image via Chris Saunders

On The Intersection of Cultures: A Conversation With Chris Saunders

Chris Saunders is a filmmaker and photographer based in Johannesburg, his latest project; Ghost Diamond, is a film inspired by and shot in the Johannesburg while featuring creatives from near and far afield. Ghost Diamond is a collaboration between Saunders, Manthe Ribane and OkZharp. It is a meeting of music and mythology, reflecting on Joburg as an international space which balances Western imperialism and modernity with African migration, culture and creativity. Johannesburg provides a canvas and character for Saunders, as his work offers multi-faceted expressions of the city and the inspiration and challenges it offers its inhabitants. Ghost Diamond is currently being promoted in Europe by the trio of Saunders, Gordon and Ribane.

Jamal Nxedlana, interviewed Saunders in Johannesburg just before the onset of the European tour; the nebulous, sometime dubious but most often inspirational character of the inner city is expounded upon and appreciated here.

Ghost Diamond Landscape

Why did you choose Johannesburg as the location for the film?

Johannesburg plays a character in the film. More than just been a location for the shoot the city brings something that not many places in the world can bring to the equation. Manthe and myself are both based in Johannesburg so it made sense logistically to shoot here. In the short film I try to also capture a less literal Johannesburg, to feed off the cities energy and translate it into the general emotive output of the project. The project directly feeds off my inner vision of what Johannesburg feels like for me. Sometimes dark, other times optimistic most times incredibly exciting.

You directed Sebenza in 2012 and in a way it captured the times. How do you feel Johannesburg has changed since then? 

I think Johannesburg and especially the inner city has developed and stabilized in a sense since 2012. When I say stabilized I mean more in the sense that there is less rapid development happening downtown and it seems like the space has a more consistent identity at the moment. Back in 2012 the city was undergoing massive change with new developments cropping up on different sides of the city each week, we found ourselves hanging out in places that were previously abandoned or industrial, it was all very exciting and the new energy in the city implanted many images in my mind.

What cultural production do you feel is defining the current moment?

Things that I feel are relevant at the moment are not necessarily new or from new players, I feel attracted to things that have been around for a little while, that have managed to keep their identity and make a name in different arenas without compromising or changing but by improving.

Okmalumkoolkat for example, has continued to make unique, lyrical music, he has mastered the balance between lyrics that appeal to people locally in SA but are well thought through and still sound catchy and attractive to other audiences. This is intelligent, good quality music and I think he is a brand, which will transcend in the next year into the international market even more while still maintaining support locally.

I think Maxhosa by Laduma, is a clothing brand which also proves that by making a good quality product that people will wear it, not only because of its novelity but because it is a quality product. He has taken something that could have been pure novelty but instead created something that combines a strong identity with incredible workmanship.

Lastly, I wanted to mention one more brand I love, Dokter & Misses, a family run business with new relevant design, well priced & well made in Johannesburg. Again, I love a product which can be from a place that is unexpected and still compete on a global scale. South African products are now more than ever becoming more obtainable, we should be focusing on export with our weaker currency, how to benefit both from our services and industries.

What do you think makes the cultural production coming out of Johannesburg interesting to people abroad?

As mentioned in the previous answer, some South African products are unique and good quality and if they were more available, I think could possibly compete on a global scale. We live in a place where innovation is necessary for survival, we live on the intersection culturally between western and diverse range of local cultures. All of this makes the aesthetic and ideas very interesting. If we can embrace the local industry internally as well as find new ways to export and find avenues to make things work internationally South African products and work will continue it’s appeal abroad.

Ghost Diamond Ep1

Do you feel there is enough space/support in South Africa for cultural production with less commercial motivations and more exploratory ones?

No, not really. I speak for myself of course… having had to recycle money from my commercial work personally to create new projects most of my career, I always think how many nice cars or if I would have managed to pay off my house by now if I hadn’t taken this approach but then I realize that my methodology also keeps me relevant because by keeping the balance between innovative and commercial practice, as well as sometimes innovating commercially the two will always feed off each other because the commercial world is always looking for new references and if you can provide that you stay relevant. But going back to the question, I don’t think there is enough support for new ways of thinking in South Africa and it’s now more than ever, important to stick together and form partnerships where we can find support and create better products and services as collectives.

Having watched your career develop you seem to involved in longer term projects and working with a similar group of people – why is this?

My newest projects needed the time. They firstly weren’t as simple as previous endeavors. They were longer, more in depth and had more meaning to me. I wanted to do them justice by giving them the attention they deserved. In a world where temporary and quick output are the norm, I feel that it’s important to give projects more attention and to be even more thorough than before. The projects that I have been working on have also mostly been self-funded, its taken time between projects to keep the ball rolling financially too. Again, the balance between completing something properly, finding the money to do it and making sure its still relevant are always hard work.

Ghost Diamond Ep1 2

What is it about the people you worked with on the film, which made you want to work with them?

Firstly Gervase Gordon aka OKZHARP. He is an incredible musician with foresight, talent and skill. We started the project together and without each other it would have never exsited. A true collaboration. It was also good to have two different global perspectives, Gervase been in Lodnon and myself in Johannesburg. The project is the output of those two elements.

Secondly, Manthe Ribane, her performance in the film drives the visuals and gives the music so much more emphasis. I feel strongly connected to dance and how it enhances music. They are reciprocal art forms – music needs dance and dance needs music, otherwise they both don’t exist hence the reason I think they co-exist so well in this film.

The other characters in the film, including Khaya Sibiya who narrates the project is someone I have worked with many times in the past and who was a surprising addition. He saved the day in many ways I cant mention here and ended up making the film more colourful and interesting.

On the design side, working with Jamal Nxedlana on the clothing really gave the film its pizaz, clothing that I feel was inspired by the urban surrounding been put back into it, giving Manthe’s performance more character. Deon van Zyl our editor and cinematographer for some fo the shots worked longer hours than humanly possible and the vibe in the piece was translated so well into the pictures with his uncanny skill. All our other characters too, Zaki Ibrahim who helped us on our first shoot with styling as well as been a character in the project and a voice on the track in episode 5 in the film. I hope I have mentioned everyone, all amazing people, we are very lucky!

Ghost Diamond Dear Ribane


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