Nadine Cloete is a Cape Town–based filmmaker whose work focuses on uncovering and sharing history, heritage, and identity. Her 2016 film Action Kommandant examines the life and state-sanctioned assassination of 20-year-old revolutionary anti-apartheid freedom fighter Ashley Kriel. Artist Valérie Déus asks filmmaker Nadine Cloete about Action Kommandant, speaking the truth, resistance, and defiance.
During the month of April, the Walker’s Expanding the Frame series presents Imagination Is Power, a four-part program that looks at the revolutionary spirit from the late 1960s until today through short experimental film and video works, newsreels, and propaganda. This Q&A concludes a multi-part publishing series designed to spark a deeper exploration of the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power. Look for contributions from these scholars and artists who’ll share their thoughts, stories, and research on the legacy of the late 1960s and activism today: Ayo Akingbade, Bidayyat, the Chicago Film Archives, Valérie Déus, Amir George, and Alice Lovejoy.
Valérie Déus: How do you choose your subject?
Nadine Cloete: It may seem cliché to say, but I feel stories really choose me. I am just some kind of portal. I will remember part of a conversation and then it won’t leave me until I do further research about it. With the Action Kommandant film, the story of Ashley Kriel, it was seeing archive material of him and then remembering a conversation I had with my dad about him. Ashley was just so magnetic in that archive footage that it haunted me for days until I decided that I had to find out more.
A short story I’m working on now is actually inspired by something mentioned in an interview during a documentary I directed two years ago. Something the woman mentioned just stuck with me, and I feel now the time is right to explore that more.
I feel strongly drawn to subjects that I consider part of my own story, my own development. It has to be something I consider very personal because otherwise I won’t have the motivation to see the project through.
Déus: What role does history (oral and written) have in your film?
Cloete: Oral history played a very important role in Action Kommandant. There are books about Umkhonto We Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC under apartheid); there are books about the United Democratic Front, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, etc., but no books specifically about Ashley Kriel. Pieces of his life were put together by family, friends, and comrades who remembered specific things at different times. The film also tries to portray points of view with the animated illustrations. This is another way we tried to visually represent the oral history. Artifacts still with the Department of Justice assisted in better understanding the events around his murder. These include police pictures, forensic reports, and various newspaper clippings.
Archive footage also played a big role in the film. It really transports the viewer into Ashley’s world. The film would be extremely hollow without the archive footage. There would be no film without the oral history.
The film proves that history is not something we can “eave behind.” Especially when there is no justice yet.
Déus: Why did you choose Kriel as your subject?
Cloete: As mentioned, I was really struck by seeing the archive material of him. My dad was a history teacher when I was a kid. When we drove through the area where Ashley was killed, he would always tell me that that was where Ashley was murdered and that he died for freedom. I didn’t know much else. I really wanted to find out what drove him to be prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice. Furthermore, while I was growing up, people of color were always represented as the butt of jokes, uneducated, drunk, and on drugs. There were very few positive POC role models on TV and other mainstream media. Here was a chance to see us as heroes of our own liberation.
Déus: How would you describe defiance, and how much of it is in your work?
Cloete: I feel defiance is speaking truth to power. It’s about resistance. It’s about challenging your own intersecting oppressions. A woman in the archive material in Action Kommandant states: “If they did not resist they would not be human beings.” It’s saying that I exist.
I think being a black woman and being involved in telling stories is defiance. Action Kommandant is about this on many levels. New work that I’m now developing is all very much about defiance. Some of these works look at topics such as language, menstruation, patriarchy, and comedy. Even black comedies, black people loving each other, is defiance.
Filmmaker Ekwa Msangi said that films are instruction manuals. This is one of my favorite quotes about cinema. If people watch closely they will see there are those of us out here creating instruction manuals for a new revolution.
Déus: I’m interested in where you see intersections in your work and what they are.
Cloete: In Action Kommandant you can see the passion for history and search for identity colliding. There is the need for justice for our past—and then specifically saying Black Lives Matter.
I pushed forward the woman characters. Ashley’s mother’s voice is integral to the story. Henriette was Ashley’s assistant, and we come to see her as a strong comrade by herself, too. This was important to me as a woman. I still cringe at certain sequences where I feel it is too male heavy. The type of Afrikaans used in this film is also important. In South Africa there is a misconception that the language is that of the white oppressors. Yet it’s not. It is very much a Black language. In the film, Ashley’s mother speaks Afrikaans the way it is spoken on the Cape Flats, and here someone that is a hero and an important historical figure speaks it. Usually a “bad” character would speak this type of Afrikaans, and the film flips the script on this.
Déus: Describe what change or dissent means to you and your work as an artist?
Cloete: This question makes me think of Lauryn Hill’s song “I Find It Hard To Say” where she repeats the word “rebel.” Change or dissent, I see them part of rebellion. As an artist, change means someone has watched a work that I’ve created and leaves thinking differently about something, most importantly feeling and thinking differently about themselves. It’s about changing associations with images of people of color.
Déus: Has technology changed your work?
Cloete: It has yes. I think including animation in the Action Kommandant documentary really made it accessible for a different audience and added another layer of storytelling to the film. Technology has also made distribution a bit easier. Social media technology makes it much easier to communicate with audiences.
Déus: How is everyday life reflected in your work?
Cloete: I think the work reflects how South Africans feel about many things, especially how violent our society is. Here I mean poverty as violence, special violence, lack of justice, and the need for healing.
Déus: Who are some artists you look up to?
Cloete: I look up to South African filmmakers Kurt Orderson, Sihle Hlophe, Tshego Khanyile, Sifiso Khanyile, and Dylan Valley. In the US, there’s author Vashti Harrison. I think these are people who are pushing the work of decolonization.
Déus: Which artists influence your work?
Cloete: The biggest influence on my work and development was filmmaker Zulfah Otto-Sallies. She was unapologetic about making films in her language, about her own community and even about her family. She taught me about following energy while making a documentary. Sadly, she has passed on. Artists that inspire and influence me now include editor Khalid Shamis, artist Sethembile Msezane, musician Kyle Shepherd, poet Nathan Trantraal, poet/writer Wanelisa Xaba, and filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Julie Dash and Ava DuVernay.