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The Creators, directed by Laura Gamse and Jacques De Villiers, is as melancholy a film as it is hopeful. Set on moving trains, in shanty towns, and in the urban city center of Cape Town, South Africa, the film signals the relationship between creativity and survival. As an elder in the film says, “I wonder if during the apartheid era, without music, millions of people could have died, because it was the only thing that they were holding onto.” The cinematography and pace of the film are hauntingly beautiful, but without beautifying poverty. With its slow pace, brilliant sound editing, and the insertion of archival footage from the early days of apartheid, the presence of the past is communicated through the everyday struggles of six artists.
The film opens in Woodstock, an urban community on the outskirts of Cape Town’s central business district. In a city structurally divided along lines of race and class, Woodstock is strikingly integrated, with Malay, coloured, Indian, and black African families having successfully resisted forced removals during the 1960s. With the specter of intense gentrification in the [End Page 175] area, marked by the presence of chic art galleries, organic food markets, and renovated high-priced properties, there is a greater sense of polarization in Woodstock than ever before, with increased poverty and homelessness. Faith47 is a graffiti artist whose work has become an iconic marker of the failure of neoliberal politics in the post apartheid years. Her massive murals transform rough urban walls into stunning works of public art that bear witness to the empty promises of the South African Freedom Charter. With the murals as a backdrop, casual interviews with unemployed residents, local homeless people and longtime residents of Woodstock comment on the work, with each referencing an intimate story about the Freedom Charter. On the wall is a line painted from the Freedom Charter, “There shall be work and security.” The scenes are reminiscent of the struggle days when walls built to make property private became public newspapers. With this initial framing of the political intent of the film, The Creators moves to accounts of individual artists, such as Ongx Mona, a guitarist with passion and talent.
Twenty minutes from Woodstock is the beleaguered township of Khayelitsha. Set up as a site and service dumping ground in 1986 for black “squatters” who had been forcibly removed from shantytowns deemed too close to the city by apartheid officials, Khayelitsha (meaning “our new home” in Xhosa) is now home to more than 406,779 people. Drawn to the city from the rural Eastern Cape in search of employment in the city, township residents rally against chronic unemployment, poor service delivery, crime, and extremely high rates of HIV/AIDS. It is within this context of deprivation and marginality that Ongx, together with his band Warongx, made their original song “Khayelitsha Blues” famous in the townships. Where Ongx could not find radio play, he entertained commuters on trains with his message of hope and despair. His lyrics are reflexive, yet they speak to general themes of displacement and longing in the country.
The opening verse of the film speaks directly to the sentiment expressed by Ongx throughout, that the guitar is his weapon–he has no need to carry a gun:
If you are looking for hell, Ask the artist where it is. If you cannot find an artist, Then you are already in Hell. Avigdor Pawsner
Long considered an elite form of European culture, opera has taken shape in the “new” South Africa as a distinctively African genre. Mtheto Mapoyi is an aspirant, self-taught, opera singer eager to speak Italian and earn his living as a singer. We travel with Mtheto from his home in the urban slums of Cape Town to his rural home in the Eastern Cape, and witness poverty from the perspective of rural life. For Mtheto, the city offers him a chance to follow his dream. On the other end of the spectrum is the...