Vincent Moloi:These Streets Made Me

ACTOR SPACES | PORTRAITS | VINCENT MOLOI
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |

Walking through the streets of Naledi: one of the oldest townships in Soweto, where Award winning Director; Producer and Independent Film Maker Vincent Moloi was raised; felt like an excursion through Vincent Moloi’s upbringing, punctuated with handshakes and instant conversations between Moloi and old friends; enchanted by his presence.

His neighborhood wrapped its arms around him like a mother who hasn’t seen her street wise son in a long time. His closest childhood friend and former classmate who now goes by the name Staaivetja, never left Moloi’s side. ‘He was a math’s genius at school.’ Says Moloi. But sadly, the township has a way of exhausting talent. Each spot Moloi has picked for his photoshoot is significant to him. The film-maker is directing his own story with the poise of an old man looking over an expanse of land dotted with dotted with houses he says:

“Those houses are new. The white man who owned that plot of land made a lot of money when he sold it. We used to call him ‘Madubula’ because he used to shoot at anyone trespassing his domain”.

Having relocated to the Suburbs, Moloi misses the connections he’s established with the people in the township, he says tragedies and happiness are a building block to who you eventually become and it can’t be re-created in a short space of time. The spring in Moloi’s step kept expanding with every memory that came back to him at a dump site, littered with clumps of rubble and garbage. This is all that remains of a space the Naledi community once turned into a peace garden in the 80’s, during the period of unrest. “This was one of the first parks to be built in Soweto”

You can still see the traces of a derelict wall that once held flowers, now struggling to hold itself upright. There’s a foot path that separates the blotches of uneven shrubs on either side. The one half is where rain water would gather, forming a little dam and one day, when Moloi and his friend were caught swimming in the dirt water, his aunt sis’ Nomalanga didn’t utter a sound, she just picked both their clothes from the ground and they had to do the long walk of shame back home, covering up only what they could manage to. We burst into laughter at the thought of it all. This is the kind of discipline that molded Moloi into an obedient boy. But his all grown up now. The man of the moment, looked dapper in his Navy matching attire and black signature bucket hat; sporting a Thesis retro denim jacket with a funky check print layout on the back that brought out the cool in him. He had a denim Dungaree stacked in the trunk of his car that he would only change into later. When the shoot was finally over and we were done touring the streets of Orlando, we sat down with Moloi, outside a Kota café with his friend Staaivitjo still clinging to him, we got chatting while we waited for our bunny chows.

Moloi attended Tsabatsetlo Primary School in Naledi. His need for a change of environment led him to Prudence high, located in the neighboring Tladi Township, here he got to feed his desire to interact with people outside of his community. Story telling has always been a township treat for Moloi and the Stop Sign at the corner of his street was much like film school to him. This is where the older boys would relate stories of the movies they’d watched to the young ones.

“Lazi’s story-telling made you feel like you had seen the movie before. He was so good that later when we watched the film, it didn’t live up to Lazarus’ story-telling” Moloi adds that Lazi stretched their imagination, he was like a film-teacher. He understood that the art of story-telling included sound effects; lights; camera shots and angles without knowing that it is called ‘Film-Making’ This is what Moloi means when he says: ‘These Streets Made him’

We bumped into Ta Mpeza earlier: the man who took Vincent to the cinema for the first time. The moment was so sacred and timeous; till this day, Ta Mpeza is not aware of what Moloi does for a living and that’s is the beauty underlying the mystery of the people that shape us.

In the beginning Moloi had dreams of becoming a radio presenter. He would sit outside his grandmother’s stoep, mimicking radio commentators.

“At school they made it very clear that I wasn’t going to be a radio presenter because I couldn’t pronounce my R’s” Moloi didn’t drift too far from his childhood dream, when he realized he couldn’t influence public discourse as a radio or T.V presenter, he went into film-making; a trade that doesn’t require him to roll his R’s from the tongue. This journey however took a little longer to manifest. Film-making was way too expensive for Moloi, so he settled for civil engineering. When he failed the course, he jumped straight into electrical engineering but he didn’t succeed there either. He then decided on a more affordable qualification closer to film-making: Media Studies at Boston Media House. “But even there, I don’t think they understood what I wanted”

Moloi didn’t last longer than a year at Boston Media House. For the first time in his life, he was the only black student in class. When they were tasked with an assignment: to create a marketing campaign for the rock band, U2; he was lost in the wilderness. He had never heard of the rock band and was unfamiliar with rock culture. He would have preferred writing about something he was more passionate and familiar with, like Trompies.

I wasn’t going to spend three years of my life doing this, I wanted to tell a story of my people, people I knew, at least at that time. I didn’t care about U2. I came from a different place, they were teaching skills and methods and I was interested in a representation of a people I could relate to

This was one of many experiences that made him leave Boston. When his lecturer asked where to from here? Moloi said “He’d make it work somehow.”

Following his departure from Bostson Media House, his lecturer got him an internship at the SABC; an opportunity anyone would grab with both hands but after a month, Moloi let it all go and began his journey working independently. At the age of 23 he became part of the Soweto Community T.V Initiative: a network of community film-makers, journalists and community activists who produced their own inserts. When the national body of community T.V initiatives; Open Window Network realized that Soweto was producing more inserts and that Moloi was the key figure behind the work, they roped him in as Head of Production.

“I went in and worked for the NGO, when I say ‘worked’ it sounds fancy but I was a volunteer. Now and again they would give me a budget, we weren’t really earning but it did help me get across the country. I could travel to different communities doing different things like training people on the basics of film-making.”

When the SABC caught wind of Moloi’s work, they called him in for a pitch; now because his point of departure was different from that of the qualified film-maker, his style and approach was unconventional and he also struggled to articulate himself well. His pitch was unsuccessful. Un-phased by it all Moloi went back to his way of working differently from the rest, when his inserts began breaking waves, the SABC called him again, this time with a job offer that he declined. Satisfied with his structure of working independently he stuck to his guns and continued to produce work for the broadcaster independently. It was after this that Moloi was ready to shoot his first documentary: Luting, in Lesotho. The documentary is based on the Basotho people and how they were being evacuated from their homeland to make space for a dam being built in the area. “When the people who live on the Maluti Mountains go back home, they say: ‘Baya Luting’. I think I read about the story in a newspaper and I wanted to document it. It was almost like a diary of kids who were expressing how the dam being built on the Maluti Mountains was effecting their livelihood. There were scores of unhappy people.”

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He self-funded most of the work, then later he secured capital from the NFVF. Vincent spreads himself across television work; independent and commissioned work “You have to constantly balance independent work with work that pays” Walking back from the Kota café and into Moloi’s home, we get into the core of story-telling and Moloi’s orator voice takes the lead. Emphasizing that as an orator, your story must come from deep within your soul or it will turn into another commercial product, without roots and meaning. “Owning your story is key, if you truly want to speak about what is important to you, you have to find a way of doing it independently” Pulling away from patting himself on the back for the work he’s done he says the jury is still out to determine if he’s a good story teller but what he knows for sure is that he strives to be different. “I’m a human-being; I’m not a computer; I cannot not be cloned; my fingerprints are my own and so are my stories.”

He says film making is a collaborative effort and you have to take the lead as ‘The General.’
“Telling a story is like going to war, you need to win the battle.” But are the women in the industry winning the patriarchal battle? Are they being recognized?

Moloi explains that there are countless capable women in the industry who aren’t given the space to
play ‘General’, it’s a matter of breaking down the structures that make them invisible.

I’ve always wondered why I’m surrounded by equally capable women who aren’t producing as many films as their male counterparts

Having said that, he is glad that the NFVF is aware of the inequalities and has ring-fenced funding for women. He believes the industry needs to be uncompromising and arrogant in its confrontation in order to break down systems that oppress qualified people and those sitting at the top of that list, are women.

Moloi also highlight the need to ‘always abide by the rules’ as one common error film-makers are prone to. He believes that to avoid being mundane, the art of creating ground-breaking work requires a new way of thinking.

He has worked on numerous documentaries and films, from; African Metropolis; Men of Gold; Berea; Hidden Life to Underweight; A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle; Luting and loads more.
Each story different from the next. He has no particular selection process for which story he’ll document. The magic could be sparked by something he reads in a newspaper; hears on radio, or a simple inquisition about a picture of a Victorian looking dress, and why the Namibian Tribe would refer to it as traditional attire? That answer led to him to his most recent work: Skulls of my People. So there is no telling which sky his next documentary will fall from and how many years it will take to manifest.
But it will happen, eventually.

Take ‘A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle’ for instance, a story inspired by an intriguing conversation on John Robbies radio show in the 1980’s. Moloi was in Qwa Qwa at that time; long before he knew what the phrase film-making meant. Not certain whether he was 12 or 13 when he heard the story of the Native South African man; Job Maseko who constructed a bomb using a milk tin, cordite and a fuse then blew up a German Cargo ship in World War II. He was nominated for a Victoria Cross but because he was black he only received a Military Medal. This story stayed with Moloi until his Matric year when he took a trip to the Johannesburg military museum and started to research and write about Job’s Story.

Years later, the aspiring radio presenter turned film-maker remembered that story, and made the documentary: A Pair of Boots and a Bicycle. “It wasn’t about what Job did but more about the representation of black people and saying that we have heroes. If it affected me as a young black kid I thought others should get a chance to be affected by it. I felt an obligation to tell the story so people can celebrate and commemorate him.”

This is what Moloi meant when he said an orator’s story must have roots. Although Moloi’s stories have depth, they don’t have a distribution channel. “There used to be an NGO distribution Platform. When it died, work like ours died with it. There is no one distributing our kind of work. Most producers are self-distributing their films” Moloi can’t tell which of his work is more significant than the other, he goes all cliché on me, saying his films are like his kids. And you know how this one plays out…

But he doesn’t fail me though when it comes to selecting which of his stories were more difficult to tell. He rates his recent work: Skulls of my People as the most challenging documentary to make because the funders he approached didn’t believe the story was real, but he knew there was a story to tell so he pressed on until he finally secured funding from the IDFA Fund in Holland. He also roped in business partners who were eager for the documentary to get finished as it was drying up everyone’s pockets. It took Moloi seven years to complete ‘Skulls’. He’s been taking on paying work in-between to sustain himself, then breaking away to focus on the project again.

Shot in Namibia and Berlin, ‘Skulls of My People’ is an account of the first genocide of the 20th century perpetrated by Namibia in 1904 and 1908. Over 100 000 people were killed and hundreds of skulls of the Herero and Nama people were taken to Germany for racial profiling. The Namibian people are seeking justice and reparations for their pain and suffering and that the skulls of their families be returned back to them including the land that was stolen.

Accessing archives at a reasonable prize has proven to be a stumbling block for film-makers but the National Namibian Library was very generous in handing over their records.

“They only billed us for the administration fee because they realized that their heritage needs to be shared. They gave us the rights and the permission to use their archives. Generally archives are very expensive.

When I asked Moloi if a story ever really ends?

He says there is no stopping with stories, as long as there are moments that are happening and are important, you can always capture them and save the story for later. A month after shooting ‘Skulls of My People’ Moloi was informed that the trial for the lawsuit lodged against the German government for reparations by the Namibian people commences on 14th of May

“ I would have loved for this moment to happen while I was still shooting. Unfortunately because I’m about to start working on the drama series ‘Tjovitjo’ I won’t be able to go there to shoot, but I have to get a camera person to record this moment so I can archive it”

According to Moloi, when Politics History, Religion and Art merge, they give the dynamics of human existence. He says we relate and live based on our past that Religion dictates our approach and belief systems and Politics dictate our existence today and this is what make ‘Skulls of my People’ so magical.

The documentary has already premiered in Amsterdam and it’s already picked up an Aljazeera Sale. We look forward to catching the premiere tonight at the Rapid Blue Film Festival. At the Market Theatre 18:15

PORTRAITS | VINCENT MOLOI

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