Known musically as a member of BLK JKS and Motèl Mari, Mpumelelo Mcata made his directorial debut on 7 February at the Berlinale film festival with Black President. The film follows the plight of young Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai as he works towards his ‘State of the Nation‘ exhibition – in this body of work, the notion of “state” is explored as a utopia and an action, a state of mind as well as a status.
Throughout the film it becomes increasingly clear that Kudzanai felt an immense responsibility to have a voice through his art. “You don’t want to be a generation that’s forgotten, that didn’t participate in anything,” he says at one point, and later, “You can’t just “be” because history has to be written. I don’t believe in just being.” This sense of urgency to be part of something revolutionary is one that Mpumelelo shares in.
Black President questions the responsibility of African artists in the context of a globalised universe, where we find ourselves ‘playing catch up’ to the West instead of following our own paths. The film investigates the extent to which our relationship with the ghost of our continent’s collective history of opression, exploitation and struggle really haunts us, and it urges us to question whether we’re victims of our past – forever beholden to our so called ‘arrested development’ – or whether our burden is actually our greatest strength. In the Q&A below, we find out more about Mpumelelo’s first foray into filmmaking.
Is filmmaking something you’ve always been interested in, or was it quite a journey to discovering this?
Yes! An odyssey of note…and it is ongoing, as I realise new things all the time, like the fact that I was always into film even though I approached it via sound to begin with.
When did you realise that Black President was a film you wanted to make?
When Kudzi and Anna (Teeman) asked me nicely, their confidence in me…an untested director, I admired that, as much as I admire and relate to Kudzi as an artist so…I was like yeah, this feels like home…it reminded me of that first time I picked up a guitar.
They are essentially one and the same, but was your first encounter with Kudzanai Chiurai, the artist, or with Kudzi, the man?
My first encounter with Kudzi was with both, separately…I saw some sobering grafs on a wall in the city while in a car with some friends returning from a party, they stuck in my head…then one day I met him, just as Kudzi…the film is like…the first time I join the two.
What resonates with you in his work and his ideas?
The conflict. Inner conflict weighed up against the political conflict, in the context as a young African artist trying to push the envelope and do best.
How long was Black President in-the-making? Tell us a bit more about the process and what it entailed…
Black President took a while, because the process was mostly about responding as best we could to the spaces in-between the story as we saw it, or wrote it, and what was actually happening in Kudzi’s life…
What it was like to be so close to Kudzanai as he created some of his most significant works? Were there any shifts that occurred in your own perspective as a result?
Yes indeed there are shifts…I now accept more that by creating you are stepping up to a podium, you are by default an ambassador of sorts…there are responsibilities to that and it is entirely one’s own prerogative how they choose to respond to those, but it is key to be conscious of this.
In what ways did the film turn out differently than you had originally anticipated? Or did you go into it knowing that the outcome was open-ended?
To some extent it was open ended but yeah, I guess I had an idea that it would or should feel as it does, so I’m quite happy with the result.
The film centres on ‘Black Guilt’. What are your beliefs or convictions around this idea, and the “collective shame” that Kudzanai speaks of?
The guilt, whether we negate it or take it on, is what stifles or gives us that extra punch in our work as young African artists. It appears to me that we circle around it, it’s the nucleus…as far as the shame Kudzi speaks of, I guess he is saying we need to be more self-critical to reach any real level of self-determination going forward. As a people…I don’t know what my thoughts are yet on that.
What were the biggest challenges to directing your debut film? Alternately, what aspects of the process were the most rewarding?
The biggest challenge should have been not knowing, but not knowing…that was very helpful. A great lesson. The film is like its process – and a lot of what is in the story and in how it plays out manifests itself in real life, there is an inherent method to the madness, it’s a bit of a mystic in that way, very organic…I still watch it and see or feel new things.
Is there a particular moment in Black President that stands out for you?
There are a couple of course, but the question asked by one of the people attending the ‘State Of The Nation’ exhibition is pretty poignant.
What else do you have planned going forward, film-related or otherwise?
The bands (BLK JKS and Motèl Mari) are looking to get mad busy this year, so that might take up most of my time while I develop the next film project.
Selected works from Kudzanai Chiurai’s State of the Nation: