This August, two days before Namibia celebrated Heroes Day, AfricAvenir premiered the first feature film by Perivi Katjavivi at the Alte Feste, the old colonial fort symbolising (German) colonialism in Namibia and the continent at large.
Mostly occupied by visiting German tourists and Namibian school classes, the Alte Feste was unusually abuzz with Namibians from all walks of life, under a clear star struck night, with the colonial rider monument among the audience. The timing was significant, not only for the Namibian – but in a broader context. As in the same week, the UNESCO, as every year, held its international day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. The very Alte Feste and the surrounding structures, remind us of slave labour and Namibia’s painful colonial legacy.
Unfolding more like a conversation The Unseen follows the story of three wandering souls as they navigate the emotional and physical realities of post-colonial Namibia. Twenty years into Independence, Namibia is struggling with several socio-political and socio-economic issues at hand. As things are in flux, the time is ripe to assert certain kinds of freedoms and ideas. Katjavivi picks us up, and tells us a story that somehow does not fit nicely and easily into the Namibian nationalist imaginary. The Unseen is an honest conversation about what “being Namibian” means in post-Apartheid multilingual and multi-ethnical Namibia in 2016.
The film focuses on three main characters and their personal struggles to make sense of this Namibia in 2016. There is Marcus, an African American actor played by Antonio David Lyons, tasked with portraying one of Namibia’s historical leaders, King Mandume Ya Ndemufayo. Seeking authenticity in his craft, he embarks on an earnest research mission to unveil the true history of his character. By doing so, on African soil, he encounters a search for himself, his family values intertwined with connection and longing to experience a continent, from which his ancestors were stolen and enslaved during the “Maafa”.
Then there is Anu, a talented local musician, played by Hip Hop artist, Mathew Ishitile, aka Brain the Tool, who is having trouble negotiating between his influences and identity. Anu struggles with acceptance in his own community, and the bigger question if disregarding one’s own language disables oneself from speaking.
Lastly, Senga Brockerhoff brilliantly plays Sara, a depressed, potentially suicidal, young woman. Mirroring Namibia’s greater struggle in dealing with the German genocide and the Apartheid era, Sara is uncertain of whether or not her environment provides anything worth living for, given the traumatic past. And here Sara’s story is undeniably a traumatic one, both individually and collectively.
As one school of trauma theory suggests, the effects of trauma is such that it can only be narrated in fragments. And here, The Unseen follows this path, and as a consequence the character’s stories are told in fragments. Although the narrative of The Unseen focuses on three single individuals, the story is equally a collective one.
The film is a difficult, yet an honest one. It is loaded with political and intellectual insight. Not surprisingly, given Katjavivi’s own personal background. However, The Unseen is far from a dry academic analysis. Mixing sharp Fanonian-like intellectual insight with the power and grounding of ordinary people’s ways of viewing the world, the film is full of warmth and humour. Full of the energy of Katutura’s community itself, it portrays a rich, brutal honesty, singing the truth of “unseen” life of the not-powerful, non-white, non-have Namibians.
The filmmaker consciously focuses on them as an audience. The reasons are many fold.
One, dealing with heavy topics such as search for identity in conjunction with the brutal colonial and Apartheid legacy, the message of the film is clear: The scars and legacy of colonialism, racism and effects of Apartheid won’t be going away tomorrow. It requires the Namibian society at large to constantly work on it, particularly in a psychological and reflective way.
Two, in true pan-African spirit and storytelling, following the footsteps of Africa’s great cinema masters such as Djibril Diop Mambéty, Med Hondo, and Katjavivi’s own mentor Haile Gerima, Katjavivi takes up his role as society’s griot. Ideally, African filmmakers are modern day griots, messengers of one’s time, visionary creators of the future.
Most of what Katjavivi shows us is common knowledge. Yet he presents the stories in a rather strange way, so as to make people see and think about their own lives differently. The Unseen makes the familiar unfamiliar, and in doing so, resolutely asks the audience to understand the everyday, the ordinary, in a different light.
And three, the narrative and the stories of the main characters are portrayed in rather clinical, down-to-earth kind of style. This is not to be misunderstood as them being simple. The simplicity and concreteness of their paths are merely a measure to preserve the complexity of their stories. This is strongly supported by the filmmaker’s choice to shoot the film in black and white.
Style is a very important element in this film. Not only is the black and white refreshing, the film’s story is told in an unusual, experimental form. First there is the stylistic mix of fiction and documentary, introduced by others, yet making perfect sense in this scenario.
The film is refreshing when one think’s of other Namibian films, which rather copy than create their own cinematic language.
A love letter to Namibia and to cinema, all in all, Katjavivi’s The Unseen is a very intelligent introspective self-criticism of Namibia’s status quo in 2016. Katjavivi uses his filmmaking as a cultural struggle on behalf of Namibia and the continent at large, in supporting the struggles at the level of politics and ideas begun by figures such as Amilcar Cabral and Patrice Lumumba.
With a fresh vibe, never arrogant, with a firm focus on what matters, Katjavivi deserves all the applause there is, for this truly Namibian independent cinema in 2016. If we follow Katjavivi’s example, we can manage the future.
Hans-Christian Mahnke is director of AfricaVenir in Namibia.