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Craig and Damon Foster

My Hunter’s Heart

by 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.

My Hunter’s Heart (2011) from Videovision Entertainment on Vimeo.

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  1. Stark says:

    This film was just so typical. The San are noble and all the rest of us are wretches. Condescending is the word. The film-maker has the power to ‘ennoble’ (good word) his subject matter. Have anthropologists ever managed to actually get around this? They’re going to have to break a few rules of political correctness in order to do the job properly, instead of just giving us another story of the “noble savage”.

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  2. Captain Lombard says:

    You mean reaching for your Luger.

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  3. Tobi says:

    Not all that different from the average BBC or National Geographic documentary, I guess, including the raised questions about (re)presentation. Somebody urgently needs to make a documentary about Orania’s last voortrekkers. Cue: dramatic music when tannie crosses the street on her way to the bakery to buy herself a koeksister.

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  4. DFK says:

    Tell us more about Zakes Mda – we want gossip!

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  5. Trev says:

    Great read!

    Very well written article!

    Identity and stereotype are two major points of discussion (and controversy) when it comes to art and film. How a person, or a group of people are represented through a medium is something in the hands of the artist/director and their P.O.V. In my opinion, representation can never be objective.

    P.S: I especially like the quote you included by Masao Miyoshi.

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  6. Lizzy says:

    hey its strange, this review kind of made me recollect how i felt when i watched ‘waste land’ about the Brazillian artist vik muniz and his ‘intervention’ in the lives of the waste pickers of rio. I felt irritated and angry that this artist felt he had really improved the lives of the subjects of his artwork in some way, and at the same time attempting to romanticise their poverty. from the website:
    ‘his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives’
    the film was tragic. This one sounds a little better, though.

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  7. Melanie says:

    Sounds like the blurry territory Pieter Hugo’s photos are in – but that does not stop ‘Western’ galleries from lapping up the African freak show

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  8. Blah says:

    excellent analysis!

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  9. Tim says:

    “The medium is the message” -Marshall McLuhan

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  10. ES says:

    Well written article but do we really still need to make a huge issue of the fallacy of documentary truth? its always going to be a piece of work, made according to the choices of people who give a single viewpoint which they contextualise. For it to be watchable they have to tell a story, lets just get over it and enjoy it for the fiction it is. Those who know that there cant ever be an objective representation, “care” and will waste hours trying to impress their peers at parties, those who dont, dont give a fuck.

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  11. M says:

    As long as you still refer to people by so-called colour denominations, in this case the ‘white’ filmmakers, you fall into the same tired old trap of racism and identity.

    I would put it that there is no such thing as ‘white’. (How would you prove I am ‘white’ anyway? Is there still a government-defined description of whiteness, or blackness, or colouredness etc)

    My point is free yourself from the racist veiwpoint, and a lot of your suspicions will fall away and your heart will feel lighter 🙂

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  12. Anonymous says:

    The filmmakers only have the responsibility of creation and expession, not that of anchoring an entire culture.
    They spent 3 and a half years working on something that gets taken apart here in a matter of minutes, for that high brow appeal, but without enough critical insight to justify it.
    Why are they obliged to create anything beyond their own personal vision, especially if they invest over 3 years into the process? The story they tell is their own, crafted and textured to their own liking. The story of the San goes on regardless of how they edited, graded or soundtracked their documentary, and that is sure where the question of representation ends? In this specific film they were represented from the creators point of view. This documentary is not the defning last word on khoisan for the world.
    They filmmakers didn’t go spend 2 weeks on a reserve somewhere to tell us about the plight of the rhino. They integrated themselves into a community and people for over 3 years and told some stories. I could tell some stories about friends I’ve had for 3 years, but I hope that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of dick who is taking something away from my friend by relating those stories, as I saw them.

    Also: ‘And, when the camera is perfectly positioned throughout the entire hunt, do we not need to worry? Weren’t they distracting to the hunters?’ – thats a reach. 3 and a half years, you’re going to get some footage.

    And, with your implication that in subsaharan africa, The San, with all their cultural reference and understanding of what gets whiteys excited, that you would assume they’d play into their roles ala reality tv, is an interesting notion.

    I dont know, you opened a lot of doors with your comments, and I feel like that comes with some responsibility to properly dissect your intended commentary.

    But good job for raising some interesting questions!

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  13. Jacobus Strandswerwer says:

    Ironically it was the slaves who first named the hunter-gatherers “Boschjesmans”. In South East Asia they used their Dutch masters’ term for the orang utang -” Boschmans”, but at the Cape just added the diminutive (i.e. “Boschje” instead of “Bosch”), because our fynbossie cannot be compared to their jungles (utan). Arriving in Cape Colony, these slaves had a great time going out with Baas, hunting and exterminating the “Boschjesmans”, at least one species on a lower scale than themselves. The British took over this term and translated it into “Bushmen”, which was translated back into Afrikaans as “Boesmans”. Even the gender-specific name clearly illustrates the etymological link with the orang utang (“men of the forest”).

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  14. Ukuthula says:

    Kavish Chetty is obviously a brilliant word-smith and theorist… sort of busts himself by saying as much in the first few sentences of his ‘critique’(???) of My Hunter’s Heart – which turns out to be more about his cleverness and his way with words than it does of why people – who sometimes with good, non-monetary intent – desperately need to ‘represent’ those of us who are too poor, endangered, stupid, backward or unfortunate (??) to reflect ourselves; so we are forced / obliged to shine & compete, as it were, in the glitter audio-visual media-worlds of literary codswallop and intellectual balderdash. Not that we (the San or anybody else) are in need of being ‘represented’ in the shallow murky mainstream media… so the Q should be – what the F has Zakes Mdu got to do with My Hunter’s Heart being represented by a few concerned, creative if lucky *PPPP?…

    Kavish, kapish?? Maybe if you’ (and all those clever crits) could use just a bit of your funded journalistic skill-training to make a ‘representative’ film, book, song, dance, about ANYHTING… that you feel is important? Then wait for the critics to justify the payola… in the form of advertorials (M&G’s Friday is full of them) – e.g. the Ster Kinekor or Metro Movie monopoly… the free lunches, tickets and so many raaaant per word? So many questions, so little space in time.

    These PPPP* – Damon and Craig Forster ¬ made / created / shot / made-available a labour of love in the film format… they didn’t do what your Goebbels did – start a war. A war of wasted words maybe? Point – what is wrong with us as a critical species; if only you very dear & nice journo people could advance the so-called ‘representative’ arts – other than reflect yourselves as a clever clique / species from an intellectual personal point of view… filling or wasting space that could better be used to encourage, describe, advise, rather than criticize? Now THAT would take some skill. In other words (not being punny) face up or shut up! OK, so it’s easy for me to say…. it’s not my job… and besides… not being trained in the art (???) of real-writing, my Bard once wailed: when you ain’t got nothing… you got nothing to lose.

    *Previously Privileged Pale Peoples

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  15. Tutu says:

    i do not hv a problem with people criticizing others, i mean some of them do that to put food on the table anyway. Kavish here , surely is one of them , besides life would not be interesting if we did not have his type who are also talented in their own way to brilliantly use words at attempting to give a different perspective.He is a good writer and to the brothers, i salute you both.I have bought it and kept it in my house.one day when i hv kids, i hope it would inspire thm into film making , it made me hv respect for the people behind documentaries.

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