New voices, new media

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Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman in a scene from Coloured Mentality

How Coloured Mentality reveals the potential of the South African web series

South African art has a proud history of social responsibility, with creatives investing their work with ideas aimed towards inspiring conversations around major issues such as race, gender and class. It has been a prevalent trend throughout the development of the modern South African canon – which is unsurprising, given the amount of social inequalities we as a nation still need to redress –and it is assuring to know that the next generation of filmmakers are not shying away from the challenge. In fact, they seem to be utilising new forms of media that are even more fit for the task.

Sarah Summers and Kelly-Eve Koopman are twenty-something creatives based in Cape Town. Although they juggle a lot of roles and responsibilities (Koopman, for example, also co-directs a feminist NPO), the two have gained serious attention for their recently-released Coloured Mentality, a five-part documentary series comprised of responses to searching questions surrounding various aspects of the coloured experience in South Africa. Released on YouTube in tandem with a coordinated social media campaign, the series is not only a fine example of ‘conscious content’, but an exciting glimpse into new media’s ability to provide young filmmakers with both a platform and an interactive audience for their work.

In the duo’s own words, Coloured Mentality was inspired, simultaneously, by a desire “to understand ourselves as Cape Town 20-somethings who grew up as coloured. What did that mean? How does it relate to our ancestry? Are we Khoisan? Who are we?”; and an acknowledgement that they “were not the only people struggling to find answers to these questions, and so we shared our search with our community.”

The result is a direct and consistently compelling documentary series that is deceptively simple in its structure. This is because although each episode consists simply of interviewees responding to a particular question that keys into the coloured experience, the questions themselves are truly illuminating – laying bare the political ramifications of our language (and indeed our imaginations) when we seek to talk about that most seemingly ‘natural’ of personal belongings: identity.

The questions – “What is a coloured?”; “Is Afrikaans a white language?”; “Are coloured people black?”; “What is coloured culture?”; “Does coloured privilege exist?” – succeed in eliciting such rich responses from the interviewees (many of whom are prominent media figures) precisely because they touch on ideas that connect the individual’s experience to their own understanding of their community’s experience. As the duo says, “identity is an individual experience as much as it is a group experience” – and it is their sensitivity to this insight that makes the series such a resounding success, creating a form of representing voices where the boundaries of the conversation are set by the voices themselves, a process whereby the filmmakers become “characters within” the documentary as much as its authors.

And, arguably, an even greater part of the success of the series has been its on-going provision of a platform for engaged viewers to continue to debate the issues arising from the interview segments. For Koopman and Summers, “the series ultimately became less about the episodes themselves, and more about the conversation they ignited,” with people sharing their views with one another on the Coloured Mentality Facebook page (which is now approaching 20 000 members). Even a cursory glance at the page reveals keen and impassioned debate, heartfelt personal responses such as poetry inspired by the conversations, and enlivened and engaged suggestions for future episodes and areas of exploration.

The good news for fans of documentary features is that Coloured Mentality was always conceived as a preparatory project leading up to the duo’s next release, a full-length film “about our experiences during a 1000km Liberation Walk led by a group of eccentric Khoi activists.” Currently in post-production and tentatively titled The Walk Back, the documentary (which, like the series, is being produced by Gambit Films) will delve even deeper into the fraught terrain of personal understandings of identity in the context of South Africa’s diverse social landscape. Describing the film as “self-reflective” and the process as “very challenging”, the filmmakers have come away from the experience with the conviction that “we live in a fragmented society, and part of acknowledging this is recognising that there are many different types of people who feel relegated and unheard. Just like identity, social consciousness is not homogeneous: we need to address the unique issues different people are facing before we can expect the ‘unity in diversity’ ideal.”

While we wait for the documentary’s release, young South African filmmakers can take enormous encouragement from the success of Coloured Mentality. Not only has it been well received by the “smart, discerning and interested” internet audience in South Africa, but – through the filmmakers’ strategic cultivation of an online forum where invested viewers can interact with one another – they have also devised a way of achieving what all too few South African works have managed before: a means of continuing (in fact, deepening) the conversation after the fact. Never mind the directness and accessibility of the web series format, it is this feature that may see its popularity spike – the possibility that work may have a lasting and evolving impact, remaining in dialogue with its audience long after the credits have rolled.

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