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Fokof on Film

by Thomas Okes / 07.07.2009

Are Fokofpolisiekar really the most important movement in Afrikaans culture since Johannes Kerkorrel and the Voelvry generation? Legions of fans, academics, journalists and musicians reckon that they have changed the face of South African music. A new documentary film attempts to tell the whole Fokken storie. But in essence, filmmakers Bryan Little and Filipa Domingues have tried to tell two stories, of Fokof the band and Fokof the socio-cultural hurricane. It is an ambitious project: as Little remarked after Friday night’s premiere, the challenge was often to “get to a clarity of the whole thing, and still make a movie which wasn’t four hours long”. Fokof themselves are six years old, and the breadth of their impact has ballooned out of all reasonable proportion. Clearly, the “whole thing” needs a lot of clarifying.

From the outset, the movie swings between documenting the movements of the band and discussing the country’s reaction to them. The formation of Fokofpolisiekar is considered from the particular stance of an Afrikaans generation straddling the divide of 1994, unsure of their cultural place. Wynand Myburgh explains how, before the band formed, “we didn’t like who we were … [and] Fokof was a way to liberate ourselves”. In a similar way, Hunter Kennedy describes the original idea as a moment of profound dissatisfaction with, “all of those Afrikaans expectations … everything Johannes Kerkorrel sang about”, and he notes that in starting Fokof, “we basically wanted to drop any kind of Calvinistic indoctrination”.

That process is a difficult one. From the beginning, Fokof’s formation is a desperate, jerky lunge out into the unknown. Their long and bumbling drive up to Johannesburg in the hope of making an EP; their painful first sessions in the recording studio; their practically bankrupt forays into fledgling life as a full-time rock band. Affirmation arrives only in the aftermath of the first-ever Fokofpolisiekar live performance. The band’s own footage records a backstage moment of explicit, collective, euphoric relief, as Hunter and Francois lie on the floor and shout “Ons wen! Ons wen!”. When asked in an interview what that show might still mean to them, the band members clench their fists, grin, and shout, “Success!”.

Fokofpolisiekar

It also made them heroes. Quickly and inadvertantly, Fokofpolisiekar became an iconic figurehead for a generation of Afrikaans youth in cultural stasis and creative crisis. One critic declares in the movie that before this band took the stage, there was, “a gaping hole in the creative consciousness of Afrikaans South Africa”. Valiant Swart describes later how, “there were people waiting for someone to come and say, ‘This is what it’s like for us’”. The controversy that surrounds the band is framed within this theme, and shown to have opened new circles of debate, centred around a redefinition of white, Afrikaans identity. The band’s lyrics are discussed extensively for their capacity to encourage a rethink of one’s role in relation to the rigidity of a conservative Afrikaans culture.

Two-and-a-half years of fine-tuning have brought the weight of this beautiful documentary to a delicate point, somewhere between too involved and too far removed. Bryan Little commented after the screening that, “when you shove a camera in someone’s face, the story changes.” And in this case – the history of a group of live performers – telling the “story” becomes a careful and often courageous balancing act.

The movie functions well as a woven quilt, where each part of its intricate design may be imagined in relation to a great many others. The stitching between various parts of the pattern is subtle and elegant: comical Q&A insights of a reporter named Golla Batprop are placed next to the more serious opinions of academic Rebecca Kahn; the band’s relation of one hilarious incident of intolerance is juxtaposed with a militant speech by Eugene Terreblanche; the band itself is examined both as a group and as five separate individuals talking back to each other. These contrasting perspectives are allowed to co-exist on common ground, and the resulting mix is a comprehensive picture, from inside and out, of the Fokofpolisiekar phenomenon.

It is also impressively layered. The narrative is pieced together from a wide range of tape: Matt Edwards’ sleeve art comes to animated life alongside Liam Lynch’s dramatic live photography; large and small concerts are captured from one angle in HD and the next a sweaty 16mill; television stock is granted fresh significance in light of the band’s own grainy, self-shot footage. As a microscope which shifts in depth and focus between warm intimacy and a cooler distance, the film’s camera is insightful and appreciative; it sheds a light into the maturing kernel of Fokofpolisiekar itself and provides an overview of their greater significance.

In its attempt to regard Fokofpolisiekar and the extent of their cultural impact, the film finds itself treading a painstaking line. “If you push just a fraction too much, people will pull away instinctively” says Bryan Little. He hopes that the film, in its carefully well-rounded approach toward the Fokof story, will leave the viewer “open to changing something in themselves… [wanting] to find out who they are”. The lesson of this documentary, then, might be his idea that “everyone has the right to tell their own truth”: in that sense, Fokofpolisiekar may have, for just a moment, filled the “gaping hole”, and given young white South Africans a space, as Little puts it, to “say and be anything they want”.

But Hunter says it better. “We didn’t go out intending to speak for a generation, we were just trying to make sense of things for ourselves”. This movie is a history of Fokofpolisiekar speaking out of turn, and a picture of them teaching an unsung and patently unpopular generation to speak for itself.

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