Monday, 20 May 2013

Film: Cape Town's White Elephant

On a cold, grey morning in early 2012 I received a letter that brightened up the day (I don't actually remember the weather, but it was February, and I live in England, so yeah). The letter was from my university informing me that my application for a study-visit-scholarship-thing had been successful and they were part-funding a trip to South Africa for me to make a film.

So, over the next few months I worked on pre-production whilst constantly reminding myself that this wasn't just a free holiday. I waited until England got cold again and then headed to Cape Town in October for a month of sunshine. Oh right, yeah, and filmmaking.

Cape Town Stadium

It wasn't my first time in South Africa. I was there for the FIFA World Cup back in 2010 and had taken my camera with me along with a vague intention of shooting something. I returned with a whole load of footage of football fans (some of which I used in White Elephant) and a pretty powerful interview with a girl named Nandipha. 

I had met her in the poverty-stricken township of Imizamo Yethu, near Cape Town, and she had explained how, what with all the hysteria and extravagance that surrounded the hosting of the tournament, she felt ignored and let down by her government.

I hoped one day to return to Cape Town with bigger film making ambitions; to perhaps make a film about the legacy of the World Cup. So, I was delighted when the aforementioned scholarship enabled me to do just that, and to finish what I'd started.

You'll notice that the film has nothing to do with elephants. The term white elephant refers to the stadium that was built in Cape Town especially for the tournament and what is now a severely under-utilised, and a drain of government resources. The more I researched, the more I was sure that the controversy surrounding the stadium should be the focus of the film. Therefore, the documentary questions the morality and logic of building such an expensive football arena on the doorstep of abject poverty when there were far cheaper, more popular options, all more viable in the long-term.

As I was making a film about a stadium I knew I needed plenty of shots of it. Exteriors were not a problem thanks to Signal Hill, which, although an effort to climb in the sweltering heat, provided breath-taking views of the stadium with a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Interiors, however, were not so straightforward to attain, and my requests for access to the stadium were declined, meaning I had two options: purchase stock footage, or find a way in. Stock footage was too expensive, so I devised a cunning plan.

I had lined up an interview with a Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member (basically, someone quite important) with the intention of having some fun, playing investigative film-making journalist and grilling him with difficult questions. It was arranged that I'd meet him at his office in some government building in the business district, but I sent him an e-mail asking if there was any chance the interview could instead take place inside the stadium. He replied with a yes, and so I had the access I required.

As I had cynically expected, he avoided most of my questions, instead giving well-rehearsed and vague, robotic answers, so I decided not use any of the resulting footage. However, I did manage to shoot what I needed of inside the stadium whilst 'setting up' for the interview, so the day was a success. If there's one thing I've learnt through solo filmmaking on a budget is that there's usually a way to get what you want for free if you think on your feet. Luckily, the other contributors (Nandipha, Terry and Sean, to who I owe huge thanks) were all fantastic.

Imizamo Yethu © Ryan Chapman

I spent some time in the township with Nandipha, and she was kind enough to invite me into her home and show me around. It had improved a lot since the last time I was there and she was keen to show it off. As a thank you, and in an attempt to give something back to the community, I tried to help some kids with their homework. Unfortunately, all this revealed is that 13 year olds are better at algebra than me. That same afternoon, as if glutton for punishment, I also learnt they're better at football. 

During a 5-aside match, throughout which I was referred to as Rooney, my pass completion rate was terrible and my accidental hand-ball to give away the penalty that lost us the game didn't go any further to impress my teammates. In my defence, the surface was uneven and I wasn't wearing the right footwear.

The experience summed up the reason I was there quite fittingly. Cape Town Stadium lay just several miles away, but it might as well have been on the moon. I was playing football on broken concrete with kids for who football represents one of very few hopes for a better life, yet it will shatter more dreams than it can ever bestow.

I just want to say a big thank you to Kevin Wilyman, and his wife Karen, without whom I would never have met Nandipha in the first place, and wouldn't have a film. Kevin runs a volunteer company in Cape Town called Volunteers Direct and they do lots of wonderful things.