Strike A Rock is South African female filmmaker, Aliki Saragas’s, debut feature documentary. It tracks the lives of Mam’ Primrose Sonti and Mam’ Thumeka Magwangqana – champions of the Women’s Group, Sikhala Sonke (Translated: We are crying together) – as they fight courageously for a better life in Marikana mining community after thirty-four striking mineworkers were shot dead by South African Police in August 2012. The men were striking for a living wage of R12500 ($900 US) per month. Comparable to the infamous Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the Marikana Massacre left devastation in its wake. Strike A Rock is a superb offering of progressive African female images and voices on screen that highlights the complexities of life for the women left behind as they endeavor to help their community to rise above their circumstances.
The film was one of six projects chosen to pitch at Good Pitch Kenya in 2016 and the European Documentary Network. Strike A Rock opened the Encounters Documentary Festival 2017 and won the Audience Award for Best South African Documentary. The film also won the Best South African Documentary and the Amnesty International Durban Award for Human Rights at the Durban International Film Festival 2017. I sat down with Saragas at her world premiere in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss the inspiration behind the film, the impact projects that surround her work and the state of female filmmakers in Africa.
Aliki Saragas: The film started as my MA in documentary arts, where the main aim and purpose was to reinsert the women’s voices back into the Marikana narrative. The realities of the devastation of the Marikana massacre that took place on 16 August 2012 is widely known and has been criticised globally, including in the award-winning film Miners Shot Down, produced by Uhuru Productions, the co-producers of Strike a Rock. But there are voices that have yet to be heard. Voices from the strong women leaders and the community that surrounds the mine have seemingly been erased from the narrative. Despite the international attention, inquiry and mass-activism that followed the massacre, living conditions for the Marikana community have worsened. There has been no accountability.
This is what drew me so powerfully to the story of Thumeka and Primrose - two grandmothers who were compelled by the tragedy they witnessed to take on leadership roles, exercising their agency and power. As the political climate of South Africa wasn’t changing, as well as the personal and political lives of the women, the film organically focused not only on reinserting their voices in a reflective way around the massacre, but also, and very importantly, focusing on the very current socio-economic crises, and obligations owed to the community through the extraction of Africa’s natural resources. They force us to recognise that the story of Marikana is not yet over.
JLK: You have ensured that Mam’ Primrose and Mam’ Thumeka have attended all of the South African screenings and have participated in the Q&A sessions. Can you speak on the importance of including them in this process?
AS: Right from the beginning, the film has been a collaborative process - it was the most important thing. Thumeka, Primrose and Sikhala Sonke knew that we had the same intention with the story and what we wanted it to do. That coupled with a very important creative decision to immerse myself with the women in their homes for over three years helped us develop a very strong relationship, trust and mutual respect. The film is a mouthpiece for their voices. It aims to continue the work they are already doing on a public platform in bringing awareness and attention to their plight. There was no option, really, if they were to be involved. It’s their film as much as mine.
Courtesy of J. Katz
AS: Since the Marikana massacre, the women of Marikana have been active in civil society and political structures to fight for justice and accountability. The women of Marikana and the film team see the film as another addition to build on the movement started by mining-affected communities. We need as many people as possible to see the film and to put pressure on Lonmin and the South African government to ensure socio-economic development.
Sikhala Sonke and the film team will particularly focus on continuing to emphasise the demands of Sikhala Sonke in their Complaint laid at the International Finance Corporation - the finance arm of the World Bank - on the basis that Lonmin failed to comply with the conditions of their loan agreement to develop the community. This will be done through focused screenings with stakeholders, shareholders and policy makers around the world.
We have just had an impact screening in London hosted by the State Crime Film Club and War on Want at Bertha DocHouse, and are planning a tour with the film in the U.K. during the commemoration of the massacre in August 2017, where we will bring Thumeka and Primrose to talk to their own experiences. In partnership with Sikhala Sonke, we will facilitate community screenings using a mobile cinema in conjunction with workshops detailing the communities’ rights and possible recourse with the relevant SLPs [Social Labor Plans] through toolkits.
We will hold feminist workshops to assist the growth of women’s organisations in communities. Starting in Marikana, we aim to reach mining communities across all major mining areas in South Africa. With the right partners, we will expand the campaign to other areas facing destructive resource extraction with little to no benefit in the global South.
Confirmed partnerships include the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Amnesty International, Women in Mining (WoMin), the Marikana Support Campaign, and STEPS.
The film’s screening tour presents the opportunity to provide the tools to enforce their rights, with key partnerships and funding opportunities. Through the impact campaign we also want to assist the women of Marikana in building sustainable projects in and for the benefit of their community. The women have already started their first project, the creation and development of a sustainable community garden and we will continue to lobby for donations to directly assist these projects on the ground.
AS: I made a very clear choice that I wanted to create a very intimate film that focused on telling the story through the women’s voices from the inside, rather than through external voices that have already shaped the discourse of the space. In that way, I spent many months with Primrose and Thumeka inside their homes and with their families, which developed into a very strong relationship that has extended way beyond the film. We also all had the same objectives and intentions - to champion how these two grandmothers, and the women of Sikhala Sonke as a whole, were compelled by the tragedy they witnessed to take on leadership roles as they exercised their agency and power to try to make a change. I focused heavily on the themes of domestic feminism, that feminism can be born out of roles that relate to men – for example, Sikhala Sonke was born out of a need to support the mineworkers and unite the women of the community.
We move away from white feminist perspectives that being a wife, mother, girlfriend that cooks, cleans and supports a family - whilst at the same time speaking truth to power on public platforms - is not feminist. My aim was to weave together the perspectives of the women using a sensitive, unobtrusive and intimate camera. The film takes the viewer on a journey through trauma, history, loss, memory, friendship, and the fear of being further forgotten as Thumeka and Primrose survive each day. At the same time, we are confronted with a very real obstruction of justice and lack of accountability on the side of Lonmin, who seemingly shirk their legal obligations to the community. As well as the South African government, who neglect to ensure that the required socio-economic development takes place. In this context, the personal becomes the political and that is where the impact of the film lies.
JLK: Could you tell us about your experience as a young South African female filmmaker? What are the challenges that female filmmakers still face in Africa?
AS: I think opportunities for women filmmakers’ in South Africa, as well as across the continent is definitely growing - although we have a long way to ensure transformation takes place and young, first-time filmmakers are given support and assistance. If I was not surrounded by a team of strong, supportive women producers who held the door open for me through mentorship and advice, I would never have been able to cope.
This was my first feature-length film, and so was incredibly challenging, especially since it took over three years to make. I think one of the hardest obstacles for a first-time filmmaker, or at least for me is to keep confident in my decisions and stay true to my vision. To understand and trust that I knew what story I wanted to tell. That was part of the journey. It also, however, allowed me to grow my sense of intuition, which is how I worked throughout. In a documentary environment, I didn't come across challenges that other women face in the industry such as sexual harassment and discrimination, which is why at Sisters Working In Film and Television (South African based Not for Profit Organisation) we are focusing on putting in place actionable interventions to stop these experiences of women in the industry around the country.
JLK: Where to from here - what can we expect from you in the future?
AS: I plan on building and growing my own production company, Elafos Productions, which champions women's stories both in front and behind the lens. I am also working with the African Oral History Archive, a multi-media initiative that documents South African history. We are currently in productions on a feature doc that hasn’t been released to the public yet. I am also very involved in the newly formed SWIFT organisation, a Not for Profit Organisation which aims to address common concerns, share experiences, support and inspire women in the South African film and television industry.