Mark Kaplan: a witness to historical trauma
The documentary film-maker has used his camera to raise awareness of injustices and the abuse of power
Often our Achilles heel — our shadow side, or the part of ourselves we struggle with — becomes the perfect portal for growth and our greatest, unexpected ally.
For Mark Kaplan, activist filmmaker, it was his shyness.
Winner of an Emmy and numerous international awards for films that explore social justice, memory and search for accountability, Kaplan’s Rhodesian childhood home didn’t feature cameras. But when his university girlfriend kept invading his space with her lens, he picked up a camera in defence — and found that he really liked it. Soon still photography led to moving film.
But Kaplan’s relationship with film really starts in the apartheid-infected 1970s when he was asked to run the first community video centre in SA. Part of the University of Cape Town’s extramural studies, the centre supported activists from various struggle organisations.
For the participants, acquiring these video skills came at a cost as they were breaking both their banning orders and defying the boycott of a whites-only institution.
Kaplan was held in solitary confinement for the community based video training work and was ultimately deported.
“Using the camera to bear witness to human rights violations or to give a window into the plight of the marginalised has been the driving force behind my work. I have used the camera to tell stories of historical trauma,” he said.
Kaplan cites this as resulting in his collaborations, including with Dr Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is the research chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University.
Kaplan’s shift from making support action films to documentary was gradual. It took root after being deported from SA when he heard about a film programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received an MA in film-making. Here he received his first formal training in documentary work under the doyen of the documentary genre, the late Richard Leacock, who promoted the idea that the director’s voice was the driver of the film.
The trend in both documentary and ethnographical films at this time was to give the camera a kind of godlike status. But Kaplan’s gut told him otherwise. He recognised that “these were overblown ideas” and that “there was a landscape there to be explored”. And so began the search for his own voice and making films in his own right. Limited to very basic technology, Kaplan’s film-making at that stage was more about process than product. As he evolved technologically it changed and became more about product than process.
Kaplan describes his films as “a mix of things”. The idea for the award-winning The Village Under the Forest came from Heidi Grunebaum, a memory activist who had visited Israel/Palestine on an interfaith mission. The group was encouraged to visit the South African forest in Israel, a national park named after SA. A Palestinian man showed them the remains of his family village — reduced to graveyard stones. When Grunebaum recounted her story to Kaplan, both immediately knew there was a film to be made.
Making The Village was an extremely intense experience for Kaplan. He and Grunebaum knew they needed to work with a Palestinian crew but they made it very clear to the crew that they weren’t appropriating a Palestinian story. Instead, they were positioning themselves as Jewish South Africans.
The impact of Kaplan’s activist films can be measured by two incidents. The first happened at the screening of The Village. At the beginning of the film, Grunebaum was given an angry cold shoulder by a woman she knew. But walking out after the Q&A she saw the same woman in tears. It turned out that she was nervous about watching the film but, having seen it, she thanked Grunebaum for giving her a language to address the issues.
The second incident concerned an ex-South African ambassador to Israel, Ismael Coovadia. Coovadia was incensed when he discovered through the film that the trees planted in his honour, a symbolic gift from the Israeli government in the national park, were there to hide the existence of an Arab village. Coovadia wrote an objection which was raised in the Israeli parliament and later reported in a number of US newspapers, making Kaplan and Grunebaum the target of death threats.
The themes of social justice, memory and search for accountability in The Village led to another film titled Village vs Empire, filmed in JeJu, an island in South Korea. Since the end of World War 2 the US has been ring-fencing China since JeJu is regarded as a strategic region. The fact that its story has often been told was considered important by Kaplan. His challenge was to find a different way to tell it. Kaplan tells it from the point of view of a performance artist, Dohee Lee, who was born on the island. She uses shamanism, Korean music and dance to explore historical trauma and memory censorship in a village where women divers have been earning their livelihoods from the sea for many generations. With the building of a huge naval base by the US their very existence is being threatened by pollution.
Kaplan’s film work is peppered with — and draws from — many synchronicities along the way. He gives an example of travelling to Post Chalmers (near Cradock in the Eastern Cape) with Joyce Mthimkhulu — the mother of student activist Siphiwo Mthimkhulu, who was murdered by the security police – to make the film Between Joyce and Remembrance. While there, Joyce told Kaplan she didn’t believe her son was killed at the Fish River, 30km away. He didn’t believe it either.
On camera she said she believed her son was buried “somewhere here”. As she spoke, her hand moved to point behind her, to a cistern attached to the farmhouse. A couple of years later, National Prosecuting Authority investigators found the remains of Siphiwo, Topsy Mdaka and the Pebco Three (Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela, and Qaqawuli Godolozi) in the cistern.
Kaplan is now working with Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and historian Dr Nancy Rushohora on an educational doccie documentary on the Maji Maji rebellion in Tanzania, where the German colonial army responded to an uprising with genocidal tactics. He and Grunebaum are developing a new film together. He is also Kaplan is also completing the in production of a film on state capture, story, emerging out of the Gupta leaks, with Rehad Desai of Uhuru productions.
Village vs Empire will premier in June in Cape Town