Sunday Tribune: Pain & Courage

Pain and courage

July 26, 2009 Edition 1

Rough Aunties and A Place in the City are two documentaries that are showing at this year’s film festival.

They are two very different films about the strength and bravery of two different groups of people, but both films take place in eThekwini, and chronicle the pain and suffering of a broken society in which the state has failed dismally to fulfil its role as protector and guardian of its citizens.

Rough Aunties, which has already received much attention for winning the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, tells the story of five women who work for Operation Bobbi Bear in Amanzimtoti and have dedicated their lives to helping abused and neglected children in KwaZulu-Natal.

While anyone who watches Rough Aunties will no doubt find the commitment, bravery and compassion of these women completely inspiring, they will also be disturbed by the violent and uncaring society that the film depicts.

The film’s website talks about “a nation being transformed with hope and energy into a new democracy,” and while the film certainly contains hope and energy, it never shies away from the horror and pain which, to their credit, never seems to overwhelm the so-called “rough aunties”.

Beginning with the counselling of a very young girl who has been raped, the film follows Operation Bobbi Bear and the five rough aunties: Mildred Ngcobo, Eureka Olivier, S’dudla Maphumulo, Thuli Sibaya and Jackie Branfield, who started the project.

In the 10 weeks of shooting, British documentary-maker Kim Longinetto shadows the women through their daily work.

In one of the many candid scenes in the film, the women talk among themselves about why they have become “rough”.

As well as the catalogue of rape, abuse and neglect, the women themselves are also affected by horrific events which take place in their personal lives.

While Rough Aunties ends with notes of redemption, the film offers neither salvation nor resolution. The rough aunties of Bobbi Bear are going to carry on, because that’s what they do.

A Place in the City by director Jenny Morgan documents the struggles of another group of people in Durban, the shack dwellers of Abahlali Basemjondolo.

The shack dwellers’ movement started in Durban four years ago, and now has tens of thousands of members from 30 settlements.

Although Abahlali’s central demand is for land and housing in the city, it has also fought for access to education and the provision of water, among other things.

Most middle- and working-class Durban residents interact daily with the residents of the shacklands and squatter camps. Shackland residents clean our houses, guard our cars and houses, they clean our windscreens, work in our gardens and often even go to school with our children. Yet they live in appalling conditions, usually without even the most basic infrastructure. And yet, for the most part, we do nothing.

A Place in the City talks to members of Abahlali as well as other shack dwellers, detailing their disillusionment with the government that so many of them fought for.

As a documentary, it is too short for its subject matter. It also fails to engage with those who execute eviction orders against the homeless or fire rubber bullets at them.

But, while it could have been a better film, it should nonetheless remain compulsory viewing for all of us – both in government and broader society – who ignore, or help to exacerbate the plight of the landless poor.