Petter Ringbom on 'Shield and Spear'

Tom Viney

Coinciding with its premiere at Hot Docs last night, we spoke to director Petter Ringbom about Shield and Spear, the forthcoming documentary on politics and creativity in contemporary South Africa. 

GFW: Could you tell us a little bit about Shield and Spear and why you made it?
Petter Ringbom: Well, lots of things have to be in place in order to make a feature-length doc. First, a subject matter that you want to spend years with, then interest from potential collaborators, investors etc. Finally, opportunities.

I met Xander Ferreira – who appears as Gazelle in the film – through mutual friends at Tribeca Film Festival when I screened my last film, The Russian Winter. We became friends and over the course of our discussions. I began to feel that the creative scene in South Africa was a subject worth exploring.

I also realized that 2014 is the 20th anniversary of the official end of apartheid – you know, the 1994 election ­– so, I felt there was a timeliness to the subject.

South Africa is a unique place. With eleven different national languages, a complex mix of cultures – a rainbow nation, to quote Nelson Mandela – and a turbulent political history. Do these factors contribute to natural creativity?
I think the makeup and the history of the country brings certain issues to the forefront. Politics seep into the creative process whether you want them to, or not. It's pretty unique in that way: a recent democracy with all these different cultures trying to co-exist and make sense of their situation and the country as a whole.

I have never been to a place where everyone you meet is engaged in political conversations. It's a constant topic. I’m interested in using art and music as a way to discuss social issues and South Africa is a really interesting place to make that kind of film.

Can you tell us a bit more about The Smarteez collective – who feature in our exclusive clip – and who the principal characters are?
It's a fashion collective made up of four permanent members and a few collaborators that drift in and out. There’s Sibu the slightly crazy frontman, Floyd – who you meet in today’s extract – who is probably the most driven designer in the group. There's Teekay who is the stylist – he also runs their after-school program for neighbourhood kids ­ – and then there's Tabo, the tailor.

They're very much celebrities in their community, Soweto. I think they're perfect examples of what's dubbed the rainbow generation: kids that came of age post-Apartheid, but are old enough to remember the end of 'the struggle'. I think they're examples of what kids from the township can become, with the right kind of opportunity. They're very globally aware and engaged, and they don't carry the burden of history, the way their parents do.

Can you share any anecdotes about filming them? They look pretty feisty, and (literally) colourful.
The Smarteez wanted to put on an impromptu fashion show in a park in Soweto, and Sibu – the designer – really wanted to show us this dress he’d been working on. But he couldn't find the right model among the kids hanging out enjoying their Sunday beers. So, he put on the dress himself and paraded through the park, much to everyone’s amusement. Mostly his own.

You’re incredibly active as a filmmaker. Can you tell us a little more about the projects you’ve worked on, and whether you think there might be a common theme running through them?
I think of my recent films as a discovery process. Meaning, I find some thing or some place that I find interesting and figure out a way that I can go there and explore it. I love to travel and shoot.  I also love taking the viewer on a journey. Letting them see through my camera something that they may not otherwise have seen or experienced.

We’ve noticed that you previously made a short film about Marfa – the tiny Texan town, known for its vast Donald Judd installations– what is it about these places that make them such fertile ground for creativity?
Marfa, just like South Africa and especially Cape Town, has incredible light. That's what drove Donald Judd there in the first place. That, and the remoteness. He really created that place.

Finally, can you recommend a few of your favourite documentaries for us? We always like to hear what people are watching.
Couple of my recent favourites are Detropia about the current state of Detroit. Both a fascinating place, and a fascinating film. And I really love Dragonslayer, about the semi-pro skater, Skreetch Sandoval. Hoop Dreams is probably the best doc ever made. 

Watch an exclusive clip from 'Shield and Spear'' over on our sister site

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