Tuesday, September 19, 2006

back in South Africa

September 19

Hello to all my loved ones out there! I apologize for not writing since I got back to South Africa. I put together a multi-media movie, with pictures and narration and music, but it is sadly too much for South Africa's Internet to handle, so I will stick to good ol' email updates! Since I last wrote, after premiering my hero book at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto (a smashing success if I may say so) I spent one week in New York City visiting with family and friends- to all of those who I saw, I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to reconnect- I found I came back to South Africa energized, refreshed, inspired, and more confident because of grounding myself, surrounding myself with people that I know and love (as opposed to people here who I have grown to love in a different way, but who still I have only known a few months). What I did notice, whilst back in NYC for only one week is that, within two days my slow, South African stroll quickly turned into the NYC fast-paced walk. As my step quickened, it seemed South Africa grew further and further distant. It was a reminder that, when I return to the US in December, life in the US will pick up quickly, and my time here will be a previous experience. I'm not quite ready for that to happen, as I feel I have so much more to process, to experience, to document- and so when I came back to South Africa- the day after I had to leave a coffeeshop because there was suspicion they would be robbed- I extended my stay for three more months. So, I will now (for real) be returning to the US on December 12! mark your calendars now!

Coming back to South Africa has really been a beautiful experience- I feel so fortunate to have had a few weeks to leave the country, take a step back, see what other people in the field are doing. In many ways, it was comforting to return to this country, to return to the challenge and fun of it all, and part of me actually feels like my time here is just beginning- that it has taken this long to find my place, my space, my friends. I feel so fortunate to have a variety of experiences here, both good and bad in South Africa, that enrich my understanding of this complicated country. This past weekend, for example I went to this huge music and arts festival (they played mostly dance, trance, electronic music) that was in the middle of this beautiful valley in the mountains outside Cape Town- I kid you not, I danced for hours and hours, from when the sun went down to when it rose above the hills, lit the stream and mountains in beautiful shades of orange and purple. I felt like a true hippy. I also could not help but notice that probably 80% of the people there were also other white hippies, with the exception of the rasta guys (who LOVE me and call me their sista), my friend Marcia and her brother (whose mom just moved to Charlotte of all places!), and some others...perhaps it is because of the type of music, or that you had to have a car to get there, or that it cost $20 to get in, or that you had to have the free time to go dancing in the woods for two days...all of these, I am realizing more and more, are luxuries. luxuries that seem to come much easier, or seem to be afforded to people that have my color skin. I will say, also, that this space was very, very safe- we could even leave our wallets behind in the tent! Anyhow, it was a beautiful weekend and, as any other day in South Africa, is filled with complexities, questions, challenges, and somehow a lot of fun.

Speaking of challenges, as you all know I have completed my hero book film. Happy with the film and the response, Jonathan agreed that he didn't need a longer, 50 minute version and will include my piece in his Hero Book promotional packet. So, I thought, I have three months left to do my own thing, now that my fellowship is done.

I was wrong. As it turns out, because the hero book film is about kids who are in high school, and the foundation that funds my fellowship focuses on children 0-8 years old, the hero book film I have been working on for eight months actually doesn't satisfy the requirements of the fellowship at all. Now, I was a bit surprised at all of this, and for a few moments questioned what I have been doing this whole time here, and wondered if my hero book film was for naught. But then, after speaking with my advisors and my mother (boy is she one wise woman), I am rather looking at this is a new challenge, a new opportunity in which I will spend the next three months using photography to focus on my friend Beaty's children, and how they are all affected by HIV, poverty, post-apartheid life...all as Beaty is becoming head of her household. I hope to create a photo essay, audiovisual gallery online when I return to the US- and so am viewing all of this as a way to explore photography and a new way of promoting and distributing my stuff. With all of this, questions come such as:
- How can I continue to challenge (have I used this word 20 times in this email, oh South Africa) how we as Americans view "victims of AIDS in Africa." In film, the person comes alive, and I wonder in photography how to do this as well.
- What is my role here? Am I Maital, documentary filmmaker/photographer or May-tell (how people here pronounce my name), the friend? My (white, film student) friend said "you must step back and try not to get too attached." But why? Who holds the power if I come in to only take photographs, pretend to be a fly on the wall, make analysis from an experience in which I am only and always an outsider for a few moments, and will never fully understand. How can I pretend, then, to tell their story when, is it really for me to tell? This is why, for example, I'd rather tell the story as a narrator, as this is what I saw- with all of my experiences influencing me as a young, white American...so that I am not an unknown fly on the wall, but am a person of privilege, trying to figure out how to get other people of privilege (ie many of us living in the US) to see life for someone else, both the hardships but also the hope, to see the humanity in all of this and that Beaty, for example, is not a "victim" but a "survivor."
- Do I come up with the "story" while I am here in South Africa and take pictures of that or do I take pictures and come up wtih the story when I return to the US? If the latter is the case, then why am I only "documenting" Beaty's life, and not my everyday life here in South Africa, with the friends I'm making in Cape Town. Is that too broad of a story? Is that not enough of "AIDS in Africa" story? Or maybe it is exactly that, seeing how AIDS affects many, but not all...and is still something read in the newspaper but rarely talked about openly and honestly (just as an example, Beaty's community has a 25% HIV prevelance rate and yet she is the only one I know who is open about her status).

These are all some questions I have as I embark on the last three months of my fellowship. In many ways, it feels like I am just starting the fellowship now- that I have built the friendships and trust and now is my time to go with a camera in hand and try and make some sense of something that doesn't fully make sense. I plan on spening all of October up in Knysna with Beaty and the MADaboutART kids, where I will set up the donated mac computer (thanks Duke multi-media project studio, Hine Fellowship, and Mr. Michael Faber!) and teach the kids editing skills (we've already done some filming skills). As it turns out, the national tv station is interested to have the kids make 3 minute film about township life every month that they will air...so of all the questions I have asked, I am most satisfied with this part- to leave something behind, to teach skills that they can use (maybe even find a passion in) far beyond my time here, and mostly to spend time with my friends who I have grown much much closer with (and adorable Timmy who is turning 2 next month!).

So, I am having a wonderful time here. The other day I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, "it would be so much easier just to go home." And yet, this is exactly why I stay.

Happy New Year to everyone out there and if I have done anything to hurt you, please let me know and please forgive me. I feel so blessed in this year to be experiencing what I am, but mostly to have all of you in my life as love and support. Chag Sameach from the Skolli (my friends nicknamed me this, it's Afrikaans for "ghetto girl"), Rasta, working-out (can you believe it, some guy today commented on my arms!) red-headed May-tell.