Exile firstly brings to mind images of flight from physical danger that has become inescapable. Yet, in 1984, I left South Africa without any constraint from the authorities, at least not officially. The sanctions brought against me had been that of psychological intimidation and social exclusion. My exile is above all the result of rupture between an individual and her people, the Afrikaners. What begun as a gradual drifting apart culminated in rebellion when I realised there were only two options left : plunging into the abyss known to those who persisted in their opposition to government policy, or resigning to silence in the face of growing repression. A third option transpired as I looked down from the airplane circling above the urban sprawl of Johannesburg : "This is it, I'm out and I've left for good !"
This was the moment at which I decided to go into exile. At that point however, I did not know that leaving one's country also meant losing an essential dimension of one's own self. Far from my family and from all points of references, I often wondered about the real reason for this departure. For in the process of becoming aware, the effect of accumulation often gives rise to actions throwing the individual into the irrational. The shock of having been first exposed to the African experience of South Africa a mere three months before leaving certainly contributed to my sudden departure. The disparity between the two worlds seems to have culminated in the choice of rupture that followed. Whatever the real reason, one is never actually predisposed to exile; one assumes it once there. For myself, it was Paris, mythical city for Europeans from Southern Africa, themselves no longer fully European but not yet entirely African either.
In Paris, vertigo soon intervened, for whilst the dream remained intact, once arrived in the mythical abode, the place of my dreams became just another point of view. The freedom offered by exile was but a small consolation in the face of the impossibility of going home. Hence followed the fantasy to return. And during the years of waiting, souvenirs, gilded by selective memory, and images formed by news received from the homeland, created a canvas little resembling the fast changing local reality. eKhaya Revisited, Land of Shadows is a film about a return of this kind.
Huguenot Monument, Franschhoek, South Africa
Camera in hand, I set out in search of the past, real or created by absence, to find my parents aged by seven years, my family and the landscapes that shaped my imagination. I also discovered people and places I had imagined from the echoes brought to me by letters, postcards and newpapers. Several years of interdiction having intensified the desire to return, once back in my country, I realised the precious land I had left, was no longer the same. At the same time it felt as if I had never left South Africa, one of the few places where I have the impression of fully understanding what is happening around me. As first spectator of the images I was filming, my journey took me through many walks of life in a country where contradictions co-exist with conflicts that force alone has not been able to resolve.
As I wandered through the interior of that vast land, conflicting memories came to mind. Of South Africa as the promised land of my ancestors, impelled by religious fervour, of rapidly transforming landscapes where one day, endless stretches of red soil vibrated against an azure blue sky and where the next, glass and steel towers reached for the heavens. Voices from the past made themselves heard to me. My mother describing conditions in Boer War concentration camps: "The children were so hungry, they started biting off their own lips as far as they could reach". African friends describing their youth in the townships: "When they tell you there is no more maize pap, you know there is nothing more to eat". Also there were the memories of a pastoral childhood, brutally interrupted by the discovery, in a film, of Apartheid which in everyday life bears the guise of the natural as does all that has become habitual.
Added to the immense joy of finding myself once more among the landscapes and people that shaped me and once more faced with the social realities that forced me to leave, I also rediscovered the pleasure of speaking my mother tongue, Afrikaans. For, whilst it was the policy of the Nationalist government that had decided me to leave, both exile and my subsequent return convinced me that no human being can escape from the ascendancy of his own culture which profoundly shapes his perception of the world. Culture is to a large degree a hidden reality which escapes our control and constitutes the framework of human existance. As my Afrikaner identity came to its own right again, I realised that whilst the many faces of culture level our consciousness, it is hard to modify them, not only because they are intimately linked to individual experience but above all because it is impossible to engage in meaningful behaviour without the mediation of culture. I could not help but dare to hope that Apartheid had not mortgaged my culture for good and all.
As I continued to film the different communities with the aim of evoking everyday experience rather than political or religious movements, within this concomitance of horizons, certain social phenomena became manifest in a land where moralism has managed by abstraction to deny all human values. Despite the enormous disparity that existed between the world of my childhood and the world I discovered shortly before my exile, one single desire transpired: Whatever the human condition, from wine farmers to illegal squatters, each individual claimed the right to remain where they where.
After three months in South Africa, on my return to Paris, I plunged into a deep and confused state of depression. With my memory refreshed with past modes of being and past landscapes, my present environment no longer made much sense at all. Torn between what I used to be and what I had become, I desperately attempted to efface the incomparable understanding and closeness that existed between my people, the South African landscape and myself. No sooner had I overcome an overwhelming sense of disconnectedness than my father's untimely death, four months after my return to Paris, called me back to South Africa.
The film eKhaya Revisited, Land of Shadows was in the process of being edited, when I suddenly found myself on an airplane heading home again. In many ways, this second return visit, represented my real return. In the throes of death, I was confronted with each and every member of my family. Whilst observing this sad procession of individuals that had come from from all over the country to pay their last respects to the patriarch of the family, I clearly saw not only from just how far I had come, but also how far I had moved away. Engaged in a losing battle to regain community with my family, I finally had to admit that whilst I not yet fully belonged in Paris, I irrevocably no longer belonged in South Africa. Exile had taken me to a point of no return.
Another few months later, I was back in Paris completing the editing of my film. Whereas before, those images were a live witness of the past, they now left me cold. Day after day, I would work with close-up images of my parents, of family and of landscapes as if they were imaginary people and places. This distance between myself and the film was perhaps due to the fact that I had had to postpone mourning my father's death in order to complete the film. Only once the film completed, was I able to reconsider the impact and implications both returns visits had had on my life. Once again, however, I had recourse only to the past, as a series of canvasses constituted my conceptual representation of the world. As an individual, I no longer possessed the past. My biography became transformed into a chain of events and not a real story as I understood the sacrificial aspect of exile whereby both leaving and returning imply a loss of identity. In both cases the individual faces the crushing silence of always being a stranger. However extensively he acquires the delicate correspondance between his memory and the language of his host country, propulsed beyond his own historic determination, the individual has to restore his self-image. But being at odds with the cultural dimension of his past as well as his present, he has to first of all, attribute a dimension to his own self.
Hence day by day, I continued to remember an unforgettable past in a now dramatically changed country. Once in exile, wherever you are, you always linger to return, be it to the place you went to or to the place from which you left. South Africa is indeed like a circle which, no sooner you think you've left it for good, sweeps you back on another round.