We Are Dying Here
In connection to a movie screening in October, Afrikagrupperna’s Ulrika Kjellström had the opportunity to interview Siphokazi Jonas and Babalwa Zimbini Makwetu from the South African poetry collective Hear My Voice (HMV), two of the producers of the film #WeAreDyingHere. Hope Netshivhambe is the third producer.
Before the film is about to start, Afrikagrupperna’s Secretary General Louise Lindfors takes the stage to welcome everyone and briefly introduce the film, she mentions that afterward it could do well to take a minute and just breathe. Collecting your feelings and thoughts of what you have just watched turned out to be very good advice, as the film had the audience holding their breath from start to finish. For the duration of the film, the connection between the three creators became evident as their poetry and music flows between them, leaving you deeply touched. When being told their work gives you chills and moves you deeply, they refer to the presence of a higher power, as they are spiritual people, which induces this reaction from the audience. The film portrays the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) as an involuntary war where women’s bodies are the battlefields, the creators act as three soldiers in a camp trying to navigate the situation of war.
After the film Louise was joined by Siphokazi and Zimbini on stage for a conversation about the project, they choose to sit on the floor of the stage by request of Zimbini – creating a familiar and comfortable feeling. What stood out from this conversation was Siphokazi emphasizing the issue of gender-based violence as something global, she addressed the audience and made a point of us being critical and not thinking “oh these poor Africans” – instead realizing this is something that happens everywhere. She continued to speak on how it is not about how you can change the world but rather how you can change your world – everything is context based, so how can the support you give be adapted to the realities around you.
My aim was to get a moment alone with Siphokazi and Zimbini to talk with them, though it was hard as the rest of the audience, understandably, wanted to do the same. As I finally caught up with them, we had a seat in the back of the cinema and started at the beginning – how did it all start?
After the brutal rape and murder of a South African student in 2019, Siphokazi wrote a poem to process what had happened, while reflecting over her own experiences – this became the start of #WeAreDyingHere. Siphokazi reached out to Zimbini and Hope, pitching her idea of a poetry project with a focus on GBV, they, of course, accepted. At first, they shared and discussed the experiences of their friends, family, and themselves, opening a deeper dialogue. This part of the project is something they both valued highly, not only for the production but for their well-being as well. As Zimbini states:
”Make sure we are taking care of ourselves, and we are taking good care of each other. And the biggest thing that I will forever be grateful for is the friendship that was formed during the process. You know, the sisterhood is strong.”
Although #WeAreDyingHere is a film today, it started off as a stage production with a low budget – they would rehearse at Siphokazi’s house, the park, or in the lounge of the theatre, originally wearing garbage bags as their costumes. Since then, they have evolved as people and with it their work as well, but the stage production is still going – hoping to go on tour next year. The leap from stage production to film was a result of Covid-19, as they started performing 2020, questioning how they could reach an audience during a lockdown, they recorded one of their shows. Two friends of theirs, Bianca and Shane Vermooten, who work at Optical Films, saw their recording and approached them with the idea to create a more professionally filmed version of what already existed.
”They reached out and said we have these skills, we are filmmakers, you are theatre makers, you are musician. How can we collaborate, we would love to adapt this into a short film, and by the end of 2020 we actually had a film”, says Siphokazi.
The pace of both the stage and film production is similar to each other in that the project as a whole is based on soldiers during war. Something they learned was that they have a lot of downtime. Soldiers spend their time in training, writing, learning, only with the occasional attacks, which affects the pace of the project, however when making it into a film this changed. The film is only 20 minutes which demands the work be more condensed, as Sipokhazi said – more “hard-hitting” and “relentless”, whereas the stage production has more “breathing room”. Although the main message remains, we’re reluctant soldiers in a war that we did not choose.
Another consequence of Covid-19 was the increase of GBV. Siphozaki explains a feeling of urgency for the project because of it, referring to the scary numbers of GBV cases. They wanted to show their support by partnering up with Kolisi Foundation who works with GBV – this led to the possibility to donate money when buying a ticket for #WeAreDyingHere. On the films website they have a list of relevant helpline numbers for victims of GBV and a pamphlet on the subject – to help yourself or others around you – provided by Kolisi Foundation. In terms of the impact, they also mention being able to support and speak for those of similar experiences as the most significant.
”We are still achieving our goal, which is to create a safe space for other women to know that they are not, you know, it is not only them. There’s many of us – so we are speaking on behalf of every woman”, explains Zimbini.
They hope to connect people with past trauma and suffering to provide them with the vocabulary of speaking their truth. During past film screenings and performances members of the audience have spoken freely about their own experiences of GBV – something that has resulted in Siphokazi and Zimbini themselves have processed their own trauma in order to meet others in theirs. Zimbini speaks of being healed through the work of this project, having confronted parts of her life that she has not previously wanted to re-visit. Although their main target is to support their audience with similar experiences, they also hope to encourage the conversation and legislation around GBV to evolve further. As Siphokazi says:
”We’d love for it to impact policy and have laws written and change, and people held accountable, you know, transform the justice system.”
Text written by Ulrika Kjellström