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Director's Statement

THE MOTHERS’ HOUSE originally grew out of a previous film. Valencia Moses, the mother of Miché, the main character in the film, was originally intended as one of the subjects in WHEN THE WAR IS OVER, which looks at teenage anti-Apartheid fighters 15 years later. At the time I felt a great sense of personal commitment towards her: I saw her as someone who had fought for her country’s freedom, who had given up her youth, and who in a free South Africa yet had nothing but ongoing difficulties – all of which she seemed to face with courage, commitment and humour, and much wanted to bring material I had of her into a new film. She is an extremely powerful and articulate presence on camera, and I felt that through someone like her a far broader story about the position of women, about healing, and about disadvantaged families in a still-troubled post-Apartheid South Africa could be told.

Early during 2003, I was visiting Valencia and her sisters at the home of Renecia, her closest sibling. They were discussing their family situation and how they were trying to cope with it – and both what they were saying and the extent to which they seemed to be unaware of the implications astounded me. Renecia mentioned how she wanted each of the family members to write down their life stories on paper and eventually try to publish these in book form, in order to somehow understand, as she put it, why she and her sisters are the way they are – and it suddenly seemed to me, as I then suggested to them, that making a film could be an even more effective option.

I subsequently began the long-term filming process with Valencia, Leandra, Renecia and Miche, and also with their mother and grandmother Amy, even though I had massive reservations. I was exhausted by the difficult and dangerous physical and emotional demands of the previous film, and it was clear from the beginning that this would be a film that would be very difficult to make, not only because of very complex battles and dynamics amongst family members or the sensitive nature of many areas that were to be explored, but also because of the political dimensions of being a white male filming a group of less-empowered black – or, then, “coloured” – women. We decided from the beginning that process here would be at least as important as product: if the film was not going to benefit the family, I did not want to make it. Furthermore, it seemed that the only way to go ahead was to be able to eventually stand in front of an audience with family members right there: I put the option to them of pulling out until October 2003 – but they committed clearly at that point. As it turned out, some of the legally and otherwise sensitive areas explored during the filming process were eventually left out during the edit.

I believe that especially in observational documentary films, the tension between how people want to be perceived, how they see themselves and how they really come across is placed in sharp relief. While Amy was initially most hesitant about being filmed, it was Valencia who, once she was aware that certain facts had become apparent to us, increasingly withdrew from the filming process. By that stage, it seemed to me – also because Valencia gave “real” openings into herself only very rarely - that I had a far stronger main character in her daughter Miché. If the film was looking at the two-way effect of violence between family relationships and society, it seemed to me that recording the progress of an innocent – one who had not yet been “inscribed” by the world around her and who at least had the option of growing up in a better world than that of her forebears – would be a far more effective way of achieving this end. As part of a new generation she represented hope for the future: the chance to avoid making the same mistakes and repeating the cycle of violence perpetuated by her mother and grandmother. The decision was entirely correct: Miché proved to be a central character with immense charm, general screen presence and also vulnerability, and I am sure that audiences are going to care a great deal for her when watching the film.

More importantly, I would be making a film about someone who I myself care about intensely, and who by now has become something like a daughter to me. Over the past few years, we were able to help her where the family did not, and as with other long-term observational films, a bond has been made probably for life. It is most of all for her that I hope the film makes a difference, either personally or by opening doors elsewhere.

When people ask why one makes this or that film, the answer never seems entirely clear. The truest response, albeit somewhat pat, is probably as follows: had I been able to answer clearly, I would not have made the film. For me, as a privileged white South African, documentary is a way of learning in very intense ways about things I have been separated from. But of course the socio-political reasons for making a film like this are also fairly obvious: more than a decade after Apartheid, violence still has a huge impact on people’s lives within poor communities. The battle against racial discrimination has now been replaced by a battle against new problems such as ongoing poverty, AIDS and the more widespread availability of harmful illegal drugs. The position of women in poor areas, even if extensively furthered by South Africa’s new constitution, has hardly changed at all. Much is made in the media about gangsterism, about rape, about child abuse and familial dysfunctionality – but the voices of the people inside those families themselves affected are seldom heard. It seemed to me that it would be through the medium of observational documentary that insight could be obtained into certain types of situations in the Cape Flats – a question not of numbers and hard facts, but of association and empathy with people that are actually living through the effects of Apartheid and broader patriarchy, and are having to deal with new issues facing their communities, individual selves and families on a direct level. The intention with the film is not to lecture, not to put forth a polemical argument, but to give the viewer an experience of what it may be like to be there as a young woman, and to gain insight into the kind of family conflicts that can easily be racialised from the outside. Social workers, sociologists and psychologists usually work with the issues explored in the film at a remove – this film, however, observes life under difficult circumstances as it occurs first hand, and in that way has for me great value as an intimate document of at least one life in the process of being shaped.

However fraught at times, I believe the film process has been a positive force in starting to heal the complex and distorted relations within the family itself - and that in some ways the film is actually stronger and more insightful because of having been made by an outsider. At times things were particularly difficult within the family – and by extension with me and the film, which had by then itself become an object of conflict amongst family members. But relationships formed in filmmaking of this kind are not only complex but also deep, and some of it made sense when Amy assured me that her shouting at me in the same way as at her children was a sign that I had been accepted in the family…! By all accounts, the SABC broadcast in early August 2005 has brought about massive positive attention to all family members: Amy, Valencia and Miché have all received interested and meaningful support often from complete strangers; Valencia has been invited to appear on radio shows, other family members indirectly managed to find jobs, and so on. The film seems to have touched a chord with the broader community – many viewers described incredibly emotional responses and recognition of their own lives in the film; as Miché put it, the Moses family is no different from other families in Bonteheuwel or other similar communities: they merely had the courage to make their lives public. Responses from the broadcaster and from other filmmakers were also positive to a massive and unexpected degree.

Perhaps the value of THE MOTHERS’ HOUSE lies for me most effectively in its being a record of how the most charming, pure-minded life can go wrong if nothing is done to help – in both large and small ways. I believe that this is a film made with honesty, integrity and commitment on both sides, and hope that it will be perceived in this way. The family has shown extreme bravery in going ahead with the process, and while I am glad to have come to the end of a long and difficult process both in terms of filming and editing, it is my wish that it will work out extensively in their further favour!

Francois Verster

20 October 2005