Director François Verster talks about the “Mbube” story as a “ground myth” for South Africa, his love of documentary filmmaking and what led him to A LION’S TRAIL.
How did you find out about Solomon Linda and the story behind “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”?
I was asked to do a 12-minute insert for a local TV magazine slot on how “Mbube” evolved into “Wimoweh” and from there into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” In the course of doing this, I became aware of a much huger and extremely fascinating story lying behind all this, most of which could not be included in the short film because of political reasons or secrecy around certain events at the time. For a period of around three years I tried to raise further funds for a longer —and at that time more investigative—film. During this time I teamed up with Rian Malan, who was researching the story for Rolling Stone. We exchanged our findings, he wrote the article and we finally obtained money for a longer film.
What led you to make A LION’S TRAIL?
At the time of making the shorter film, no one seemed very keen to talk about the more troublesome issues surrounding the legalities of the transformation of “Mbube” to “Wimoweh” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Already from the beginning it seemed that something more broadly important was at stake here. When I got to know the history of the song(s) better, it seemed clear to both Rian and me (and to the two producers who came on board, Dan Jawitz and Mark Kaplan) that the story of “Mbube” and the issue it represents is of huge importance to South Africa and, as an example of cultural commodification, to the world at large. As Rian put it, “the case of the wronged Zulu songwriter” seemed to be a story everyone in our country should know—a kind of “ground myth” almost.
We all hoped that this film would open up the debate not only around the ownership of the song itself, but also around how intellectual copyright from the third world has been exploited more broadly by those in a position of greater power and knowledge. The Ntsele family [Solomon Linda's daughters] shares ownership of the film, and the film itself was also intended both as a step towards a more just settlement of their affairs and as a way of giving recognition to an unsung hero from South Africa.
Apart from that, I simply wanted to tell a good story which presented great musical possibilities.
Tell us more about the interview process used in the film. How did you gain access to the subjects and gain their trust?
I had known Rian for a number of years already, and we had the same interests at heart. Other characters I met while researching the film. I would not say that this is the most intimate character film I have made, but I think everyone understood that something bigger was at stake and therefore gave their cooperation. I suppose our extensive battles to get the film going boosted our credibility to some degree. But basically, if one listens with respect and sensitivity (and, I suppose, what you could call integrity), most people also tend to open up fairly quickly in front of the camera.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Primarily two things: severe budgetary constraints and dealing with music rights in film.
We made this film on about a third of our original budget, and, especially since we shot on three different continents, had to make serious compromises in terms of equipment, being able to use the same crew everywhere, edit time, and so on. All in all, however, I think we did a fairly decent job given these constraints.
Clearing music rights has been an ongoing nightmare, even well after completion (as new sales were being made)! I doubt I will ever make a film that involves this kind of thing again, unless one has full permission and cooperation from publishers and artists beforehand.
Filming access to various individuals was made impossible—but in the case of George Weiss, this possibly turned to our advantage.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I am not quite sure what else I would do! Documentary filmmaking not only combines many things I am very interested in, it is also a very real and meaningful way of connecting with the world, of learning and understanding things about the world one might not experience otherwise. One feels one is engaged in doing something worthwhile. I also like the “campaign” aspect of documentary films, whereby one becomes a “mini expert” on a wide array of subjects. Documentary making enriches one’s humanity, one meets people one would not normally meet, etc., and somehow gets to the emotional and perhaps even philosophical basics of things one usually takes for granted. It also seems to me that documentary film makes it easier to attain a level of authenticity in creative pursuit: the balance of “actuality” and authorial subjectivity is a dynamic, challenging and almost “purifying” thing if one seriously takes it on board.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It is extremely important that this story gets to be known by as many people as possible, especially in America, so as to increase public or other pressure to reverse the rights situation. Apart from that, like most other filmmakers, one wants one’s films to be seen! The film itself was also more of a TV documentary than other films I have made (it was largely funded by broadcasters).
What are your three favorite films?
This is an impossible choice! I have far more than three favorites, and they change all the time, but a quick guess would include:
Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog
The Idiots by Lars von Trier
Haiti Untitled by Jorgen Leth
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
What we did not get done: direct access to George Weiss or Larry Richmond, further stylized environment shots, filming a reunion of The Tokens or a performance by them, filming Henri Salvador in Paris, inclusion of more “rural” Zulu music in the edit.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I used to teach at university, and am currently teaching a documentary course at a local media college, so I would probably do more of that. I am also working on a novel which may or may not be completed one day…
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
This sounds a little pompous; one takes bits and pieces from films that inspire one, and I suppose there is a long array: Werner Herzog, Jorgen Leth, Peter Neal, Jacob Thuesen, Viktor Kossakovsky, Lars von Trier, Pirjo Honkasalo, Claire Simon, Johan van der Keuken, etc.
What sparks your creativity?
Seeing amazing films, or having strong emotional experiences in specific environments or with specific people.
What was one of the greatest moments in making A LION’S TRAIL?
The greatest moment in making the film was when Joseph Shabalala, without us having any idea at all that this was going to happen, led his entire congregation to sing “Mbube” at the end of the church service… I almost felt we could stop filming and go home after that!