Documentary filmmaker, Dylan Valley, is a multi-talented director from Cape Town, South Africa. It has taken him a long time to accept the title of the artist, but I believe it perfectly encapsulates his sensitivity and social consciousness. “I have a lot of respect for artists, so I don’t want people to think that I am misusing the name. But, as a documentary director, I am between journalism and artistry,” he says. I understand his uneasiness with a distinctive identity. Creative people undertake many roles and therefore are more than one thing. “It’s not easy to find a label that fits it all. That’s why you must keep reinventing yourself, and the words that describe you, so people can understand who you are and what you do,” he notes.
Even though in January, Dylan’s latest film, Azibuye — The Occupation went to the New Frontier of 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, he is humble about his success when we talk. “Once people know your movie was on Sundance, they are like: ‘This guy must know what he is doing. He is not just some guy in Cape Town messing with the camera’,” he says.
I asked Dylan how he entered the filmmaking industry. He acknowledges that it has been a long life journey. “One of my earliest childhood memories was watching Hollywood productions at a drive-in cinema with my parents. At that time, I wanted to be a cartoonist. But I got into filmmaking when my parents bought a video camera. The ability to film my day and tell a story about my life blew my mind. I started filming my family and friends. Later on, I studied film and media at the University of Cape Town.”
For Dylan, it was never just about making films. He wanted to make a difference in his community. From a very early stage, he watched films about anti-apartheid struggle such as Lindy Wilson’s films on forced removals in Cape Town, and prosecuted and assassinated activists. He wanted to tell stories that needed to be told, and that’s when he knew he should go into the documentary. Dylan’s first documentary, while a student at UCT was about the decline of Prophets of Da City, a pioneering group that released the first hip hop album in South Africa, commenting on social and political issues of the late 1980s and 1990s, before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.
“What excites me about documentaries is that you can make something with minimal resources. I can make a documentary as a one-person crew if I need to. Whereas, with fiction, you need a big crew, money, time, and resources. Also, the documentary is direct. You can pick up a camera and tell a story,” he says.
But how does he select which stories to tell? He explains: “I am trying to tell stories that speak to me personally. In hindsight, I realise that most of the stories have to do with social justice and racial equity. Not because I set out to tell these stories but because these topics were always important to me, and I wanted to address them, following my curiosity and intuition. Now, I feel that I need to focus merely on those themes because I feel I have a lot to contribute.”
Naturally, the conversation goes to the racial justice protests in the United States sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. “It’s interesting to see that current anti-racism work and the Black Lives Matter movement are endorsed by white people, corporates, and government officials; people you never thought would stand up. In Cape Town, with Covid-19, you see wealthy communities forming networks and organising themselves to respond to the crisis. In my city, charity has been a normal thing to do, but now, more than ever, the privileged listen to the needs of people in the townships,” he says. Dylan continues: “Aid work is important, but there’s an urgent call for redistribution of wealth. We need democratic socialism since the vast chasm between the rich and poor cannot be solved through progressive capitalism. Society needs a structural change, but I don't know how this will look or work. It is clear that it needs to happen for true justice and a more ethical society.”
In 2013, Dylan received a Pulitzer fellowship to complete a master’s in specialised journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His thesis documentary was on the award-winning web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
Fast forward seven years, and in February, just over a month before the Covid-19 outbreak, Dylan, with his wife and two-year-old daughter, moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Once a student at UCT, today, Dylan is a lecturer at the university’s Centre for Film and Media Studies. He is also studying a Ph.D. on web series and is looking at how they challenge cultural hegemony. His research focuses on the ways African filmmakers, and especially women, are using the internet to raise innovative and edgy conversations that a conservative broadcaster wouldn’t opt to air.
“I have become a better filmmaker and artist through teaching. At my students’ age, you feel more inspired; you learn quickly, you are excited about life, and your energy level is higher. It is amazing how creative these students can be when you give them the right tools and resources. Their input has made a big impact on my filmmaking,” he says.
After watching Dylan’s documentary, the Uprising of Hangberg, I felt that it could be placed in any city and time. I ask Dylan if this is his goal — to take a local story and make it global; to take a personal pain and turn it into a group struggle. He answers: “When I was making that film on the long-running tensions between the coloured residents of Hangberg and the city council, we were trying to focus on the story and counter the South African media narrative. The protests were reported from the council’s perspective and the police, whereas the community was presented as these gangsters and drug users who were building dwellings illegally. I didn't even think then that people beyond Cape Town would watch the documentary. But due to globalisation of capital, we see the same stories around the world. Similar policies exist in different parts of the world, and people worldwide experience the same kinds of injustices where the state seeks to protect capital over human interest.”
To avoid disappointment, Dylan doesn’t have expectations from his audience. “Imperfect cinema, introduced by Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa, has become my mantra. He used to talk about revolutionary ideals. But for me, it is the self-awareness that I will never get it right, and people are always going to interpret things the way they want. People surprise you, and sometimes they will make connections you didn't,” he says.
I think that this is a huge cognitive step for every creative person. Dylan continues: “I am not trying to create this perfect thing that is aesthetically beautiful and has great storytelling. What I am trying to do is stick to my ethical compass and sense of truth and importance. As long as I feel good about what I have done, I am happy. I don’t create stuff for everyone. I lean towards creating stuff where I want people to go: ‘What the hell is this?’ Then, I know that I have succeeded in some way. I realise that my role is to recreate subversive stuff and to provoke. I get a kick out of it. Not that I want to offend anybody. I am interested in decolonising the cinema. To me, that is more important than getting a film into a big festival or receiving a lot of money for production.”
Azibuye — The Occupation (2019) is a low budget, virtual reality documentary about an activist couple who occupied a house in one of the oldest mountain ranges in Cape Town, Lingfield Range, where rich houses were built primarily by slave labour. The film uses a simple 360-degree technology based on an Insta360 Pro camera with six lenses. At Sundance, audiences watched the documentary wearing a virtual reality headset to get the 3D effect and feel they are in the house. However, if you are watching the film on your phone or computer, you can scroll around for the 360 experience.
“The film looks at a micro-level of Cape Town’s long-standing home ownership disputes. Here's one empty house and a few people who need a place to stay. So, they take over the house. What is interesting though, is that when you watch the film, you read the characters as middle-class. They are activists, who can articulate their political ideas in English in a way that occupiers in other parts of the city cannot or aren’t given the time to do so. Also, there’s a paradox: the owner of the house is a black South African man, who bought it in the 1990s, when white people were running away from the country.”
I ask Dylan about his creative process. He explains: “Before I even bring my camera, I hang out with my subjects and I explain what I do. I listen to their stories before I take any pictures or shoot anything. I believe in not filming anything for a while and be present. I do a lot of research and scriptwriting to figure out the path of the film. Once I have my key ideas down and some guiding principles, I slowly introduce the camera and get people comfortable with that. If it is commissioned work, sometimes you only have a couple of weeks to complete and submit your film. So, I have to plan every shot ahead of time. Even in documentary filmmaking, you must have some ending in mind.”
I first heard of Dylan Valley through a webinar organised by Africa Is a Country, an insightful digital publication from and about Africa. We close the conversation with Dylan telling me more about this other venture of his. “I met Sean Jacobs, the founder and editor in chief of Africa Is a Country while watching the World Cup in South Africa ten years ago. I started writing music-related blogs, and ever since, I have remained involved. So, this is how I am on the editorial board, witnessing the publication’s shift from talking back sarcastically to ignorant views on Africa to academic and analytical writing.”