by Tanner Tafelski
True art should be like barbed wire or peri-peri sauce, it has to catch and burn.
–Aryan Kaganof (Davey)
A promo photo—to what I don’t know—shows Aryan Kaganof in a medium shot in front of a black background. He has a smug smirk on his face as he looks directly at the camera. He wears a white long-sleeve shirt with this little message on the front: “Welcome to South Africa duck mother fucker”. Between “Welcome to Sough Africa” and “Duck mother fucker” is a picture of a handgun. If this isn’t enough for you, he gives the camera not one, but two middle fingers.
This is an archetypal image. The sass, the bravado, the punk impulse to agitate anyone and everyone, it’s all in the photo. It screams, “Fuck off!” It captures the attitude in his persona and in his filmmaking. His brand of provocation, however, is little known in North America. Besides one-time screenings and university programs, like Columbia’s recent one devoted to him, none of the film institutions on either the West or East coast ever seem to stage retrospectives of his work. The title of a post on Mike Everleth’s Underground Film Journal sums up the state of Kaganof in the States: “Who the Hell Is Aryan Kaganof?”
Born Ian Kerkhof in 1964, the filmmaker changed his name to Aryan Kaganof in 1999, when he discovered who his actual father was. Kaganof grew up in Johannesburg, specifically Yeoville, a neighborhood once toted as an area where black and white people lived in harmony during apartheid. Kaganof sets his first film about South Africa there. At the age of nineteen, he left the country. He refused to do military service during apartheid and lived in the Netherlands, where he enrolled in the country’s film academy. In 1992, his sophomore year, he won the Golden Calf award for best film (Kyodai Makes the Big Time) at the Netherlands Film Festival. Since then, he has been making films about sex, death, and violence for more than two decades. He has been making fine art as well as writing poetry and novels too. He has been hobnobbing and collaborating with an assortment of underground, outsider, and shock artists like Merzbow, Blixa Bargeld, Matthew Barney, and Ron Athey. With each and every work, he has been a firebrand with a red-hot poker.
Between the 26th and the 28th of April 1994, around the time of South Africa’s first elections, Kaganof shot Nice to Meet You, Please Don’t Rape Me! (Confessions of a Yeoville Rapist). It’s his first film in a growing body of work on South Africa. Please to Meet You is an uncomfortable watch, a kaleidoscopic film that is part Godard and part Tex Avery. It’s a Hollywood musical about rape in South Africa. The film is not only about the sexual kind for, as N’Goné Fall notes, it uses rape as a metaphor that takes on many guises—sexual, verbal, political, moral, and psychological. Three men, one black and two white, go by the name of Rapist #1 (Eric Miyeni), Rapist #2 (Matthew Oats), and Rapist #3 (Gustav Geldenhuys). The unholy trio meets with a Cabinet Minister (Bill Curry) who enlists them in his organization’s mission. “The top brass know that what this country needs is rape, sweet rape,” he says. He tells the three:
“Your mandate for the future will be to rape everybody regardless of race, sex, creed, color, gender, sex preferences, height, looks, qualifications—it simply doesn’t matter anymore. Continued funding for our organization by NGOs and the IMF will rely heavily on your total desire to overcome rape prejudice, and to see to it that this becomes a country of equal opportunities rapists.”
A rape occurs in the country “every 83 seconds, but that isn’t good enough” the Minister says. He wants to shorten the statistic to at least one rape every minute. What follows rattles the brain.
Elated with their task at hand, the chucklehead trio burst out of their meeting, hopping, skipping, and jumping in the streets, singing at the top of their lungs, “everybody must get raped!” as pedestrians look on dazed and confused.
And everybody does get raped. The three tar a white mannequin black before “raping” it. Eventually, they rape each other. At a bar, Rapist #3 forces #2 to drink Coca-Cola and brandy until he’s drunk. “You got to love your own people before you can change the world” he says to #2. “One more for your ancestors!” he shouts as #2 gulps down the mix. Tears stream down #2’s face as #3 cackles at the show of emotion. #3’s sadism forces guilt onto the Englishman and his colonialist ancestry.
Towards the end of the film, #3 rapes #1 on an eerily empty bus riding through Yeoville. Role-playing a master-slave relation, #1 forces #3 to whip him. When the film screened at the 1996 FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou, about 900 people in attendance left—John Akomfrah stayed though— at this point in the film. The black rapist threatens the third rapist at gunpoint to sodomize him. # 3 does so as cartoony squeaks and squishes play on the sound track (Kaganof).
In 2009, Kaganof revised the film, re-editing it, pairing it down about thirty minutes. I haven’t seen the original version, but this cut is striking nonetheless. It’s a fragmented film, broken into bits and glued back together, and whose shards are tipped with deadly farce.
Six years later, in 2002, Kaganof made a film that is the opposite of Nice to Meet You in mood. Western 4:33 is a sober and sobering film nearly devoid of people. I went into the film without any knowledge about it. To my virgin eyes, and no doubt cued by the title, it’s simply a landscape film, one about the barrenness of a South African space. Near the end, however, Kaganof drops a bombshell: over a photo of emaciated Africans, scrolling text talks about the five concentration camps in Namibia at the beginning of the 20th century, in which Kaiser Germany held—and killed—Herero and Nama tribes people. Without realizing it, I’ve been watching the wreckage and ruin of these ghostly landscapes, these James Benning-ian landscape suicides. I’ve been watching a psycho-geography.
Parallel to canted black and white shots of gnarled trees, broken windows, and the remnants of barbed wire fences, are those of a man and a woman. It’s the story of the man’s lost love, the one that got away, pushing the film into Hiroshima Mon Amour territory. This narrative doesn’t register in the 32-minute version I saw though. Kaganof cut the original 50-minute video version down and re-edited it in order to transfer the film onto 35mm (Koops). In the shots that remain in the shorter version, the man, wearing a Fila beanie, looks indifferently at the camera in extreme close ups. On the soundtrack, the man talks in the Herero language, which is not translated. It’s intentional. There are no subtitles because Kaganof says, “the German colonisers never bothered to learn the Herero language and never understood them” (Koops). Thus, Kaganof maintains an air of the unknown in the film when it comes to past African cultures.
Three times spread throughout the film, the only moments when the film is in color, Kaganof shows a woman in a white skirt walking past a fiery orange brick wall, and past a gang of hard-hatted men sitting and admiring. It’s a haunting moment for Kaganof slows down the film so that each and every one of her steps is pronounced. In the second time the scene plays, Kaganof layers the soundtrack. The clanging, scraping, rattling of the sound design mixes with Macy Gray’s “Don’t Come Around,” and, towards the end of the scene, Blixa Bargeld’s voice. The scene encapsulates the density of the film’s sample-heavy sounds that range from Godzilla’s electronic roar to La Monte Young drones, from German opera to Sun Ra.
The interplay of music and landscape in Western 4:33 anticipates Kaganof’s latest film about a 2013 miner’s strike that turned into a massacre by the hands of the police—Night is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana. A network, Hearing Landscape Critically (HLC), commissioned Kaganof to make the film for a conference that was held at the University of Stellenbosch. Watching the film there, an HLC committee was put together. Uncomfortable with the film, they decided to not show Night at Harvard, where another one of their conferences was held. Their reason: the film “represented an unbalanced and asymmetrical record of the event itself.” To which Kaganof responded by saying he “was given an entirely open brief to respond as a creative film artist in any manner [he] deemed appropriate” (Critical).
After screening at Stellenbosch, Night had its U.S. premiere in New York during a March 2014 Kaganof retrospective programmed by Columbia University. Two months later, it played at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, where it got a special mention from the international jury.
Ever the tinkerer, there seems to be two versions of Night. An hour-long version is ready for streaming on Kaganof’s Vimeo page. The version screened at Oberhausen, the one that I saw, is just under thirty minutes. Night matches Nice to Meet You’s quality and density. It’s more intricately assembled than Nice to Meet You or Western 4:33. It collages different footage together, one of which is the raw video of the massacre, of men being wrangled into an area by guns and tanks, and then fired upon. Kaganof reframes the footage over and over again, reorienting the viewer’s perception of it. In a symbiotic relationship with the footage, there are moments where Kaganof shoots, in black and white, musicians performing in a concert hall—a flutist, a conductor, and a pianist/vocalist. At one point, Kaganof mashes these two threads together. The massacre appearing once more, now in black and white and slowed down, Kaganof cuts between it and the flutist, throttling back and forth between the two creating a stroboscopic effect. Musicality even informs the structure of the film for it’s split into two movements: “larghissimo” and “Kafkaesque.”
Following a countdown from the film leader, the film begins with a shot from the Australian prison film, Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead in which an inmate shrieks and shouts behind his cell window. Note only does the shot set the mood for the rest of the film—a silent howl in the face of South Africa–, but it also lays out Kaganof’s formal conceit. Unlike Nice to Meet You and Western 4:33, this film appropriates footage, finds bits of it and sews them together, creating a crazy quilt of the country as a police state. He creates an essay film that states its thesis upfront. Over a still image of a concrete slab, “Remember Marikana” stamped on it, white text appears reading:
My intention here is not only to theorize about Marikana, but to theorize through Marikana. The result will be unusual and unacceptable conclusions about South African society, past and future. In the scenes that follow, Marikana will be presented as a ritual murder, of which it is a simulacrum, a form of sacrifice heralding ominous change.
As Sam Cooke sang in 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” . . . but it’s not going to come today. Change happens slowly, spanning years, even decades. Three years after the killings, protestors and politicians are pressuring President Jacob Zuma to make public the commission report on Marikana. It’s been over a month now since he was handed the report.
Make no mistake Aryan Kaganof is a provocateur. At his worst (SMS Sugar Man), his shock tactics come off as slight gimmicks. At his best, he plies his extreme aesthetics to nettle, for the better, South African history and culture. He is like a South African Ousmane Sembène. Before you blanche at such a comparison—I know Kaganof would—here me out: although they approach cinema from opposite ends (creating art house films using Marxist dialectics for Sembène and making semi-narrative films using modernist fragmentation for Kaganof), they are not afraid of talking about Africa bluntly. Although he primarily operates out of Senegal, Sembène looks at Africa as a whole, more often then not, while Kaganof is more specific, focusing on South Africa. Both stir up trouble. They pinpoint what’s wrong, what needs changing, what needs to be done. They tackle Africa head-on.
Critical Landscapes. “Night Is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (Film
by Aryan Kaganof).” Hearing Landscapes Critically. 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 17 May 2015. http://hearinglandscapecritically.net/2015/02/25/night-is-coming-threnody-for-the-victims-of-marikana-film-by-aryan-kaganof/
Davey, Derek. “1st Prize for Film.” Northcliff Melville Times 19 Apr. 2002. Caxton
and CTP. Web. 17 May 2015. http://kaganof.com/kagablog/category/films/western433/page/2/
Everleth, Mike. “Who the Hell is Aryan Kaganof?” Underground Film Journal. Mike
Everleth, 6 June 2011. Web. 17 May 2015. http://www.undergroundfilmjournal.com/who-the-hell-is-aryan-kaganof/
Fall, N’Goné. “Ian Kerkhof.” Revue Noire 1 June 1995. Web.
Kaganof, Aryan. “Ousmane Sembène.” Kagablog. Web. 17 May 2015.
Koops, Wendy. “Western 4.33.” International Film Festival Rotterdam Daily. Web.