TFF 2018 – TANZANIA TRANSIT- interview with filmmaker jeroen van velzen

VISIONAIRE presents coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with special corespondent Lisa Collins.

Confined and liberating at once, fluid and chance, TANZANIA TRANSIT, Jeroen van Velzen’s captivatingly lensed journey-film is a meditative trip into a world unto itself, and yet one that is curiously relatable, as it follows three main protagonists who feel closer to us than film subjects normally do. Although you neither know them, nor, likely, their worlds — their realness is touchable. Perhaps that’s due to the patience of van Velzen’s vivid verité filming? Perhaps it’s a result of being drawn into fretful scenes where the tensions are slowly building, and yet there’s no escape? Or perhaps it’s those intimate, incredible monologues we are privy to, as the lucid characters unload their baggage. While we listen in, everything gets uncomfortably tugged at — issues surrounding gender, nationality, class, race, religion, modernity, and ethnicity — just like how it happens in real-life. But in this context, aboard this arid cross-country ride, all is extra amplified.

Filmmaker, Jeroen van Velzen, who lived in Kenya for decades, makes a conscious decision to keep his camera and the action focused within the train’s car space, where everything unfolds, so that you “never know where it starts or ends.” As his characters take a literal and figurative journey across East Africa, while navigating parched landscapes, time evaporates into everyone’s unfolding (and at times jarring) stories.

Van Velzen and his documentary crew faced intense travel conditions from the start of filming. He shares, “Going on the train was difficult. It was packed with 2,000 to 3,000 people; 20 carriages in length. It could take a quarter of an hour to walk from one end of the train to the other.” Having filmed over time, in heat and tight spaces, van Velzen furthers, “The people there did not like being filmed. They think that white people are filming or photographing them only to profit from it…In the end, passengers thought it was extremely important that the film, itself, was being made…it’s amazing how accepting of us everyone ended up being.” It’s perhaps that combination of rough conditions, close proximity, and a crew — seen as “the other” — working to be accepted by its subjects, which allows to a certain level of raw realness and authenticity to emerge; one that is boldly captured onscreen by van Velzen and his crew, as they truly had to work for their access. TANZANIA TRANSIT makes its World Premiere in the 17th Annual Tribeca Film Festival’s Documentary Competition.

By Lisa Collins

LISA COLLINS: Can you talk about how and why you chose those who would become your main protagonists?
JEROEN VAN VELZEN:  Having been in Tanzania so often, the theme of modernization kept reappearing in east Africa; especially the roles played by technology and women’s rights. I felt that these characters had great power and strength within them. They all went through great adversity in their fight to survive. I found their stories inspiring.

For Rukia — I tried to capture the hell she went through, including being assaulted by her father when she was child; being in jail; and then falling into prostitution. Nevertheless, she is an amazingly strong character. She ran a mining village and was considered the queen of the desert.

Two Maasai Men (Grandson and Grandfather) — together, these two show how change is occurring in east Africa through modernization, and technology. The grandfather had never seen a film before, didn’t understand how it worked; and couldn’t really grasp it — but was clearly enthusiastic about it. Many of the Maasai are looking to adapt to change.

Peter — the villain of the story, became rich and powerful by stealing from the poor. He is one of the most famous “commercial” preachers in the region. I was very fascinated by this unseemly — “ugly side” — of humanity. There is so much desperation in the 3rd class, yet Peter leads people to believe their problems can disappear [through his intercession]. Peter is a fascinating character, and it was interesting to see how passengers reacted to him — adoring him, wanting to follow him; it highlights how people with money and power can abuse it.

LC:  The portraits feel so intimate and alive. How long did it take for passengers to get totally comfortable around the film crew? And were there racial barriers to overcome or negotiate (assuming the crew was multi-racial and/or white)?
JVV: The documentary was filmed over time in Kenya and Tanzania. The people there did not like being filmed, however. They think that white people are filming or photographing them only to profit from it. If you are filming you have to explain why, and you always have to offer people something in return.

Going on the train was difficult. It was packed with 2000 – 3000 people, 20 carriages in length. It could take a quarter of an hour to walk from one end of the train to the other; at times, having to even climb over passengers [to get through]. Our crew was often surrounded by different sets of people — with us having to explain why we were there, and what we were doing. The crew managed to discover important people to know on the train; people who actually lived on the train, and who would fight off other passengers to defend us as a crew. In the end, passengers thought it was extremely important that the film, itself, was being made.

We were able to get very close to people — capturing their daily lives: sex, eating, sleeping, breast feeding; and hearing intimate conversations. It was so amazing how accepting of us everyone ended up being.

LC:  Talk about some challenges you encountered, logistically, in terms of shooting verité footage in a heated, cramped, constantly moving location?
JVV: The train travels from the Congo region to Dar Es Salaam, the most populated city in Tanzania. The train is filled with people from a variety of African nations. The journey through the desert is extremely hot; and the wind makes this feel even worse. Being overheated often made it hard for the subjects and the crew to focus, making it necessary to rise at 4:00am to begin shooting. Therefore, we could only capture small moments on film, in the morning and afternoon when it was cool enough to get some energy from the subjects.

I had never imagined filming to be this difficult. I like to have a storyboard and know what I’m going to shoot; but, in this scenario, it was hard to keep control of everything. Each day, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I spent 2 years researching and to tell a story with new ingredients and everything being so spontaneous was difficult.

LC:  Rukia’s story is so absorbing in articulating the added complications of being female and being born into poverty. What was the most remarkable, in your observation of her?
JVV:  Her story was very emotional; and it really ‘broke’ us [our spirits], to hear it. Many East Africans are not very open about talking about their negative sides. Rukia, however, was able to discuss the emotional traumas she had been through (rape, jail time, mistreatment by her parents, and husband). The idea of being left by her parents broke her down. She had to learn to fend for herself, which made her such a strong woman.

In the ‘women-only’ cabin, the other girls and ladies opened up to her. Although from different backgrounds, they could relate to Rukia’s story. Her story is engaging and of great value to the people listening. Her story became everyone’s story.

LC: What was a common thread that was shared by your three main characters?                                                                                        JVV: They shared [provocative] themes that are universal to East Africa. Topics, historically avoided: religion; what happens to women; as well as the region’s cultural heritage.

Modernization in East African society is also a common theme. They are making huge strides, everything is changing so quickly — discussing religion, human rights, technology. There’s a momentum of change.

LC:  Amazing, the conversation between the Masai grandfather and grandson. Do you think that technological advancement is dividing or uniting generations there?
JVV: The grandfather had never seen a film, or moving images before! He never understood this artificial life or why his grandson wants to be rich and famous. However, he enjoys the passion his grandson has; and he clearly loves his family, and wishes them good success. He is an honest man and not shy in expressing what’s on his mind.

LC:  Talk more about your characters’ ability to endure, survive – and your appreciation of what they bring to your story?
JVV: Each character has a backstory:

The Grandfather/Grandson — Moved by modernization. The grandfather is a positive person, but he is content in his way of life. The Grandson is happy to show his grandfather this crazy, modern world. He is proud of his heritage, and [facing prejudice from others on the train] he battles being a Maasai in a modern society that doesn’t want him.

Rukia — Her traumas self-empowered her. She is looking forward to the future, which is very inspiring.

Peter [the Preacher] — Shows how humanity is at its worse. Making money off the poor. Lives off those who are vulnerable.

LC:  There were so many beautiful yet startling images to take in – what were the most stunning for you?
JVV: I’ve been on trains many times. I’ve experienced the death of elephants, giraffes, buffalo, etc. There is such desperation for food in East Africa. Many people live off a corn-based diet.

But the most stunning – is in the film, when the train hits the cow, and people go outside of the train and start claiming body parts; and it becomes a celebration. The killing [and dividing up] of this cow bonds them together. It shows how little they have. Walking off the train shows a moment of freedom.

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