The holy fire that burns in the home

An interview with Richard Pakleppa, director of 'Paths To Freedom', a film on Namibian liberation.

Still from film 'Paths to Freedom'

The latest film from award winning Namibian filmmaker Richard Pakleppa, Paths to Freedom, takes a look at the launch of the liberation struggle by several Namibian freedom fighters, focusing primarily on the early stages of resistance to South African occupational rule in the 1960s. The film collects testimonies of the key players involved at the time, including Former presidents Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba; as well as former Robben Island prisoners Andimba Toivo ya Toivo and Helao Shityuwethe.

The 1960’s saw the founding of SWAPO (South West African People’s Organization) and the launch of the armed struggle to topple apartheid in Namibia. This culminated in the country’s first free and fair elections in 1989 and independence from South African rule in 1990.

Richard Pakleppa grew up in Namibia and as a student he was deeply affected by the times of revolt and activism in the 70s and 80s. He was a member of NANSO (Namibian National Students Organization) which was founded in 1984 as a non-racial, democratic and independent student organization. He is a filmmaker and activist who’s first film Saamstaan (1990) chronicled a woman’s coop of domestic workers who told their stories of what it’s like working under “Madam.” It was broadcast on NBC (Namibia’s state run broadcaster). In response the Afrikaans newspaper Republikein said that the film “breek Versioning (breaks reconciliation)”.

Paths to Freedom was showcased recently at the Durban International Film Festival in July and won the Best Artistic Achievement award at the Luxor African Film Festival in Egypt in March. In an effort to understand the genesis of this important film project I caught up with Richard and asked him a few questions.

What made you become a filmmaker?

I’ve been attracted to photographs and images and films for a long time. And I love music. So I like how films bring you close to  human lives, people. And how one is working with different registers of emotion and the “material” of life through sound and picture and rhythm. Through activism where we worked with theatre and music and video the film making was also seen as a powerful tool for creating awareness, challenging, exposing , shifting things. I like the spaces that are free of  the tyranny of narrative and plot. I like undiluted emotion, moments, a long single take of the burning bush in the face of a child, moods, places in which you as the viewer discover yourself, discover something of yourself.

Why did you want to tell this story? Why is this story of Namibia’s liberation struggle still important, still valid?

I think of the film as a praise song.  In praise songs we remember and praise those who came before us and created conditions for us to be who and how we are today. That is true even if it is also true that the process of liberation is not completed.

What was the process like? How long did it take to make?

I made the film over 4 years. Started with no money, shot some interviews and scenes, got the main money after 2 years then the rest when I had an advanced cut. The taking out and leaving in part is a huge challenge. Especially since your research, the interviews and the archive materials you collect flood your mind with an overwhelming amount of details, stories to choose from. Documentary filmmaking cannot be capricious or arbitrary or willful or lazy. Because people trust you with their story you have to take great care. It was a struggle. But I had great interviews to work with – a huge amount of testimony. And guidance from the ancestors.

What was it like to work so intimately with these freedom fighters? How many of them have passed on since you started work on this film and what are your thoughts about that.

It is a great honor in my life to have worked with and become close to some truly amazing women and men. They all lived/live ready to die for freedom. There have been 5 funerals. Each one was also a remembering and celebrating of the life of a great and wonderful person. I wish I could tell you what huge, generous hearts these men and women have.

What was it like going to Robben Island with Helao Shityuwethe and Andimba Toivo ya Toivo?

Yes, it was amazing.  They walked around the place like they had come home. Checking here and there, complaining about changes that had been made. I realised that Robben Island belongs to them. It is a deep part of their lives and their stories and their memories. It’s powerful. Because they won. They escaped. They are free to visit. To inspect the prison and the island as free men. I was overwhelmed by the power of Helao Shityuwethe and Andimba Toivo ya Toivo’s friendship, seeing them gaze into the cold mist together, their intimacy. I found a way to imagine just a little bit of the kind of solidarity they had – to keep sane in that place. Now it’s like a theme park – Robben Island for tourists. But for them it’s a place of horror and a place of triumph of endurance. We turn around a corner and suddenly the Comrade enacts a story of chilling brutality when he was beaten up just there and … how they would later laugh about it.

What can young (born free) Namibians learn from this film and this struggle? What is the “new” or “next” struggle for this generation?

Last year during the hand over of 1200 DVDs of Paths to Freedom to Namibian schools Helao Shityuwete – the man in the pink shirt in the film – said: “We are handing our story to you now. We started this struggle and it is now up to you to complete this struggle.” The struggles for freedom in Africa have been contradictory and have brought contradictory results. By remembering and praising the known and unknown heroes of our past we are called on to honour them by continuing the work they started. By being activists as they were. By caring about society. Finding a way to engage with the skills we have.

At the end of the film you post the quote: “OKURUOO / Light the holy fires / to remember the past / to remember the connection / between past and the present.” Can you tell us a bit more about this–what it means, why you chose it and how it relates to the next generation?

In Herero culture Okuruoo is the holy fire that burns in the home. It keeps alive the connection with ancestors and with memories of what happened, how we got to where we are, how the actions of the people before us inform our experience in the present. In that culture it has a lot to do with landscape and the colour and shape of land and cattle and water places and the people and ancestors who established communities to which, we in the present, belong. A lot of that is expressed in songs which are like monuments. Places of memory. After the unspeakable horrors of the genocide – Herero and Nama communities were shattered and dispersed. Many proud pastoralists had been made destitute and reduced to being slave labour on their own land. As people were slowly regrouping Chief Hosea Kutako told people to light the holy fires in their houses again. It was very important.  We have come through hurricanes of trauma, which after 1989 was put aside. Now Namibians are beginning to look into their pasts as part of the process of dealing with those aspects of the struggle for freedom. Struggles that have not been realized. We light that fire. The flame passes from the hands of one generation to the other. We realize it is our task, too.

Last thoughts on Namibia and where we are now?

We are in a different world with different possibilities. People have become very “depoliticized”. But that seems to be changing now. And the forms of political action are changing all over the world. It’s clear that democracy is not working well under the dictatorship of liberal capitalism. It’s clear that natural resources and wealth in the hands of the settler class, the new elites and the global corporates is not bringing an end to unacceptable poverty and inequality. But changing the ownership of the means of production is not revolutionary enough. History shows that societies need ways to insure that leaders are accountable, that they are elected to serve the people in a humble and honest way – not to lord over them; that the interests of the majority are defended, that we are not blinded by the rhetoric of the haves. I think we have the chance to imagine better solutions to many serious problems. To contribute to the circulation of critical thoughts, good ideas, incisive questions. To insist that problems be addressed in frameworks that unmask them for what they are. To really contribute to the conversation. To understand that we had a plan to create a great country for everyone and that we are serious in making that happen.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.