Speaking to Sibs Shongwe-La Mer About His Groundbreaking New Film Necktie Youth
In Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s provocative and understatedly incendiary piece on growing up free in post-apartheid South Africa, his 20-something characters ebb with a youthful aimlessness. The difference to most films about the region? These kids are from affluent families in well-to-do neighbourhoods. The impoverished view of South Africa simply isn’t their reality. Bordering somewhere between apathy and ennui, their position as both privileged and oppressed (by each other and themselves) an existential funk sets in—distracted by drugs, sex and no small amount of throwaway philosophising, their liberty economically and politically hardens to inertia. Theirs is a crisis, but of what? Shongwe-La Mer offers no simple answer, opening his film in shocking style. Often compared thematically to Larry Clark’s seminal Kids, obvious visual influences come in the form of Godard and a (non-violent) Tarantino, Shongwe-La Mer’s first feature marks the arrival of a different, DIY voice, and one that reflects a young culture bent on making what they want to see.
How did this story come about? Is some of the film’s subject matter is autobiographical?
Yeah, I mean it comes from personal truth. I had the unfortunate tragedy of my girlfriend’s suicide at the age of 14, and a couple of my friends down the way either committing suicide or becoming drug addicts, or complete delinquents—and these were all really affluent kids. So at the age of 15 I started writing different versions of the film. But I think it was a cathartic way for me to try and understand my own environment and why this youth of privilege was put in this position.
Why do you think it happens?
I don’t know—this is why a lot of people have attacked me for not giving a resolution in the picture. But I thought that would’ve been extremely arrogant of me. If I knew the answers to why young people all over the world in this demographic commit suicide, I’d probably be doing more important things than making a movie about it.
In Necktie Youth’s context, I would definitely say there is the fact that you’re inheriting a country that is younger than you are—it poses a lot of questions. It’s a history that you’re not a part of but you’re responsible for in some way. And also especially because it poses questions with the developing world and this increasing Euro-centricity in Africa. What is being Zulu? What is cultural identity in the modern world in this globalized rap culture? Or what is ethnicity? So I think in South Africa it’s really bizarre to be young. I can’t talk to my dad about what’s happening in my life ‘cause he grew up in the struggle, and he grew up in a totally different world that literally ended the minute I was born. There’s a huge disorientation. And these kids are like where do I come from? Who am I now? What am I supposed to represent, culturally, politically, socially? And I think that just makes kids totally lost. But at the same time I also wanna say that like this happens in Columbine. This happens in middle class situations all over the world, and I wish I knew the answers.
Is it a crisis of self-identity?
I think it’s just the issue that I felt personally. I think we would be naïve to even branch youth suicides or suicides or this kind of behavior to one specific thing. I think it’s a complex issue, that this is why I was just like I’m not gonna present a resolution to this film because I don’t know the answers. I made this motion picture to pose a question to society.
How close are those characters in the way that they interact to the reality of what was going on around you at the time?
Oh very accurate. Every single thing in this film was based on something that either happened to me personally or a story from a friend. Every single scene is true.
Do you think it is arrogant of filmmakers when they do message films?
I believe that cinema should always be a reflection of society or a question of an era or time. I don’t like resolutions in movies, because it makes the audience naïve. It betrays our own personal experience. I like making movies that always just say, well is this love? Or is this death? Or is this us? Then go and think about it. Go and talk about it.
But I mean there are many message films where…it works for that. That’s the funny thing, because when you do have a good message it works.
All cinema should be that, even when you look at anything from comedy to Hollywood romance. Where it’s just a simple message, no matter how blasé or crap the plot is. You end up just being like, well yeah this or that film is just about how the world should have love. Or that we should have laughter. Dude, I can’t take that. I actually don’t like films like my film because you actually walk out going, what did I just…? How do I feel about it? Is this shit or…I don’t know. I don’t know.
Is cinema different to literature in respect to resolutions?
This is everything. Art. I’m very lucky. I didn’t go to art school or anything like that. So I started as a visual artist, and a sound artist. I started exhibiting globally with that stuff. So I come from a school of “I like art”. You look at a painting or a gray photograph. It could even be of Hiroshima. It poses something you have to resolve or feel, and I’d much prefer feeling from art. I’m the kind of dude in a gallery who just walks around. I don’t stop and say, oh, “This is cubism. I really like what the artist is doing.” I don’t like the cerebral. It has to give me something.
How did you go about teaching yourself all of these disciplines?
I didn’t go to film school or art school. The times I should have been in school, I was skipping school regularly. I’d just sit at home and watch Felini – to look at good art, listen to good music. And I was always interested in making music. Then if I made a piece of music, I wanted to make a video. And I loved short stories, and I loved literature, and I loved Kafka. And I loved all these things. And I loved writing. So cinema for me was just so natural. In my pictures, I wanted to write the story. I wanted to shoot the pictures. And I make a lot of music. So it allowed me to just put all the things I love together in this moment.
How about the technical aspects of making films? How did you go about that self-education?
We’re in such an information overload at this point with the gift of the Internet, that if you really wanted to learn like what something is, you can Google that. You could get the book online. You can read that. So you can just inform yourself with different things. I spent a lot of time reading a lot of film books, but I just went out and bought them, and I taught myself. I think we’re too reliant on the idea that if I love something, someone has to tell me how to use a camera. You can Wikipedia that shit. You can learn what a full frame is and what lens to use if you want. So it depends on the level of passion you have.
Which is also why I always comment about the Internet, where I just think it’s the worst thing because most people spend their whole lives on Twitter, or Instagramming themselves, or on Facebook. Sometimes I feel like saying: Dude, do you not know what you could do with this tool? If you wanted to enrich yourself. Even all my art and music, I went from learning a lot online, and then distributing it with Sound Cloud. You can go from learning it, making it, to distributing it. And you want to Instragam?
Is that a divide? Between people who want to make things, and people who aren’t interested in making things?
This is exactly what I think most society is. You might have a vested interest in one subject. But most people are just like “Well, I go to school three times a week.” But if you really invested in something, and you felt a love for it, you would relentlessly pursue it. Every single day since I was 10 was about art. And there’s not been one day where I haven’t either produced, or thought, or read, because that’s my life.
You can go on Instagram as much as you want. But people need to encourage themselves if they want something. I’m not talking about possessions, because your success will be determined by your ability. But I’m saying, if you want to do something, or learn about something, take the initiative.
So you pulled those from real life? What was the writing practice for that?
Well it’s very hard. Because I think it’s much easier to go out and try and write a fiction story than it is to summarize the reality I go through, the friends I know, what I listen to, our psychology. How do I put everything I’m experiencing in my life, into this short little message?
That’s why I’ve written various versions of it since age 15, and I didn’t even know how to write a script at that point. But I was just writing, and writing, and writing.
You were teaching yourself how to write, how to shoot, how to deal with actors?
Yeah, it was very much a personal thing. I looked at the things I like to watch. I look at the filmmakers I love. And I was like is this a script from the scriptwriter I would love? No.
If you remove the ego, which should never be involved in the writing room or in the art space, and look at the stuff you love, if you’re a musician and you look at your favorite band and then you make music, and just use that as a reflection. I love Joy Division, for example. Now, does this sound like something Ian [Curtis] would have written? Yeah it sounds like it, but does it have what I feel when I listen to Joy Division. No? Cool. Scrap it. Do better.
How do you keep original then?
Godard has a great quote about it, “It’s not where you take things from. It’s where you take things to.”