Making Moviesby Rob Cockcroft / 26.11.2013
A few months back when we dropped the story of MC Pote, the star of the acclaimed documentary, Incarcerated Knowledge, that was screened at this year’s Encounters Festival, the director Dylan Valley was out of reach as he was jetting to Hollywood to go study a year-long course. Well, we gave him time to settle in and soak up the culture that side before we put forward some questions about the doccie, what his course entails and what’s inspiring him over there. Check it out.
MAHALA: So how did you get to make the move to Tinsel Town? I heard you were approached for an internship, you never applied for it.
DYLAN VALLEY: I actually did apply for it, but I was approached to apply. I already knew one of the professors here (from showing the Afrikaaps documentary to her students) and when they heard I was interested in studying in the states, they encouraged me to apply. I applied and received a Pulitzer Fellowship from the University of Southern California’s (USC) Annenberg Journalism school to study an MA in Specialised Journalism (The Arts). It’s an intensive one year masters program designed for professional journalists or artists/art practitioners who have an interest in journalism. I’m doing my electives at USC’s film school, which some consider the best in the country. It’s hectic.
I’ve seen on Facebook that you’re rubbing shoulders with some interesting and famous peeps. Tell us about some of those encounters and how do you translate those encounters into opportunities?
I was sitting on the bus one night after a long day, thinking about how much I hate Hollywood Boulevard and thinking about how I should move to Echo Park (which is kind of like L.A.’s Observatory/ Woodstock) and then Fatlip from Tha Pharcyde (legendary 90s hip hop group) got on the bus. He was with the little guy from the 2 Chains video and a white guy who looked homeless but is probably just a musician. He sat down right next to me and I was like “Uhhh… are you Fatlip?” We started to chat. It was so surreal. I also got to meet Earl Sweatshirt (Odd Future) at my local taco stand, as well as Kool A.D from Das Racist (one of my favourite rap groups of all time.) Through my friend Kent Lingeveldt from Alpha Longboards I also got to meet Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite. He was in Cape Town shooting a commercial and saw Kent on CNN’s Inside Africa. Kent ended up making a couple of boards for Jared and he told him to look me up in LA, which he did. He’s a great guy, super chilled. Just meeting these people has been a great opportunity in itself.
What have you experienced in the music scene out there? Have you been to any dope shows and are there any artists you’re looking to connect with out there?
There is so much going on in LA that it’s hard to get your head around it. I went to an El-P/ Killer Mike show as part of their Run the Jewels tour. I also went to Anticon’s 15th Anniversary party, which was great. I try and go as often as possible to Amoeba Music’s (awesome record store up the road from me) free shows. I got to see Charles Bradley there, the former James Brown impersonator who’s now a big deal and tearing up festivals with his old school soul music. I’d like to connect with Earl Sweatshirt. I’m working on it.
Much of your work has been based on the people and culture in your surroundings in Cape Town. Is it challenging finding stories that resonate with you to document out there? What’s it like trying to produce work outside of what you know and are comfortable with?
Yeah, I think that is a challenge but there are many parallels in our cultures (mostly due to Western cultural influence and imperialism!) and it’s not hard to find the work that speaks to you, especially if you are interested in universal themes. That being said it’s also good to work outside of your comfort zone. Most of what I am busy with right now is just turning in assignments and writing reviews. I’m also working on a thesis documentary which I plan to do on Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl, the seminal comedy web series. It’s hilarious, and it’s a milestone in American comedy in my opinion.
Tell us a bit about your background in film and what got you into it.
I always wanted to be a cartoonist or a painter but when my parents bought a video camera I started messing around with it, and filmed my friends and family, doing boring everyday stuff or pretending we had a hip hop TV show. I caught a film bug and I guess it never stopped. I eventually ended up studying film at UCT, where myself and my friend Sean Drummond made a documentary for honours thesis about SA’s hip hop pioneers Prophets of Da City, which we called Lost Prophets. It was really well received, also caused some (unintentional) controversy, and it got our names out there. I got interested in documentary because something really spoke to me about exploring the existing world with a camera, instead of creating a totally new one in fiction. Also the possibilities of immediate storytelling and making a statement without needing much money really appealed to me.
Who are you checking out whether from SA or other parts of the globe that really inspire you?
You mean in film? I just saw Akin Omotoso’s Man on Ground (which dealt with the South African xenophobic violence in 2008) here in LA at the South African Arts Festival, that was really inspiring. I know this is weird but I saw a documentary about the internet “cat video” phenomenon that Vice made called Lil Bub and Friendz, which I really liked. I wish I had made that. I also get really inspired by music. I saw this really cool rapper perform the other night in LA called VerBs. It was at a Busdriver/Kool A.D. show.
What is the end goal from what you gain from studying out there? Do you know what line you’d like to take with your career?
While I’m here I aim to experience as much as possible and learn as much as possible, and make some good contacts. The end goal is to be a better writer and a filmmaker… and an even better human being. Haha! I want to make African cinema… fiction features and documentary features. That’s where I’d like to be going with my career, as well as being an arts journalist.
What are your thoughts on the explosion of short documentary videos coming out online? Does it do anything to raise the bar of documentary filmmaking?
I think the audience for documentaries has grown over the past ten years or so, and the internet has really helped. But I think our attention spans are a lot shorter, especially when watching stuff online. On the plus side the demand for internet based video content keeps growing, which is great.
I recently wrote about MC Pote, whose story you filmed for Incarcerated Knowledge. How did you guys meet up and how did you find out about his story?
I found out about him through a mutual friend called Antonia Porter, who was working for an NGO in Pollsmoor called Alternatives to Violence Project. She said she had an idea to make a film about this talented MC in prison and when I heard his music, the quality of the storytelling blew my mind and I knew we had to do the film. Antonia and I, as well as another friend/filmmaker Sarah Ping Jones, then started pre production on the film. We went to Pollsmoor a few times together to meet up with Peter (MC Pote) and countless times to meet with prison officials. And then Plexus Films came on board as producers. We couldn’t get access to film in Pollsmoor before Peter’s release from prison, so filming started on the day of his release. And then the story shifted to the life of a guy who wants to turn over a new leaf by pursuing a career in music; but faces the harsh reality of life on the outside. It’s so hard for guys who come out of prison to reintegrate and to find work, and it’s like this constant cycle of incarceration. We did eventually get into prison much later (to shoot a performance scene), shout out to producer Lauren Groenewald for making that happen.
He didn’t seem too open about some things in the interview, although I realise it must be hard to talk about some of the sensitive issues of his past. Did it take a while for you to gain his trust and get him to open up?
It wasn’t really that hard to gain Peter’s trust; probably because of the relationship he had had with Antonia, which preceded the conception of the documentary. She became friends with him, and eventually we were all just friends trying to get this story out. It’s a very sensitive story, so trust is key.
What did the process of shooting the doccie entail, how long did it take to complete?
It took roughly 5 years from pre production to completion. I would shoot for a few days, and then stop, and pick it up again a few months later, etc. It was sometimes hard to know what to film, or when to be around to film. Most of the time it was just me out there with Peter, with a camera and minimal sound equipment. We didn’t intend for the process to take this long (financial issues and prison access), but it actually gives the film a lot of weight to see footage spanning from 2008 to 2013… the audience really goes on a journey with Peter.
Do you think that, more than leaving the audience feeling more culturally enriched, a documentary can actually help the situation of guys like MC Pote?
It definitely can, but that depends on quite a few factors. I think what would really help is if he could somehow get some kind of an artist management offer. But the reality trying to make a career out of being a rapper in Cape Town is kinda bleak. I’m hoping once the film gets seen on a wider scale there will be greater rewards for him other than selling a few CDs at festival screenings. We are also working on developing a distribution plan with Department of Correctional Services, but we are still negotiating that. Let’s see!