almost like we weren’t a part of Cape Town. It’s interesting to analyse our daily dialogue where we still say that we are going to “Cape Town” but we’re actually in Cape Town already. It distinguishes “the other” and people feel that. And it’s continuing with gentrification, the process of reaffirming privilege.
I have my reasons for living in the CBD now. For me it is about reclaiming space. Even if you’re from “there” you can come live “here”. The ghettos were constructed. It wasn’t my choice that I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain, my parents were put there by force. They lost their property, similar to Sophiatown in Johannesburg, and I’ve always tried to emphasise the idea of reclaiming space.
Spatial violence is continuing but how can it change and how does your film promote change?
It’s important to speak to the gentrifiers as well. Money is power in the capitalist world and what I’m trying to do is speak to both sides. To say that if you are looking to change a space, approach it in a more transparent way and involve the people. And on a real level not on a disconnected level like promises of job creation because that level never works, it never happens. The City of Cape Town calls the notion of “making everything better” urban “renewal”, also terming it “revitalisation” which in itself is problematic.
How did you choose who you interviewed?
Most were planned and structured. Kent, a friend from highschool, is someone I’ve known for a long time. He’s living in Woodstock but also came from the ghettos. And Mpho, I met her after going to one of her lectures at UCT and was very interested in what she was saying. It aligned with what I had been researching around architectural Apartheid. I was interested in how the roads were built, the depth and width of the roads, the materials used, how the entrances and exits were structured. So Mpho was the best person to tell that story and she’s mad sharp as well. The camera loves her.
And in New York?
Many of these interviews were organised through a colleague of mine who has been living in New York for many years now. She helped me with sourcing the people in New York. But there are also people in the film who I met on the streets. I was working in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was quite interested because that’s been the epicentre of hipsters so I went there with my camera and met people who had been victims of gentrification.
And what was the most unexpected or interesting story you came across? Or perhaps a character you met that you didn’t intend to meet?
Oh, yes! The one brother, Vanache ‘The Stampede’, he’s a musician and visual artist whose family comes from Nigeria although he was born in the States. I asked him about what genre of music he makes and he says he does action and romantic comedy. That was quite refreshing. And then him telling the story of Williamsburg as well, what he’s witnessed through his own eyes as an artist, seeing the space evolve and how he doesn’t feel a part of it anymore. It used to be a more inclusive space where locals would interact with artists but now you don’t see the locals. They say that it was the artist who first justified gentrification. It’s the same in Woodstock, where the artists come in and the next moment property developers think it’s now a cool place to change.
What’s your plan for the film? Are you finished filming?
We have a rough cut but are still raising money to complete it. This is not just going to be a once-off documentary; there is a whole transmedia concept. A photographic exhibition (shot by four photographers from each city) that will travel around the world is planned. The film will also go on a road-trip with an educational component. There’s going to be an interactive chatroom and website as well.
If funding permits I’d like to expand the film outside of South Africa and New York. If I get funding, the idea is to look at places like Germany, for example, looking at spatial segregation and urbanisation after WW2. I want to possibly look at spaces like Lagos, Nigeria and other African cities, India potentially as well. I also have to go back to Johannesburg to look at what happened just before the world cup started. I want to spend time with some informal traders who were moved out of the city in 2010. I’m supposed to go on another trip to New York to do more research as well.
The dream is to develop this beyond a once-off film into a television series, producing 4 to 5 films within the same theme. I’m working with the African Centre for Cities (affiliated with UCT) and also South African History Online. Hopefully, the idea is to leverage on what they bring on board through their connections, to see how we can tap into different sources to get my film out there. I’m open to collaboration. It’s a story of people, not a story about me.
When can we expect to see it?
I’m looking at March next year, if everything goes to plan. Touch wood.