PhD student takes up position behind the lens of mythology

21 October 2002

Demystifying the storyteller: Historical Studies lecturer and PhD student Lauren van Vuuren's thesis focuses on South African film-makers whose films create myths about the San and in the process mythologise themselves.

WHAT began as a simple idea for a PhD thesis has snowballed into a multitude of ideas and possibilities for UCT Historical Studies film lecturer and critic Lauren van Vuuren.

The initial idea for Van Vuuren's thesis was to catalogue and look at the chronological history of film on the San (sometimes referred to as Khoi, Khoisan and Bushmen) from 1906 to 2000.

“The idea for the thesis was to combine my interest in film with current South African issues around representation. The representation of the San, in art, film and generally is very much part of the current debate,” she explains. Van Vuuren's interest in the San was sparked off by a project she had worked on in New York with rock art specialist, Geoff Blundell.

Van Vuuren says that it was only after she had finished cataloguing the 50 documentaries, feature films and made-for-TV films that she was able to concentrate on the issues that constantly reappeared in the films and her own ideas.

“I am enduringly fascinated by myth and our need in society to tell stories. What some of these filmmakers are doing is telling stories about the Bushmen, stories that are not necessarily true; they are distorted or partly justified,” she comments.

She clarifies her point by explaining that, “they are telling stories that are so powerful that they define the history of the Bushmen and those stories become a kind of 'truth'. Most references to the Bushmen for everyday people come from documentaries or films like The gods must be crazy.”

Van Vuuren says that while these myths are constantly reproduced across 100 years of film, much has already been written about them and she is wary of regurgitating debate that still rages on today. “Everyone knows there is distortion and political issues involved, and that the myths are destructive to the San”, which is why she felt it necessary to shift her focus towards the South African filmmakers who make films about the San.

“I want to focus on those South African films and see how the filmmakers incorporated their vision of the Bushmen into their work as South African filmmakers. And how they understand the identity of the Bushmen in a South African context. I am looking at the angle of the power of film not only to mythologise the subject, but also the film-makers.”

Van Vuuren, who recently lectured on the Jamie Uys film, The Gods must be crazy, says she explained to her students that it was reductive to simply label white South African film-makers who mythologise or distort the history of the San as racists. In her mind there is more to it than that.

She points to the late Afrikaner filmmaker and author, Laurens van der Post, who made the popular and later very controversial BBC documentary series, The lost world of the Kalahari in the 1950s. Van der Post was better known for the accompanying book of the same name, which catapulted him into notoriety as the doyen of the San.

According to Van Vuuren, Van der Post used the San and their history as a prism for his own philosophies of the West. Although his work has been critiqued and ridiculed by academics, Van Vuuren uses him as a case study because in her opinion, through the medium of film, Van der Post was able to mythologise himself as a white hunter, adventurer and frontiersman.

“Film can tell you a hundred different things at once, through soundtrack, through music running over the track, to the visuals on screen. The actual narrative is the smallest part of all that communication that is happening all the time.

“Van der Post was able to set himself up as a storyteller and adventurer by what we saw on screen, not by what he knew or said. What gave him authenticity was the way he represented himself in that film.”

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