A portrait of gentrification in Johannesburg

Courtesy of Parabola Films

Courtesy of Parabola Films

The mean streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, put fear into the hearts of the most hardened. But a Canadian documentary filmmaker brushes off how she was once carjacked at gunpoint as if it were like being stuck in traffic on the Ville-Marie Expressway.

Shannon Walsh, director of H2Oil, is screening her latest project at the Montreal International Black Film Festival. It’s a follow-up to her 2011 film St-Henri, the 26th of August, and another direct cinema homage to the 1962 National Film Board of Canada classic À Saint-Henri, le cinq septembre.

Walsh’s Quebec-inspired approach gives the film a modern vérité glimpse of daily life in a former industrial area being transformed by developers into a place for artists’ lofts and condominiums in Johannesburg, called Jeppestown.

“Jeppe on a Friday is the second in a triptych of neighbourhood documentaries, collaborative neighbourhood documentaries,” Walsh said. “I invited a group of South African directors to take a journey into a quickly gentrifying neighbourhood and reflect on the processes, the people and the dynamics that were happening there over the course of a day.”

The film looks at Jeppestown in a 24-hour time frame and follows five central characters throughout their day. Differences between St-Henri and Jeppestown are stark.

“Obviously it’s a very different dynamic. South Africa is a place of extreme disparity. There’s huge separations of wealth and power. There’s still huge racial separations as well,” she said.

South Africa is far from Canada when it comes to funding the documentary film genre. So, Walsh partnered up with Arya Laloo, a South African filmmaker and resident of Jeppestown, who approached Walsh with the idea of profiling some of the city’s colourful characters.

“Jeppe is such a historic area and there are so many layers of experience there. You really see the texture of Johannesburg’s history, decade after decade on the walls,” Laloo said.

“We have five characters over the course of their day. They range from a leader of an isicathamiya group, which is a traditional Zulu choral form, to an old Indian shop owner, to J.J., who’s leading the charge on the property development front.”

The five South African filmmakers and Walsh weren’t able to find much local funding for the film project, nor were Canadian broadcasters extremely interested in a film about an African neighbourhood. But the idea excited Montreal-based film producer Sarah Spring, who got on-board and touted an alternative money-raising scheme: crowdfunding.

“Canadian documentaries are often financed by a combination of public funding and private funding. On this film, we had neither, so it was all about getting creative,” Spring said. “This was definitely the scrappy never-say-die project that could!”

Walsh admits it was a tricky film to make, due to the changing models for funding documentaries. For the first time ever in her career she did an indiegogo campaign, which helped pay some of the film’s post-production costs. It also did a tremendous amount to raise awareness online, as it was shared on different social media platforms.

As for the change happening in Jeppestown, a recent development called Maboneng, a Sotho word meaning “place of light,” has brought more young, affluent people to the district. This seems to be pushing development closer to the city’s low-income residents. Something former urban consultant Neil Fraser sees as a good thing,

“If you go back in the history of Jeppestown, which is just after Johannesburg was established over 100 years ago, Jeppestown really was quite a prime residential area,” Fraser said.

Nobody in the city knows Jeppestown as well as Fraser does. The urbanist has spent the better part of the last 30 years watching city planners come up with new methods to revive the economically declined district. Fraser touts urban renewal and gentrification as the way to bring it back to life.

Laloo is more critical of the pace of renewal and revitalization in Jeppestown. She sees more and more local shops closing down, being replaced by cafés and boutiques, some of which she admits to having visited.

These two sides of life in Jeppestown sparked her interest in this kind of documentary storytelling.

“There’s something about the neighbourhood stories which is a lot more fluid and human and textured and subtle. We’re not telling anyone what to think,” she said.

To Walsh, Jeppestown is a microcosm of what’s taking place in cities, not just in North America and Africa, but all over the world. In a drive to get suburbanites back to the inner-city, lofts and condos are constructed to replace former industrial buildings. The process of this, her second film on the subject, is told through the residents of these particular neighbourhoods.

“South Africa has some great filmmakers, some of which worked on the project with me. But it’s not such a long tradition of documentary here at all,” Walsh said. “I hope this film helps give recognition to the many talented South African documentary filmmakers out there.”

From Montreal to Johannesburg, Walsh is eyeing Hong Kong as the next possible city to tackle as the third, and final instalment, in her gentrification series.

“This whole idea started with the NFB’s À Saint-Henri, le cinq septembre. It was that film which started the process to make neighbourhood documentaries, but with a contemporary style of documentary that’s character driven,” she said. “I also look at processes of power and politics in documentary that I think weren’t so present back in 1962.”

Jeppe on a Friday will screen Monday at 9 p.m. in Room 1 of Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Parc Ave. as part of the Montreal International Black Film Festival. For more information, visit montrealblackfilm.com.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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Adam Bemma is a journalist and media development advisor.

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