African Narratives in Documentary Film-making: A Dialogue with Timothy Marks

Timothy Marks is an independent filmmaker from Harare, Zimbabwe. He has over 15 years of experience as a filmmaker, cameraman, and photographer pursuing what it means to be a visual artist/entrepreneur based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He holds an Extended National BTEC diploma in Digital Film and Video Production and a Degree in Film from Plymouth College of Art, United Kingdom.  Upon graduation, he returned to Zimbabwe to form a small independent production. Timothy has a variety of experiences in producing digital video content for companies like the British Council, Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), and TEDxHarare. He has also experience in produce digital content for interactive platforms like Mix the City (British Council, Harare, Zimbabwe) as well as corporate advertising with Portraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) and St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College (Addis Abba, Ethiopia). He also has experience live broadcasting of conferences and events, as well as documentaries that focus on current cultural and environmental topics. His work has taken him throughout the region of South Africa, Ethiopia, The Gambia and extensively through his home country Zimbabwe. As well as working and traveling abroad to Israel, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and to the United States of America. He also volunteers his technical and creative skills in his local community by training and mentoring aspiring photographers and filmmakers, as well as aiding a number of wildlife charities in their preservation and anti-poaching work. In 2016, Timothy was selected to represent Zimbabwe for his work and contribution in filmmaking, photography, and active involvement in wildlife conservation in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which is the flagship program of President Obama’s that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. He was placed at the University of Notre Dame where he completed an intense 7 weeks of business training, teaching, networking, and studies at the Mendoza Business School. Currently, Timothy is undertaking a Masters in Documentary Production at the University of the West of England that has accreditations and partnerships with the BBC. Upon completion of his studies, Timothy desires to return to Africa and continue on creating, developing, and producing film, television, and online content that look at the natural and cultural heritage of Sub-Southern Africa.

This dialogue happened between a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a film edit suite on Bower Aston City Campus, Bristol, United Kingdom via Skype.

Gaamangwe: Timothy, let’s start with why you’re drawn to documentaries as a filmmaker.  

Timothy: The reason why I’m really passionate about documentaries is that we live in a weird and wonderful world of diversity and culture. As a storyteller, I think filmmaking gives us the creative license to look for stories that are best suited for a particular narrative. So, nonfiction filmmaking or documentary filmmaking is a great story tool because you are working with facts, real people, and situations that comes with an authentic taste. As documentary filmmakers, we for the most part really do enjoy exploring these different options whether it’s people-based documentaries or animals or topical or social discussions or something more abstract.

I think documentary filmmaking definitely gives people that are in the creative space more of an opportunity to go after stories and it is impossible to exhaust this resource because even though you’ll get documentaries that sound similar, seem similar and have similar types of narratives, the great thing with doccies is that the subject matter continually changes and evolve and there’s always stories out there to be told.

timothy-marks-documentary-filmmaker
Timothy Marks – Filmmaker.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with this because Africa in Dialogue is also trying to do the same things of archiving people’s stories, thoughts and reflections. I’m interested in documenting what is happening right now, and I can never exhaust it. What is urgent for you in terms of the stories that you’re particularly drawn to exploring?

Timothy: As someone who grew up in Zimbabwe all my life, I am drawn to culturally relevant Zimbabwean stories. I look at our political instability or human stories of individuals that strive to make it. I am interested in the African narrative and where Africa as a continent is going.  Zimbabwe came out of colonialism in the last 40 years and we are still developing our own notion of what the African narrative is to us and what our voice is in relation to that narrative.

Sadly, we have also let our people from different countries, nations and cultural backgrounds who don’t know the whole story tell our own story in their voice and their interpretation. So, I’m interested in exploring this idea of this meta-narrative in Africa with-in documentaries. At the end of the day it’s about people living and interacting in Africa, trying to carve out a niche for themselves or dealing with difficult issues.

I have been privileged to travel throughout my home country Zimbabwe as well South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, The Gambia, & Ethiopia. I saw those different narratives interacting with each other and there’s a great sense of diversity. Right now, there has been a lot of news reports and discussions on the next big conquest of different digital content for people to consume and that this could come out of Africa because of the lack of penetration into the continent in terms of filmmaking and also taking our stories and sharing them with the rest of the world. I do genuinely believe that the African narrative is going to be the next big drive, where people are drawn to it because the stories that come out of Africa are all new, diverse, and have common threads in certain narratives as say some stories from the far east or from the United states or Europe or South America.

Gaamangwe: What is the version of the African narrative that you’re trying to discover or reflect?

Timothy:  I think the notion of the African narrative that I am fascinated by is the mixture of Africa and other cultures–this hybrid African culture where it’s not quite African and it’s not quite the other culture. Whether it’s from the far east, whether it’s from the western background, I want to know: what does that identity look like?

Africa has one of the largest and fastest growing young population, so I want to explore the lives of these young Africans: what are their big challenges? What are their frustrations? what are their aspirations?  And those are the stories that I think have the potential to have the greatest impact on the continent itself and generations going forward.

Gaamangwe: I’ve been struggling with this hybrid identity because yes, we are not just influenced by our African culture. We are influenced by Eastern and western cultural influences. I have been drawn to African spirituality or that which is the supernatural and I’m always questioning myself if this is truly African spirituality or a mixture of my eastern and western influence.  It’s interesting exploring this because you always have to ask yourself– is this the true African narrative?

Timothy: Yes, because as people we define ourselves from our experiences, history, and cultures and being African boils down to several things but one of the strongest things I would definitely agree is religion/spirituality. African Spirituality could come from the perspective of a traditional/tribal culture background mixed with or combined with Islam or Christianity.

Lately, I am hearing that people who come from a background of the church still visit certain traditional doctors, so there’s a duality of spiritualism or spiritual identity going on here. You’ve got this western ideology kind of influence merging and mixing with African tribalism.

The other aspect is the cultural aspect which is, you either grew up in rural, urban or developing areas in Africa, or both or all together. This also can create dual identity. So, we have traditional roots of where our families come from, these ancestral roots are deeply ingrained in us, and we are also part of the new global village where we are meeting people from all over the world.

So, there is always the question of how we identify ourselves post-colonialism because now we are our own masters. We’re not quite like where we were before colonialism and now we’ve freed ourselves from that oppressive system, but how do we re-identify ourselves? This is something I think our parents’ generation really struggled with, but we’ve kind of grew up in that freedom of exploring this meaning and now we’re grappling with this different duality in identity. And as a filmmaker, how do you visually portray a strong narrative that is compelling for audiences but stays true to the African narrative and truthfully represents the multiple backgrounds that these individuals come from?  I think that is a hard challenge that a lot of people are trying to answer in different ways.

Gaamangwe:   I feel like your documentary We Are Zimbabwe  is where you reflected on this dullness of our lives in modern Africa.  A meeting of what is culturally African and the modern world. Can you tell me more about We Are Zimbabwe?

we-are-zimbabwe
We Are Zimbabwe Commercial Video.

Timothy: We Are Zimbabwe is a commercial video created by CMedia Africa as an inspirational corporate video where they are showing the growth of a corporate identity that is Zimbabwe to the rest of the world. It was an advert created for Portraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) which is the telecommunications arm of the government that monitors and manages the telecommunication infrastructure.  I was privileged to work alongside C-Media Africa which is the media production company that produced this video, I was brought on board as a cameraman with a focus on time-lapse cinematography. When we worked together, they knew what they wanted, to create something that inspires hope, and that hope is something we aspired to portray in terms of the duality of our identity as Zimbabweans.

I’m a specialist in time-lapse cinematography, I got to portray a very busy and active, developing urban area in Harare CBD. That element definitely came across and every time they show the clip to people all around the world, one of the common questions they get back is where was this filmed? People genuinely gasp that Harare looks that beautiful at night and that it is this developed as a city in terms of infrastructure. So now what we’ve done as filmmakers without even realising it is that we have challenged the common point of view on what a developing African nation looks like in terms of their development.

The biggest thing with this particular film was the musical underline. They needed something that was inspirational but at the same time they needed something that was African, so there was a heavy amount of development in the musical area and that helped the editorial narrative of this very short 1 minute 43 second video.

Once they had that, it was simply cutting together, using the scripting they had developed. They didn’t use any voice over, so it was literally just graphics inserted at the right places using the geometry of the landscape and cityscape to frame the graphic elements. We were saying yes, this is what we are, but we are also this. This clip was presented two weeks later at the 2015 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Conference in Budapest, Hungary for all the private and government telecommunications providers. This has gone on to win several awards and be used as a kind of a marketing campaign in a way because it shows Zimbabwe in a very positive light.

Gaamangwe:  I realised from watching it how much we hold on tight to this single-story narrative of African countries. So, the importance and the power of this video is that it says there is no single narrative of a place or people, there is complexity in who we are and how we are.

Timothy: Definitely. It’s one of the things I strive to fulfil as a filmmaker: challenging how we as Africans perceive ourselves and also challenging the perception of what the world sees Africa as. What we are defining ourselves as now, is what we are progressively developing ourselves into, becoming an influential global partner and we have a lot to bring to the table in a very visual way as filmmakers. One of the greatest things I feel as a calling is taking the craft of the African narrative and creating our own raw stories in such a way that it is recognised professionally by the globe or the community.

I believe it’s important to understand the methodologies of how we do film, why we tell stories a certain way and why we present characters and facts in a certain way in a film. It’s not just something that happened, there is a plan and there is a purpose. Film is a method of transporting people from where they are to where you as the storyteller want them to be. Film takes people from one destination to the other, it’s a vehicle in exactly the same way as a car is. However, we as Africans when we say we want to be able to make a car (film), we are surprised when we can come up with a great looking body (genre), but we open the hood and there’s no engine (narrative structure).

Or, we have a good engine (narrative structure), but we have no wheels (conflict or quest or journey), so there’s no way that this car is going far or moving forward. We build everything, but we don’t do the groundwork and so what happens is the story starts out great but loses momentum and meaning from A to B. and we’re surprised why that happened in the first place, but we didn’t put enough fuel (character & plot development) in the car to get us to the destination (resolution).

And so, these are the things as filmmakers based in our different African countries and towns that we need to understand so we know why we use certain storytelling techniques. Some stories just aren’t designed for using a very sophisticated cinematic aesthetic and they may have a very narrow demographic. Some stories are designed to be sleek and sophisticated, to be put in a certain genre, and they can travel from A to B in a certain way. Other stories, like fiction film making or corporate advertising, use a totally different approach than if it were a documentary, you are talking about characters and substance in both areas but coming at them from two different sides.

So as African filmmakers, we need to not only focus on what our choice of vehicles (film) look like (cinematic aesthetic) and are (genre), but how they’re going to work (narrative structure), what vehicle works the best for certain terrains (audience demographic) and how to utilise their strengths (USPunique selling point). Being educated gives you the ability to understand the vehicle and you customise it to your type of storytelling.

Going forward we have the potential to take a basic structure of a three-part act: a conflict, climax and resolution and we can move forward and say we know how to tell the story, but now how do we make it African?  And when we do that and re-tell that back to the community or to ourselves we can say okay we understand that structure and why we use it in that fashion, we have succeeded in making it African and making it our own. We haven’t tried to copy Hollywood or Bollywood. We’ve been ourselves and we’ve told our story in that particular way.

Gaamangwe: That’s important, there’s a science and art to telling stories. I think if we understand this then we can create the stories that reflect the African narrative the way that we want to reflect it. What I’m finding out is that African filmmakers are taking time to learn and using that knowledge to impact their community, so one day we will have an African film making industry that is striving and independent and solely African.

Timothy: Yes, I’ve heard narratives from other people that I’ve worked with concerning what African artists look like, what story telling from African perspective looks and sounds like and I think in many ways, it’s irrespective of colour and background. As one of the many contributors towards this narrative, I want to provide a different flavour and perspective, because that is the beauty of Africa isn’t it?  We are a diversity of culture, ideologies, experiences and perspectives. We are uniquely different in our own way, but we’re tied to the common thread of what the African narrative is.

Gaamangwe: Yes, that is true and powerful. Thank you for joining me in this interview.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.

 

africaindialogue

Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa's leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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