In “Aftertaste,” senior Ceridwen Dovey’s documentary film about South African “empowerment project” wine farms, there are no good guys or bad guys, no obvious winners or clear losers.
It’s a visit to the murky world of changing race relations and subtly shifting power structures in the world of wine farming, where “coloured” (people of mixed race, who claim Dutch, Malay, and the indigenous South African Khoisan people as their heritage) workers toil for white owners. The owners have, in turn, attempted to improve the workers’ lives with better housing and fair compensation.
The white bosses – employed by an international corporation – urge their workers to dispense with the traditional “master” moniker and promise that if they clean up their homes and curb their drinking binges, they’ll be rewarded with indoor plumbing.
The coloured children dream of becoming lawyers and musicians while their parents struggle with alcohol addiction and HIV.
It’s a messy stew, spiced with the vestiges of apartheid and paternalism and served up with hearty doses of hope and change.
As a filmmaker, Dovey wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I didn’t want it to be ‘this is the dream story of development in South Africa,'” says Dovey ’03, a joint concentrator in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and anthropology. “But I didn’t want it to be ‘Oh, God, this is another sob story of oppressed people being oppressed again.’ Because I don’t think it’s either.”
For Dovey, “Aftertaste” – her senior thesis, along with a written analysis of the historical and political implications of farming in post-apartheid South Africa – signals her ambition as a filmmaker.
She hopes to return to her native South Africa to tell stories that, like “Aftertaste,” balance realism with optimism.
“So many of the films that you see coming out of Africa are about legitimately important things. Obviously, it’s a continent in crisis,” she says. Yet while AIDS, malaria, orphans, or corruption are worthy subjects, she doesn’t strive to make them hers.
“I feel that there are other stories that need to be told,” she says. “If there’s even a glimmer of hope, I think it empowers people to feel that they can do something.”
Change – for the better?
In many ways, Dovey’s film began long before she ordered a bottle of Winds of Change wine on a British Airways flight and became curious about the empowerment project winery that produced it.
The daughter of intellectuals who passed along their passion for their homeland, Dovey recalls her father getting death threats because he taught black students, which was illegal at the time. Her family fled to Australia – several times – but kept returning to East London, a small town on the east coast of South Africa.
As she came of age, Dovey witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, the end of apartheid in 1991, and the nation’s first nonracial presidential election in 1994. She still teases her grandfather for stocking up on food before that election; like many others in the country, he was surprised that it didn’t spark a civil war.
Dovey followed her sister, Lindewe ’01, to Harvard and to the VES Department, which she gives high marks for its talented, caring faculty and its ready access to otherwise expensive filmmaking resources.
Her first film at Harvard was a short profile of a family farm in Vermont, so that bottle of wine at 30,000 feet tapped an existing interest.
“I have this fascination with farming, particularly in South Africa, because land issues are so pertinent,” she says, citing Zimbabwe’s recent disastrous attempts at redistributing land to its black citizens. “I’m fascinated with this idea of what was at stake for these farmers.”
Farming, rich in visual processes to document, also appeals to the filmmaker in her.
So last summer she returned to South Africa with a video camera and her curiosity. Empowerment projects are attempting to transform life on South Africa’s wine farms by returning some profits to the laborers and helping them live better lives with initiatives like indoor plumbing or ending the practice of compensating them, in part, with wine.
On the surface, empowerment projects seem like a win for everyone: the coloured workers and their families enjoy a higher standard of living and the owners see profits from European markets eager to support positive change in South Africa. But Dovey, unconvinced, was eager to explore the changes for herself – and to show what she saw to others.
“I was wanting to figure out whether it was all good or more complicated than that. And of course it’s more complicated,” she says. “Things seem to change, but then you wonder if the workers are really seeing the profits they could be seeing.”
Documenting a nation on the brink
“Aftertaste” compares life on the Sonop farm, where a Swiss-based company produces the Winds of Change wine, with the grittier reality of a neighboring farm where another empowerment project is in its infancy.
Initially apprehensive about how the farm workers would perceive her, a white South African woman with a camera and a Harvard pedigree, Dovey’s concerns were quickly allayed.
“The community was just amazing. In the end, they made that experience what it was,” she says. With her camera as a calling card, Dovey was able to gain insight into their lives as well as her own, finding the similarities between herself and the farm workers as striking as their obvious differences.
What eluded Dovey was a tidy conclusion or a stunning exposé. The farm workers never complained, she says, even though Dovey witnessed interactions between them and the white managers that she saw as paternalistic. Were they mindful of the fact that their bosses would see the video, she wonders? Or were they truly content?
“I saw concrete changes in their lives, and I thought, I don’t have a right to say, ‘Yes, but you’re buying into your own oppression in whole new ways, this is false consciousness,'” says Dovey. “They have flush toilets! Things are better.”
As “Aftertaste” makes the rounds of some film festivals, Dovey will spend the next few months in New York, interning with documentary filmmakers and working to make ends meet. She’ll return to South Africa in February, thanks to a Trustman Traveling Fellowship from Harvard. Her hope is that it’s a one-way ticket.
“My passion for filmmaking is linked to South Africa and making some kind of a difference,” she says. “It’s less that I’m obsessed with making images and more that I am with making images of South Africa … adding value to that country somehow.”
She plans to join forces with her sister, also a filmmaker, to continue to make films that show the complicated, messy, but not altogether bleak reality of a changing South Africa.
“You get the feeling that [South Africa] is making it, that maybe it’s on the brink,” she says. “Everything that you do there, there’s something at stake.”