An Independent Filmmaker’s Journey
I am always pushing people to jump into the other camp to learn something new, a new idea, a new way of seeing. —Michael Raeburn
Michael Raeburn has achieved international acclaim as an independent filmmaker. While his work spans both Africa and Europe, his roots are African, and it is from there that he has derived the inspiration to create an independent voice in a world that is increasingly homogenized and commercialized. The primary focus of this interview is on his early work. (For more on Raeburn’s work, visit http://www.michaelraeburn.com).
Kedmon Hungwe [KH]: Can you say something about your background.
Michael Raeburn[MR]: Right, well, I was born in Egypt. My mother was partly Egyptian. My father was British so when I was three years old I came here [to Zimbabwe] via Kenya. So my roots are African broadly. l came here very young, so I was formed here.
KH: When did you come?
MR: I came here, I think it was 1950-51. I went to school here, Alfred Beit School and St. Georges. My father was headmaster of Highlands School for 25 years. It was the time of Rhodesia, an era which I talk about in Home Sweet Home. Very isolated white community. I was on the edges of the city and had a good childhood. The schools were good. There was not much contact with African people except through people one would meet almost accidentally through the servants. I was an only child and I mixed with children of my age who were both African and British. And I talked about this in Home Sweet Home. I lived right at the edge of town, surrounded by farmland and that was very interesting in the sense that I got to know something about that kind of village life, [which was] very different to the kind of small, mother-father and child syndrome I was living in. One was a kind of aware of racism. I don’t know why, but I was extremely offended by that, maybe because of the influence of my parents. I don’t know. But a lot of my associates at school were rabid racists.
KH: You went to the University of Rhodesia?
MR: Yes, 1964
KH: Okay. Just before UDI?
MR: Yeah and I finished after UDI.
KH: That was an exciting time?
MR: That’s where I started getting political. I knew Fay Chung. She had left but she was still around. She is older than me. Judy Todd and other people were there. There were some very racial conflicts. There were university lecturers from Europe who were very progressive. Terrence Ranger was there, so you had your mind opened. But what really made me political was a trip to France. The first time I had been out of Africa and I got mixed up with a lot of very left wing people. So the first thing in the political stage of politicization was the race issue, and number 2, the class issue which was another dimension to the whole thing, and this, I brought back with me from Europe.
KH: How long were you in Europe?
MR: Over 2 years. I did a French honours Degree. And then I came back [to Rhodesia] and did the film Rhodesia Count Down in 1968/69. That was shot here in very difficult circumstances. Dominic Kanaventi was the main actor. I found him in a Catholic youth club in Mufakose. I think it was there.
Chipo Hungwe[CH]: Why did you go there?
MR: Looking for a main actor. And I knew there was this club . He was on stage and so I met him and I thought he could do the main role and then he brought his friends, so that was it. But then Dominic got arrested while the film was being made.
MR: Well they said you must not be in this film. The Catholic priest who was in charge of the youth club was also was interviewed by the CID [Criminal Investigation Department]. So Dominic stopped coming. It was just becoming more and more difficult to carry on, and the film was being hidden. And the place where I was staying was searched. Numerous times. They knew that the film was anti-Smith. Anyway Dominic then did not show up one day so I went to find him and all he said was that the Catholic Father was very conservative and he wanted him to stop this film. So I said well, you know this is in the middle of the film. He did not seem to know what to do. So then I had another friend who was a Catholic but very left wing. He went and talked to this other priest who told him, “You have no right as a Catholic to order somebody not to do this. It’s up to their conscience.” So then Dominic was called and there was me and these two priests. The first priest was extremely irritated and says, “Well, Dominic I suppose if you do this film or you don’t do this film, which I consider you shouldn’t, it’’s up to your conscience.” So we all stared at him, and he broke into a big smile, and he said, “I am doing the film”. So he did the film and then another very funny thing happened.
The film won a prize in Manheim [in 1969]. And there was cash price for Dominic. But I was then banned from coming back here altogether. I did not come until after independence. I had this money. It was not a lot of money for Dominic. My mother and father were separated. My mother was re-married to this guy who was an accountant. I did not how to get this money to Dominic without endangering him, so I asked this man if he would help, you know, by phoning Dominic and telling him to come to the office and then giving him the money for me. So he said he would do that. So he phoned. Dominic came to the office, and he said,”You asked me to come to the office?”And he says, “”Yes.” Do you know Michael Raeburn?”” “No, no, never heard of him.”” “Did you act in a film called Rhodesia Count Down?”” “No, no, never.”” And he said to him, “”Michael Raeburn’s film has won a prize and he wants…””And he said, “”No. I don’t want anything. It’s nothing to do with me.”
And he walked out.
CH: Oh, so he never got the money?
MR: I did not communicate very well with my family because they were very cross with me. They said I had turned into this revolutionary. Anyway, came back in 1980. Dominic had forgotten about this. And we were on this TV show at ZTV [Zimbabwe television] where they show a film and all the actors come in. So we were talking about the making the film and then out comes the story, you know about, “did you get the money?” “No”, he said, and “where is the money now!” and I said, “I gave it to this guy, and he is now dead.” So it’s very funny.
KH: So how did you raise the money to make the film?
MR: It cost two thousand pounds to make at the time and I had a French friend come out and help. I got this camera from Prince Edward School. After the film was made, I managed to get the film out by diplomatic mail through the British Council, because it was then the British policy to hinder Smith in anyway possible. I collected the film from the Ministry of Defence in London after I left the country. It was very difficult because all the border posts were closed on my departure. They wanted to seize the film. They said if you give up the film you can leave, and I said I don’t have the film. So I walked across the bridge and left. CH: Which bridge?
MR: Across the Victoria Falls bridge, into Zambia. I walked across the bridge. I went in a bus which moved across the bridge and was arrested by the Zambians, but released, you know, because I had no visa KH: They let you through?
MR: Well there was no border post. They had soldiers on either side. The tourists could go on to the bridge and look and I went with a tourist group onto the bridge. And then you could only go so far and then you came back.
KH: So you just went on?
MR: I just carried on walking, and I remember there was an African tourist, and he said “hey!” and I said, “hey, no,” because I thought I would make it.
KH: That’s really interesting. So what kind of camera were you using?
MR: Bolex 16 mm. It belonged to Prince Edward School. They had a film department.
KH: What about the editing?
MR: That was all done in England. Everything was finished in England. But then the film went to festivals. It went out a lot on television and movie cinemas, and then it went to the Moscow film festival as the official ZAPU [Zimbabwe African People’s Union] entry. And then a guy called Otto Beit who is a great grandson of Alfred Beit who was living in Zambia and was pro-ZAPU bought prints of the film for circulation in the [guerrilla] camps, Zambia.
KH: So in retrospect, what kind of film was Rhodesia Countdown?
MR: Well, when I see it, I fall over laughing because it has every trick that you learn in film school. It’s a cry, to you know, basically to rise up, and say there is no more dialogue, the end of a dialogue.
CH: Let’s just fight?
MR: It was the end of the dialogue and at the end it’s a sort of a Mandela trial speech led by ANC choir song recorded in a tiny little room in London. You see everybody was down and out you know.
KH: So how long is the film?
MR: It’s only 35 minutes. But it’s just cry, a satire of Ian Smith, making him look completely ridiculous. Dominic is expressing a kind of frustration, and at the end of the film he sort of breaks out. It was very much a film of that time, the politics the 60s the late 60s-70s. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival during the Directors Fortnight, and there is a scene where Dominic is given a AK47. It’s all stylised and you jump cut from one guy to another guy and they all going grrrrrr! with their toy guns. And you cut to all these crowds, whites in downtown Harare filing past. And all the audience [at the Cannes] got up and cheered. Anything which had a gun going, they would cheer. All you needed to do was to shoot a gun and they would get up and applaud. It doesn’t matter what the cause was, as long as you have done it.
CH: So what followed Rhodesia Countdown?
MR: After that film I stayed in London a long time and I made political films with a co-operative of people from Northern Ireland. And we did a film about night cleaners who were being exploited and were being paid like £1 a night to clean offices. So we did this to unionise them.
And then I did a film about the war in Northern Ireland and another film about the industrialisation of Ireland, and how the peasants came into the towns in the 50s. And then I had this yearning to come back to Africa. I had a Swedish girlfriend who began to tell me about this Masai man and how he had come from the remote plains in Serengeti and gone to school and gone to university, and eventually became a Member of Parliament representing the Masai. So I met her, went to Tanzania we started to write his story and I made the film Beyond the Plains.
KH: I gather Julius Nyerere liked the film?
MR: Yeah, we had a screening at State House in 1977. It was a screening for him. He wanted to see the film. So that was the return to Africa and then I started doing The Grass is Singing in Zambia and wrote [the book] Blackfire and I did all those other films when I was in Tanzania, Zambia living between in London.
KH: What is Blackfire about? I wrote these stories and they were published in England. James Baldwin wrote the introduction, because he was a friend of mine.
KH: Then you made The Grass is Singing in 82?
MR: It was released here in 82. No it was 80-81. 81. And that was shot in Zambia and Sweden. It was financed by a Zambian businessman, 50% and 50% by the Swedish Film Institute.
CH: Why was the Zambian businessman interested?
MR: He is quite political, this guy. Oliver Thambo stayed at his house for years, every time he went to Zambia, and he provided safe houses for the ANC leader. And he gave a lot of money to the ANC. I met him through a friend of mine from St George’s College who was a lawyer and he said, “I think this guy might put some money up for a film in Zambia because he has got so much money he does not know what to do with it.” And I liked this guy a lot. He was very supportive on the film. He really gave us everything we needed in Zambia and afterwards he supported the film.
KH: So would you say The Grass is Singing is a political film?
MR: Well, it’s not really. The main character is Mary Turner, who has all sorts of problems, psychological problems, and these all are results of a basically unnatural, very screwed up society that she grows up in. And she goes out to a farm and she is frightened of the bush, and of black people. She can’t cope. And that’s a psychological interpretation, I suppose, of the racial issues of the time. The film creates a character who is product of racial society and it creates somebody who is very confused on every level.
KH: This is based on Doris Lessing’s book?
MR: It’s very close to the book
KH: Was she involved in the making of the film?
MR: No, I had known her for a long time and she allowed me to carry on, but she did not want to be involved. Which is a wise thing.
KH: Were you able to get a good financial return on this film?
MR: You know, returns are difficult when you make films that are not very commercial. If you make a Schwarzenegger type film you can expect a return, but it’s very hard. Most of the African films make no returns, because the market is not there. You can’t get it on the circuit in America. Any small film, even a small French film, is like an African film. It’s very difficult. This is the art house thing. I know there are examples of films that have been successful. Small art films that made a lot of money, but those are exceptional. So my films don’t make much money. The cinema takes 60% or whatever, then the distributor 50% of that. So you have to make an awful lot of money to get anything out of it. Anyway it [The Grassing is Singing] makes moneys directly through sales to television, so they have made some money. It was seen on television, cable. But where is the money? When we went to get the money, the company disappeared and this happens all the time in film.
CH: Oh it does?
MR: It’s a lunatic asylum. I don’t know, when I finished withJit, I had an agent in London to sell the film. He sold it for a $55 000 advance. Now the film only cost ( in $US at the time), say US400 000. Then he went bankrupt, and the money just disappeared and the negative was blocked in Milan. They were seized by the laboratory that was owed money by this agent. I got another Canadian agent, but he was a crook. He went to Cannes when the film was shown in Cannes, but he had five other films as well and one of those films was his own film. So he spent, let’s say, he spent £99 promoting his own film and £1 on all the other. But when it came to the costs he would book all the costs of the one film against all the six. So I broke the contract, and he sold it to Japan for about a $40 000 advance and then he would not give me any of that. So I had to fight him as well.
CH: It’s a gamble.
MR: So you see Jit has made money, but very little got back and I worked for nothing on the film. And the film has not shown on television because they say it’s too African. I mean the guy at Channel 4 [BBC] said so in Ouagadougou. He said, “I think this is for an African audience.” A pretty racist thing to say, and I said, “What exactly do you mean? What is an African audience in your opinion.” He got a little sort of worried about saying something and then he said, “”You know it’s just that the humour and the blah blah.”” I said, “ “Well people have seen this film all over the world. It’s been shown in America, France, Sweden, Japan. What’’s your problem there?”” He did not want to say what his problem was, but his problem, I think it’s a lot of problems. One was that the he had to show commercial films– what they consider films the British public could relate to instantly, in some way or other. And for him Jit was too African. There are no whites in it, that kind of stuff, you know. It was very strange. It’s really strange. And then you analyze it and you find that the Danes will show Scandinavian films and then after that they will show American films and British film. But they wont show an African film very easily and it’s getting worse and worse. There was a time that you could get an African film easily onto Channel 4 on [BBC], but now it’s got even worse now. You can’t get a sub-titled film on television.
CH: Even French films?
MR: Even French, German.
CH: It has to be straight English?
MR: Yes. I made a French language film. I can’t sell it anywhere outside the French territories of Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland and France. That’s it. The British will not show French, Irish films. They will show an exceptional one that had a lot of publicity and success in France or at festivals and they have heard of it, and if they feel the have to show it. And then they will put it on at 2 o’clock in the morning. And even in France, for example, they are fighting America. They feel like we do in a way.
KH: Do you think films from this part of the continent can ever do well overseas?
MR: Well it’s very difficult. There is almost no profession in filmmaking in Africa except in the Francophone countries.
CH: How well do African films in French do in France?
MR: They do well, but they don’’t necessarily make any money.
CH: But they can appear on TV?
CH: More than English films will appear on British television?
MR: Oh yeah, yeah.
KH: So you think it’s the relationship between the French and their former colonies? MR: And their cultures. They are much more cultural. They love certain African films. Yaaba [Director, Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989] was a huge a success in France.
CH: Yaaba is from which country?
MR: Burkina Faso.
MR: And then Yeelen [Director, Souleymane Cissé, 1987 ] from Mali was very successful in France.
CH: And the audience tends to be both white French and black people?
MR: Yeah, everybody. It’s mainly an intellectual audience but then you know you are talking about a lot of places Paris, and all the cities, even small towns.
KH: How about Belgium?
MR: Belgium is okay. Switzerland is okay. And the Scandinavian countries used to be okay, but they are not. They have become Americanised. And the British…It’s very British now and American. As for the African film maker today, where does he or she go to get the money? The British never put money up, very rarely. They say it’s not interesting, it’s nothing to do with us. It’s very bad. There is that kind of closed in mentality. It’s very, very hard now you know. I am between Africa and Europe.
I will tell you another funny story. When I wrote Black Fireit was picked up by Random House in America. My agent in London, for some reason, included a clause in the contract that the American edition should have the photograph of the author on the cover. I did not even know that. As everything is getting ready for publication the photograph arrived. It was a shock, horror, in America because they thought this was written by a black man. So they did not know what to do. It was a contract thing.
CH: They liked the book but..
MR: They said our sales are going to plummet if this honky is on the back cover. So they did the picture in profile. They took the photograph in profile. So the front of the cover is just profile which is a shadow on a red background.
CH: And on the back?
MR: Nothing it just had to be a photograph on the cover. It did not say where. And it it looks as though it could be anything. The American audience can be very difficult. On the film Jit, I got asked, “why did you choose this light skinned black woman to play the lead role?” That sort of thing is number one [for them]. Then I thought of it, and I said, “ She is a Zulu actually.” It’s like, “What right have you to make a film about our country, our continent?” They don’t know where Zimbabwe is. Well I can understand it from where they are coming. Their educational systems doesn’t help. For example, the inability to understand the difference between, you know, an Ethiopian and a Kenyan.
CH: They think Africans are all the same?
MR: All the same. You speak one language.
CH: So are you planning on some more work here, something else which you can see around which you can do?
MR: I have got a thing in Namibia. Not something specifically in Zimbabwe. And also in South Africa
CH: And the funding?
MR: That’s what I spent my time doing. It’s terrible looking for money I mean as filmmaker this takes up 99% of your time. Shooting the movie is almost irrelevant, you know. It happens so fast. Everybody is in such a hurry. Six weeks and it’s finished. In the meantime you spent three years working to raise the money.
KH: You made a film about South Africa. What is the story line?
MR: Ah, that one is tied up in the courts. The producers are fighting one another because one is owed money from the other and says I won’t release the film until you pay. It’s partly edited. That’s a tragedy. That was a very big blow. It’s seven years of my life gone. I wrote the story in Soweto, underground. It’s got this great music. It was shot in Zimbabwe and Nigeria.
KH: Do you think there are universal stories that we have in common?
MR: We have all been faced with change within our societies. For example in Europe there is the problem of small farming communities being destroyed by the common market. I just did a film on that.
KH: Yeah I saw that.
MR: So that’s the same with film. In different ways can be a small farmer’s son who leaves to go to town and becomes a rock’n roll musician? Or the idea of generation gap. All these things are very, very pronounced if you come from Africa. I think there is a common story. It’s that story being between a new world and an old one and I think that it is the trauma of Africa without doubt and it’s a trauma to somebody in Europe but to a lesser extent. It’s less dominant because the change is not so dramatic, but one can identify with those themes anywhere. Like in Jit, there is this young boy who wants to be with it, and goes to town, and wears the right clothes and the, you know, that whole idea which is very modern. But it’s no different for someone in a traditional society who has to be with it. Within that traditional society you have to do this or that and if you do that you are accepted and you are okay. So it’s the same for the young man in Jit who comes to the city and wants to be accepted by his group, so he wears his crazy clothes. So one keeps to universal themes within every context. I think you find universal connections and the best African film that have worked internationally have that universal touch, and indeed I think any work of art that works, whether it’s a Russian book or a Japanese film has a universality with it within.
KH: So looking back on your work, at what point did you start exploring universal themes?
MR: I think you work subconsciously in a way. The filmRhodesia Countdown was particularly political, but it certainly has themes about change, movement, people being frustrated. The film on South Africa is about a society that is coming together but also breaking down because what was there before is breaking down. Something else is happening. So you put pieces of the puzzle together all the time and it’s a never ending story. I think it’s in all those films. And also the thing about how people tend to want to cut off from what they don’t know. Not wanting to get involved with what they don’t know. I am always pushing people to jump into the other camp to learn something new, a new idea, a new way of seeing. So I have always been open to that. In a sense I have been to like a few other whites like Athol Fugard. Fugard very successfully put himself into a black skin and I did that to a certain extend inJit. I have always pushed that upfront and that makes it difficult sometimes for me to find money for a project because there is not always an interest in the African side. They want films like Out of Africa that are made in Africa but have nothing to do with us. Africa is just…
CH: A setting?
MR: Yeah. Elephants and that sort of thing. I mean the blacks are in the film as servants or something like that and the servant’s opinion is asked about something or rather, but it’s nothing. In America, for so many years, Afro-Americans were the same. They were all servants until Harry Belafonte broke through or whoever it was, and slowly you got stars, major actors. It’s a huge success story. American television is the most multi-racial in the world. And when you look at French and English television, you never see an African. Hardly ever. If they do show them, it’s a stereotype. It is worse in England, than in France. England is bad enough. America is much more advanced and much more mixed and if there isn’t enough then the people start shouting. But it’s all happened in 20 years, you know, that’s pretty amazing. But anyway in a 100 years time we will all be all mixed up. There will be no more problems! Or we may have blown ourselves up, literally. Anyway it’s been nice talking to you.
KH: Well thanks to you.
MR: One thing that has impressed people about Home Sweet Home is the fact that it was made with this tiny little company, and a camera the size of your tape recorder. It cost very little to make it and that is what Africa and the Third World needs. You don’t want to wait for three million dollars. You will never do it. I wish there was somebody who had the energy and is inspired to make these kinds of films. Entertainment films with a little a video projector in the urban area and in the rural areas. You could earn a good a living. You would be able to make one film after the other and the whole thing will expand. You would not rely on rely on the government or donors.