A Tale of the San – … As seen through the eyes of a French filmmaker

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French filmmaker, Pierre Mann, tries to rediscover the ways of the San, through his documentary filmed over a period of four years.

By Catherine Sasman

WINDHOEK

When wildlife documentary filmmaker, Pierre Mann, had an ‘accidental’ encounter with the San in Botswana 25 years ago, he was beguiled. This started off a life-long passion to get more acquainted with the San – both in Botswana and Namibia – that resulted in a four-year film project in which he tracked the life of one woman, Dikao, and her extended family clan for four years.

Two weeks ago, Mann and a small band of San enthusiasts showcased the 63-minute documentary, ‘The tale of the Bushmen’, to the people who formed the fodder of the film.

Mann took his projector and big white screen, set it up under the starry night-skies of the villages of the Ju/’hoansi in northeastern Namibia for the first screening of the English version of the documentary. This, according to Mann, was the first time that a documentary filmmaker returned to the San to show the footage gathered of these unique people in three nights running.

It was raining one night during the screening, but the group simply held an umbrella over the projector and continued the screening.

“I felt it was my moral obligation to go back to the villages,” said Mann. For him, the process of discovering the way of the San has shown him that he is ‘poor’, and that the marginal San is ‘not poor’ in the richness of their lives.

The film, already shown to audiences in France, he said, showed Westerners the falsehoods of their lives.

For the San, he said, the documentary posed as a ‘mirror’ on their lives, as verbalised by an old man during one of the screenings.

Renowned French performing artist, Eric Bouvron, was travelling with Mann on this expedition.

He gave a performance to the San. And in return, they gave him an impromptu play with everyone participating.

“It was a complete cultural event,” remembers Bouvron with awe.

“When the San walk on sand, it is as if they are floating, as if they are light in spirit. That also makes them fragile and any resistance to the wind or the temperature seems to shake them easily; but nature is like that,” said Bouvron of his experience with the Ju/’hoansi.

“When I learnt something from the Bushman in Botswana, I felt that I should see how the San are living in Namibia,” said Mann. “Many people I have spoken to before the project would tell me that the San are beggars and alcoholics. But I wanted to see. On my way to Tsumkwe, I did see a lot of alcoholism; this is not satisfying. But once I went inside the village of the Ju/’hoansi, I did not see any alcoholism. Instead, I found a community that is most human: they have no jealousy, no aggressiveness, they are completely equal [among themselves] and innocent; there is no hierarchy in that community. A chief, for example, cannot impose his will on anyone. When a dispute erupted, it would always be resolved around the fire at night,” observed Mann.

Over the four years of travelling back and forth from his native France to Namibia, Mann gathered 60 hours of film footage, depicting the Ju/’hoansi’s way of life – through the eyes of the elderly Dikao – during the four seasons of the year.

“The activities of the San vary from season to season and I was anxious to capture all of it,” said Mann. The film opens with the narration: “Somewhere in Africa, in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, beats the pulse of a very ancient people: the Bushmen. Today – persecuted, massacred, driven from their ancestral lands, they are threatened with extinction. Should their traditions, their chants and their laughter die, it will mean the extinction of one of the last groups of hunters-gatherers on the planet.”

“Must we have the last Bushman [as Mann refers to the San, though a Namibian audience pointed to the more politically correct term of ‘San’] standing before something is done?” asked Mann in an interview with New Era.

With much compassion and curiosity, the filmmaker tried to trace in moving scenes the way of the San in the Ju/’hoansi villages to conjure up the images of a “gentle look” into the lives of a population under siege.

The Ju/’hoansi

The Ju/hoansi has lived northeastern Bushmanland for 20ǟ

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