Power issue

27 January 2010

There’s a power issue here in South Africa. Not a power struggle. A power outage. It’s blatant and, I assume, quite serious, even though everyone partakes in the one-off snarky comments about state-owned energy utility Eskom’s lack of energy utilities.

I met a girl whose father is the CEO of an energy utility in Zambia. When she mentioned that to a group of us, at least three people joked. “Oh yeah? Could you get him to send some electricity down to Eskom?” I wager she gets that all the time.

There are so many traffic lights (called “robots” here) that aren’t working – to the detriment of swiftly-moving traffic – that the local radio station Jacaranda called the appropriate department of roads and vehicles to report the issues. The DJs broadcast the “on-hold” music recording for 45 minutes while riffing on the lack of energy in SA. Apparently, no one ever answered the call.

There’s probably a SA rapper out there who has worked the energy crisis into his beats…maybe like “I got some never ending fire in my menthol cigs, burning longer than the Eskom lights in my Joburg digs” (if this hasn’t been done yet, I’ll gladly accept royalties).

I found entire websites and blogs devoted to Eskom jokes. Here’s one: “Eskom would like to remind its customers that it is no longer politically correct to talk about a “blackout”… These areas should now be referred to as “previously lit”…”

And another: “In SA, first there was white power, and then black power, but now there’s no power!”

I am really enthralled by South African humor – their readiness to find humor in the social structures of their past and present, and even to ridicule themselves.

Speaking of laughing at ourselves, my brother sent me this link to Louis CK on Conan O’Brien after I was beyond infuriated at my lack of South African internet for 24 hours (let’s just say power isn’t the only issue here in SA…). I certainly needed the levity. I’m trying to live like a South African while I’m here. I’ll aim to laugh it off next time.


Constitution Hill

20 January 2010

On the day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US, I spent the morning at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. My visit was apropos in light of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement: Constitution Hill was formerly a prison, and was home to some of the worst human rights atrocities carried out over decades of South Africa’s segregation policies.

The prison dates back to 1893 and behind its iron jail bars, segregation prevailed: Whites, Coloureds and Asians, Black Africans. This jail was “home” to true criminals – murderers, rapists and thieves – but also to the non-white men and woman who dared protest the restrictions placed on their freedoms to speak and move freely (i.e., having to carry passes labeled as Coloured, Asian and Black).

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here, twice. So was Winnie Mandela. And so was Gandhi.

My heart was heavy to hear the tour guide’s harrowing stories of bias and abuse: Separate wards for white and non-white men. A separate jail for women, divided into white and non-white sections. Separate types of food and food allowances based on race. Separate types of punishments and privileges. Overcrowding – cells made for 2 holding 4-6. Blankets washed once per year. Showers once per week. Isolation and torture tactics, sleep deprivation, beatings hooked to the wall. Strip. Strike. Shame. Hide.

A journalist photographed a tausa (strip search) from a tall building adjacent to the prison. Upon printing the photo, he was thrown into the very prison he was trying to expose…

The prison was closed in 1983.

Information from museums tends to get stored in a box in my mind labeled “history”, as in distant history, as in “this happened a long, long time ago and will never happen again” history. I almost can’t bear the truth that such dehumanizing policies and behaviors were status quo – even within my lifetime – and that in many parts of the world, human rights abuses are prevalent even now.

There’s redemption in the painful memory of Constitution Hill’s former prison complex, however. South Africa’s Constitutional Court now stands on its grounds. The bricks that were once the backbone of the prison’s Awaiting Trial Block now support the very institution where constitutional rights for ALL of South Africa’s “we the people” are upheld. The grounds have been reclaimed in the name of “dignity, freedom and equality”. The courtroom is encircled by windows representing inward and outward transparency…and so that the  Court Justices can gaze upon the remains of the prison and all of the treacherous history that it represents. May they – and we – ensure that this history never repeats itself.

Photos of the day

Dare-devilish maneuvering

18 January 2010

On Thursday I joined Peter and Mike (A MILLION COLOURS’ location scout) on a recce (this is industry lingo for “location reconnaissance” – I’m a quick learner). We went  to Preller estate, a historical landmark outside of Johannesburg. We were in search of a location to film an ANC training camp and a river crossing through the Zambezi…scenic enough for land mines and rapid gunfire to kick up incredible amounts of dust and debris.

To my complete surprise and sheer delight the farm was so expansive that the only way to tour the grounds was on 4 wheelers. It was a blast!  Hills and gorges, cliffs and river rapids, the place gave me a much-needed dose of nature combined with the thrill of speed and dare-devilish maneuvering.

Don’t let the lipstick fool you, I’ve been known to surprise folks with my fearlessness. Just about the time the guys came to grips with the fact that I was pretty much a speed racer in my own right – I had opted for my own vehicle instead of riding second on Pete’s and had been shifting (manually, mind you) through gears and jumping airborne to miss potholes all day – my fearlessness was put to the test. With my pedal to the metal and nothing but wide open space in front me, suddenly from out of the brush slithered the largest snake I’ve ever seen. It all happened so fast – I was only feet away and didn’t have much time to think. I swerved to miss the snake – which I did by a hair, in an attempt not to topple the ATV off the road. Let’s just say that snake was none to happy about it’s near-death experience and in its anger it reared up and flared its ears, or gills, or whatever those pointy flaps are on the sides of its face. I heard this loud pop hit the metal of my ATV and then it slithered across the road faster than a cat runs.

I had motioned to Peter and Mike who were behind me to be aware and they had seen the whole thing. The snake was too fast to snap a photo – though Pete tried. And when we all came to a halt to discuss what had transpired, Mike informed us that the snake was a Mozambique Spitting Cobra. They kill by spitting venom into your eyes, and therefore look for shiny or metallic things to spit at…hence the reason I heard a pop on the metal of my ATV. I was safe – we all were.  Mike was shocked that Pete and I were as calm as we were. I hereby give myself a gold star for fearlessness.

I learned this about films: nothing is impossible. You need to take 3 cameras and 15 crew across river rapids in a raft? No problem. You want to lace this field with explosives? No problem. You want to build an island in this river? No problem… I acted out scenes while Pete took photos. Mike exposed the possibilities by reliving other crazy shoots he’s done on the location. We planned escape routes and vantage points, chases and near-death feats. Let me tell you, in film, the brainstorming is unparalleled. I bet, if need be, they could tame that cobra.

Photos of the day

Less than a month ago I was working 60-80 hours per week as a pursuit strategist at Ernst & Young in New York City. Deadline-driven sales deals demand that kind of dedication. It’s a love/hate relationship…you may know the drill.

Since my arrival in South Africa three weeks ago, I’ve been getting 8 or 9 hours of sleep every night. I work out. I lay by the pool (its summer here). I shop. I write. I’ve even finished a book – and that never happens.

What a difference a sabbatical makes.

A MILLION COLOURS brings us here. Written and directed by my ever-talented husband Peter Bishai, A MILLION COLOURS is a sweeping romantic adventure of South Africa’s once most famous teen black movie star who was separated from the love of his life, becomes a fugitive, and struggles to survive apartheid. It’s an inspiring true story of danger, adventure, romance, betrayal and redemption…set against the turbulent background of a nation in crisis.

Pre-production on the film has begun and I’m using my lady of leisure status (also known as director’s wife) to do as I please. I pop into the production office, swing by the casting sessions, join the location scouts. I visit museums, people watch at cafes, perfect my driving-on-the-left abilities. I’m exploring my new environment – the people and processes of film-making and the socio-economic and cultural nuances of this lekker country.  And it’s all unfolding here…