Philippe Talavera, whose film, A CRACK IN THE WALL showed in Nairobi during the 4th annual Lola Kenya Screen audiovisual media festival, production workshop and market for children and youth in eastern Africa in 2009, is back in 2010 with another film, WE WERE YOUNG. He speaks to BETHSHEBA ACHITSA about his work and life in Africa.
What brought you to Africa?
I’m not sure I can explain why but I have always been attracted to Africa. I always knew at some stage in my life I would live in Africa, so after finishing my Master in France I was looking for a placement for a PhD. I was privileged to be accepted in South Africa and moved there in 1995 at the age of 24. That was my first real African experience. I’ve never really left since.
Tell us something about your early life?
I was born in the south of France, in a town called Aix-en-Provence. I spent my whole childhood and school years around that place. I was privileged to have a very loving and caring family and even though my parents divorced when I was 12, I felt surrounded by lovely people. My mum started studying for a nursing degree after the divorce and was an inspiration to me, seeing my mum studying while I was a student encouraged me to study harder. I have a lovely and talented younger brother, who is a musician (percussions).
You are a trained veterinary and DEE’s holder in Human Biochemistry; do you still practise this profession, and what turned you to filmmaking?
No, I don’t practise any longer, but I don’t regret studying it. I had to make a choice at 17; at that time I felt a bit insecure and unsure of what to study. Being good at biology, I settled for a Master’s in Veterinary Science and a DEES in Human Biochemistry. I also took drama classes and was involved in various student productions. I then went to South Africa to complete my Ph.D and worked on Tuberculosis, since it’s a threat to both animals (hence was linked to my Veterinary Master) and Humans (hence was linked to my DEES). I thought at that stage that would be my life. I moved to Namibia in 1997 and worked more as a Vet till 2000. However I felt something was missing. My real passion was theatre. I had to come back to it.
In 2000, I conceptualised a project called Ombetja Yehinga (the ribbon of AIDS) and started managing it in 2001. That was the way I found my way back to my first love, theatre. Since we do social work through theatre, we realised that we could not reach as many people as we wished to with live theatre; it proved too expensive to tour hence we started turning our scripts into videos.
Did you undertake any training in filmmaking or what is it that keeps you making films?
I never studied filmmaking. Initially I was helped by other video directors and talented camera people and sound people and was privileged to work with talented artists. I struggled a lot with the 2-dimensional aspects of filmmaking as I am used to a stage that is 3-dimensional but I love film because it can help you reach more people. I love working on a set and a stage and I think I’m a better theatre director than film director. I am happier if the messages we try to carry over are clear and help people change their behaviour and I think it’s an advantage that I have both an artistic and scientific background. It helps me a lot with researching for our projects.
Whom do you target in your films?
We mostly target teenagers; 14-to-20-year-olds.
You have been in Namibia for the last 13 years; what can you say about the Namibian film industry?
In many ways the film industry is fairly young. Namibia has only been independent for 20 years. There are some very talented directors in Namibia, and a huge pool of incredibly naturally talented actors. More training is needed, and more opportunities are needed. Funding is a problem, and it’s hard to secure funding for productions. Namibia is a small country (only 2 million people) hence the market is small.
Do you feel Namibian filmmakers are doing enough to attract potential producers to the country?
I think they are trying their best. Namibia has often been used for major Hollywood film productions such as BEYOND BORDERS with Angelina Jolie, 10,000 BC and THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX. Most people may not realise that Namibian’s deserts are the background, but indeed they are. We have a Namibian Film Commission that is dealing with those productions.
As an individual who has done several films in Namibia, what would you say is the major problem facing filmmakers in the country?
Too little funding leaves the few filmmakers competing against one another for funding and it’s a pity. Lack of enough training opportunities for young directors or actors is also a problem. It is really difficult to make a living here; there just aren’t enough productions going on. As I said earlier, the market is small and we can’t compete with South Africa whose industry is big. We have only one local TV channel and that can’t pay for our productions. We have to basically fundraise the whole cost of the productions, since we are unlikely to make much profits upon release, and that’s a limiting factor. We often end up producing with not enough funding, and that unfortunately affects the quality of our products.
Apart from selling Namibia as a good filming location, is the government doing enough to promote film in Namibia?
I think the government tries. Film production is not necessarilly a priority, but the Namibian Film Commission and the Film Association of Namibia were established to try and promote Namibia’s film industry.
What channels are used in distributing films in Namibia?
There are not many. We have one broadcasting channel, NBC. We don’t have big production companies selling our films so we often try to do it by ourselves. That is obviously a very limiting factor.
What is the future of filmmaking in Namibia?
I think there’s a huge potential. I hope the SADC will start promoting work in smaller countries; the focus is currently very much on South Africa. But Namibia has extraordinary landscapes for amazing film backgrounds. It has great infrastructure to welcome big Hollywood teams and it has amazing actors and actresses. Festivals like the Lola Kenya Screen festival in eastern Africa can do a lot by showing our work and helping the public and international filmmaking industry to realise our potential.