“Clified People”, racial segregation within families

“Clified People” (1987), by Yolande Zauberman.

We know how, when it comes to documentaries, finding the right viewing distance is the big thing. In the specific case of Yolande Zauberman, we want to talk more about the elegance of the look. The staging never lowers its gaze, nor does it seek to fade away in the face of the power of the subjects addressed. This is what is already striking in his first film made in 1987, Clified People, which Shellac re-releases in a restored version. Filmed clandestinely in South Africa during the apartheid regime, this medium-length film burning with beauty captures the way in which the policy of racial segregation established for forty-three years infiltrated the most unsuspected corners of existence.

Read the interview with Yolande Zauberman (in 2019): Article reserved for our subscribers “ is the lot of every closed world, religious or not”

From 1948 to 1991, South African citizens were clified according to a racial clification which distinguished four categories: whites, Indians, coloreds (“colored”, equivalent of mixed race) and blacks. Robert appears in front of the camera, this old man in his nineties with the disturbing air of James Stewart, recounts that when the law was introduced, the administrative court judged him to be mixed race, while his wife and children were considered white – they ended up rejecting it. For twenty-five years, the man has lived in a modest house in a poor neighborhood and shares his life with Doris, a 70-year-old black woman, loving, imperial, and a privileged witness to the humiliation experienced by her partner who, for all fault, had the misfortune of volunteering to join a mixed-race regime during the First World War.

Yolande Zauberman, who had planned to film a wealthy family before being denounced, invites herself to this couple who, between two testimonies, enjoys offering domestic skits to the 16 mm camera which enhances the slightest bright color. Rather than succumbing to the on-the-spot grammar of cinema vérité, the director sticks to the fixed shot and lights the scenes, a “moral choice” which transforms the slightest shot into a sublime photograph, and the couple’s frail home into a marital paradise which could turn into a musical at any moment.

Art of sharp editing

With a precise and sharp art of editing, the filmmaker interweaves the moving portrait of this couple with others: a drunk delivering a long racist soliloquy as if on a theater stage; the testimony of a journalist evoking a racial clification test which consists of sliding a pencil through the hair of the inspected; the bus ride of a white man who, in voiceover, says he tried to flee the country: “I came back, it’s the only place I understand. I have no doubt: here for me, it is the most beautiful country. There is an energy, a purpose. »

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