2016 Winehouse Hot Docs Interview: Shield And Spear Director Petter Ringbom

The compelling documentary Shield and Spear had its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs International film festival. New York-based director Petter Ringbom takes the viewer on an insightful journey into South Africa ─ 20 years into democracy  via the vibrant lives of celebrated South African artists.

Ringbom navigates the still very segregated country to explore these artists desire to create greater social justice, change and peace by using their art to enlighten their communities. Invisibly, unknowingly, and across colour lines, these artists stand united for a South Africa that will truly become a shining beacon of social change and uplift, while facing the harsh reality that, at the moment, it is far from being that place.

I spoke with Ringbom, prior to the films debut, to talk art and politics. 

I noticed that you are very drawn to documentaries that focus on artists (e.g. The Russian Winter (2012).

Shield and Spear is my second feature doc. The last film I did was called the Russian Winter, which is a musically driven doc, and, yes, it’s about this American musician named John Forté. And then I’ve done short films and short docs, and what have you. But, yes, it’s somehow a natural fit for me to work with other artists and musicians.

Are you an artist as well?

Well, yes and noI’m in the artistic field. I wouldn’t say that I am an artist but I have done art projects, including a film called Questions for My Father [2011], which has screened at multiply galleries and museums in the U.S. It’s a film installation project. But, no, I’m a filmmaker. I went to art school and I am quite comfortable, and like, interacting and collaborating with artists. In Shield and Spear, I do think of it as a collaborative project. The artists are my friends and I’m grateful that they wanted to be a part of it. But they have also been collaborators.

Was the caricature that Brett Murray painted of South African President, Jacob Zuma, the catalyst for this film?

No, not really. I think that when that happened I found a story. The catalyst of the film was that I met this guy, Xander Ferreira, Gazelle. I met him in New York because he had won a Green Card Lottery. He is now becoming a resident of New York. We became friends and started talking about South African music and art, and through that I became more and more curious and felt that maybe there was something here. 

Caricature of South African president, Jacob Zuma, by artist Brett Murray

It became a feature film when the thing with Brett happened, because then I felt that there was something there that could drive the story of the film. That event happened in the summer of 2012, and I had already begun the process of going to South Africa to film, not necessarily thinking it would be a feature film. But when that happened, and Brett agreed to be in the film, then it became what it is.

Did you know the artists you spoke with beforehand? How did you go about selecting who you followed in the film?

I did not know the artists beforehand, apart from XanderGazellewho became my friend. He introduced me to some people early on, and through that I kind of took off and found and contacted people, and I was [also] introduced to people. I shot and met way more people than are actually in the film. I cast a pretty broad net so that eventually I could filter in what I thought would make a cohesive story.

As someone who is not South African, I don’t know if this is something you can answer, but one of the big themes in the film was the discussion that South Africa needs new leadership. A party that is progressive, integrated, and not divided along the historical colour lines. Do you see a change happening politically?

I think it will happen eventually. It’s not going to happen with this election. There’s an election coming up in May, and the ANC will be re-elected and Jacob Zuma will be the president again. But it will happen overtime. People are getting more and more fed-up with what the ANC has become, and are looking for a new kind of leadership. The problem is that that party and that leader does not exist yet. It’s like the rock n’ roll song that one of the bands in the film performs, in the song he sings, “There is no party.” What he essentially means is that there is no party for people like him or for conscience South Africans to align themselves with.

During the apartheid, art and song were big catalysts in moving and shifting political change in South Africa. Do you think films like this, and artists like the ones you profile, will create the leader and the party that South Africa needs?

I think artists by nature are not necessarily…they’re not politicians. They don’t have the fortitude to create parties, necessarilyhowever, there are some exceptions. I think that artists are catalyst for change, but not organizers in terms of politics. That takes a different kind of person.

How have the artists in the doc reacted to it?

The artists in the film have not seen the film yet. [Laughs] This is our world premier tomorrow. We’re going to the Durban International Film Festival to screen it in July, and that will be the first time that they will watch it. Durban is Africa’s largest film festival so that will be our homecoming, if you will. This is partly by design on my end and I think partly from their end tooactually none of them have wanted to watch the film before the screening. All of them rather watch it as an audience member, in their theater, the way it should be.

You cover a lot of areas in the documentary, race, gender, politics etc. Are there artists or ideas you would like to revisit and take a deeper look at in the future?

I don’t really work that way as a filmmaker. Whatever I do next will be something different. I think that one could have made a feature film just about Brett, for example. Or one could have made a feature film just about Zanele [Muholi], the photographer, for sure. That’s not what I wanted to do. But certainly, for example, with Brett Murray, the Spear, that painting, there is actually someone who is shopping around a narrative feature film script of that story. Who knows, maybe someone will want to do that.

Are you working on any interesting projects now?

I just finished this film like two weeks ago [laughing]. I have yet to decide what will be the next thing. I don’t know yet.

What do you hope this film does in South Africa and beyond? As a filmmaker are you invested in where it goes or do you move on and let it go where it goes?

In what capacity do you mean?

Do you hope that South African politicians and citizens have a response to the film, and that it kind of gets people moving?

It’s interesting to see what happens once we have our African premiere because the film has to go through the South African censorship board, and they have to approve the screening of the film. I will be interested to see what happens because they essentially banned that painting [The Spear] and that painting is quite a big part of the story. But apart from that, I don’t expect the ANC leadership to watch the film and learn anything from it at all. [Chuckles] And I don’t think that that’s the audience that I’m trying to reach anyway. More than anything, if I could get to talk to a younger audience, people who are the leaders of the future, who will change South Africa twenty-years from now, I think if they can watch the film and learn something or see something from a part of their society that they usually don’t seebecause it still is very much a segregated societyso if someone from a specific subculture watches the film and they learn something from that then I think that would be amazing. But I’m not trying to effect some policy change. I think that would be presumptuous of me.

Was there anything inspiring, enlightening or even disturbing that has lingered with you since wrapping up the film?

The whole process was incredibly inspiring and enlightening. It affected me on personal levels more than anything that I have ever done, at least from a professional point-of-view. I have never met such incredibly gracious, open and generous people than the people that I met while making this film. I think that is what I will take away from it more than anything else. It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and quite moving.

As a foreign filmmaker, when you come to a different country and want to make a project, especially a country like South Africa that has the history that it has, and me being a Caucasian middle-aged straight man, you know, there’s…I can understand if people would be a little suspicious about that. But when I got to know them, and they saw where I was coming from, they accepted me in an incredibly generous and open way and I’m very happy about that.

Chaka V. Grier  is a writer, journalist. This piece was written in 2014 for the Winehouse Mag.