My Hunter’s Heartby Kavish Chetty / 06.07.2011
I once had the displeasure of interviewing Zakes Mda. I’ll leave your gossip glands thirsty by not telling which aspects of his personality I found incapable of seduction. But during the conversation, we crested the question that hangs like flies around the carcass of African literature: “representation”. As a scholar of literary theory, when I hear the word representation, I take after Goebbels and reach for my revolver. But when this flaring distaste eases off, I find myself left with a genuinely complex issue, and one that has dogged debates in postcolonial theory for the greater part of the last century. Mda didn’t seem to share any of my ambiguity about representation, about who speaks for whom, about the power dynamics involved in speaking on behalf of other cultures. He dismissed the question with the haughty impatience of the artist, saying “that’s a problem for you critics.” Perhaps beneath the dismissal was the acknowledgement that the history of literature is the history of representation.
But what do we actually do about this, literature’s vexed question? It’s a question which during the screening of My Hunter’s Heart, stages the immediate confrontation between critic and film. And the question in this instance is this: what are the problems involved when a good-intentioned group of middle-class, white film-makers create a documentary about a formerly marginalised (actually, we could really drop the “formerly” there) ethnic group and propose to “give them a voice”, and most importantly “tell their story”. This latter is the quotation with which My Hunter’s Heart opens. In stark white lettering against a black background it pauses over the sentence: “this is their story”. The “their” in question refers to the San or Khomani bushmen. The story in question, it is proposed, is this ancient peoples’ struggle with modernisation and displacement.
Directors and brothers Damon and Craig Foster are a likeable duo, introducing themselves and their years-long project before the preview. I should declare at the outset that Heart is far from a poor film: it features fantastic aerial photography and staggering shots of the Kalahari; its central narrative coheres; it is polished and professional. But there is still something a little odd about the whole experience; something incomplete.
To take directly from the statement of the directors, in lieu of my own synopsis, “shot over three and a half years, the film explores the world’s most ancient shamanic culture which is severely threatened as their traditional way of life and skills have been taken away from them. It tracks the Khomani San of the Southern Kalahari, the oldest living indigenous tribe in the world, who are genetically linked to every human being on Planet Earth. In modern times, their traditional nomadic way of life has changed and westernisation has severed their link to the land and the animals. The film follows younger members of the clan, /Urugab and his family, as they embark on an epic journey to try to recapture some of the knowledge and skills of their ancestors.”
How many degrees of separation do we have from the San in this film? For one, the protagonist of this film hardly answers to the impossible authenticity we might desire – he, and his family, live on the periphery of a game park, surrendering themselves to bottles of hard liquor to cope with their despair. They wear old takkies and second-hand rags. Equally, they appear to predominantly speak Afrikaans. This Afrikaans is translated into subtitles which very much clean up their style and grammar – generally, translating them into idiomatic expressions which serve the task of ‘ennobling’ the cast. But also, much of what they had to say was turned into a throaty English voice-over narration by Sello Maake Ka Ncube. This takes us even further away from our subject matter, as this narrator has an even stronger penchant for what we might call ‘nomadic idiom’, earthy and natural metaphors which link to issues, of manhood, respect, honour.
All this harking to the pre-modern (pre-colonisation) wisdom of the San is another familiar gesture of this sort of documentary-making: the compassionate anthropologist who wishes to romanticise the native past that we can’t access. There is, formally speaking, a kind of condescension architected into this. Because, inevitably, the wisdom of the “native” to use the anthropological term, is a contextualised wisdom that operates on the basis of platitudes – the platitudes too simple to offer any rehabilitative guidance to this monstrously complex modern world of ours. And notice the distinction: I write of “ours” and “theirs”, because multiculturalism loves difference but is still territorial about it.
Throughout the film, the protagonist, /Urugab, goes on about his respect for nature, the indifference of the gun-hunters, the way that white man’s poison (I couldn’t resist the expression) keeps him drunk and “tames” him. But somewhere inside him, there is something “wild”. This is the spirit of his ancestors, and the spirit he wants to recapture. He wants to go back to the past. There is a brilliant quotation by a Marxist theorist, Masao Miyoshi, who wrote that ““[o]nce absorbed into the “chronopolitics” of the secular West, colonised space cannot reclaim autonomy and seclusion; once dragged out of their precolonial state, the indigenes of peripheries have to deal with knowledge of the outside world, irrespective of their own wishes and inclinations.” This, I think, accurately sums up the rather impossible plight of these San: the nostalgia for an unblemished past, where they are no longer the excesses of global capitalism, traversing on the ground of the nation-state, but nomadic hunters with a system of knowledge that hasn’t been systematically pissed-on by their colonisers.
/Urugab’s journey to undertake his first official hunt, and thereby become a man forms the narrative centrepiece of this film. It is, in this sense, a “coming of age” story. He hooks up with an older hunter, and together they hunt his first giraffe with a bow, going by tracks and scents. But, where is the political situation in all this? Where is the plight of the San? Who let them hunt the giraffe? I presume you can’t just show up on park land slaying giraffes with poison arrows without a permit. Is one man’s journey to learn how to hunt representative of the greater problem of the San? Or are there other issues here? Like what happens when a brutalised, semi-modernised people try to return to a history that objectively no longer exists?
And, when the camera is perfectly positioned throughout the entire hunt, do we not need to worry? Weren’t they distracting to the hunters? Did the hunters not behave differently because they knew they were there? Isn’t this like Kalahari reality television, given that the subjects know there is a camera watching them? Is the result then about the projection of their identity, rather than their identity itself? And what about the music – an original score by Trevor Jones – which is, amongst all the other filmic techniques, completely managing the way we, as an audience, receive this story?
See, there are really two things we can do with all this information. The one is we can reject that representation is a problem, a la Bra Zakes, and be convinced that what we have received in the cinema is an authentic, real, accurate account of the San. Or two, we can be suspicious of how utterly mediated this whole documentary is. And when we take the latter route, we have to ask the even more frustrating question: are we watching “their story” or are we watching ours?: the story that we wanted to see, and that was made for us to see. My Hunter’s Heart is, finally, an admirable attempt to bring attention to the suffering/problems of the San, but is has two major flaws. This first is the catalogue of problems outlined above which we could marshal under the heading “problems of representation”. The second is that the “coming of age” drama which is its centrepiece does not directly engage with the onslaught of political and bureaucratic problems that face the San. My final impression is one of suspicion. Not of the film-makers’ intentions, but of the final product and what it means in society.