The Dutch documentarian, Jeroen Van Velzen, sits down with The Pavlovic Today to discuss his film Tanzania Transit premiering at Tribeca.
The Dutch documentarian, Jeroen Van Velzen, sits down with The Pavlovic Today to discuss his film premiering at Tribeca, Tanzania Transit.
Jeroen Van Velzen, a Dutch director who has spent much of his life living in Kenya, India, and South Africa, speaks English perfectly. It’s good, because he has complex and wide-ranging thoughts on all of the places he’s been, and the things he has seen and meticulously filmed there. His documentaries mostly focused on East Africa, speak vividly for themselves, and engage on an interpersonal level with people who are often referred of only in the context of an entire continent.
In 2012, Jeroen Van Velzen won the Tribeca Film Festival jury award, for Best New Documentary Director, after he premiered Wavumba, a modern day take on The Old Man and the Sea, set in Kenya.
This year, his new film, Tanzania Transit, looks in depth at the changing cultures and technologies which are developing in the nation just to Kenya’s south, by taking a train out from the bustling Dar Es Salaam to the rural bush regions. It recently won this year’s jury award for Best Cinematography.
In a white pressed shirt and a driving cap, Jeroen Van Velzen could be any white filmmaker, from any country. It’s the stories he tells which make him unique. I sat down with him at the Roxy Hotel, where he recounted his experiences filming on a cramped and segregated train, and expressed hope for the future of the nation he just but before the lens
The Pavlovic Today: What’s your relationship with Tanzania as a country, and how did you come to start on this project?
Jeroen Van Velzen: I grew up in Kenya, in southern Kenya on the coast, which is literally on the border of Tanzania. Kenya and Tanzania are very Swahili-speaking countries, so there’s not so many cultural differences. My dad’s been living there for thirty-five years, and of course, I’ve been going there for thirty-some years now. All the characters are people that I’ve met, and I’ve just been awed by how people survive in such difficult circumstances. And threw the time that I’ve spent there I’ve also seen how fast Kenya, Tanzania, and East Africa is changing; there’s this modern pace and it’s changing the landscape, it’s changing the culture. And these characters, like the Maasai man, he’s literally one of the first types of people I encountered as a child, growing up – hearing stories about fighting lions, about all of the traditional background where these people came from. If I’m going to make a film that’s gonna touch, in general, the feeling of Tanzania, of East Africa, I feel like we should get in the film a bit of this cultural background. It’s completely disappearing and people don’t want to hear about it. People don’t respect the elder people from the Maasai because they don’t want to be seen as people who are living in the bush, they want to be educated and having all the luxuries of a modern society. And so this is something that naturally I picked up with from a young age: how these Maasai were forced out of their habitat to go live in this modern world where they were very much not accepted. Ukiah, [the Kenyan woman,] has just got this incredible story, where she was sold from a young age, and what she went through – I mean this is extreme. But her story is very common, in the sense that a lot of women and growing up in East Africa have the same thing with fathers that were very dominant, and it’s a very men-dominated world. And the women are just now starting to stand up and say ‘No, we can have our own business and we can have our own property. We look after the kids, we do all the work and we should be recognized.’ And it’s a beautiful thing; they’re starting to come together – there’s a harshness to the background but there’s really something beautiful that’s coming together. My character Peter – I was really wanting to look close at corruption, I wanted to give it a face. So I was looking for a politician or a policeman actually, so you could understand why corruption works as such a fundamental way of life there. It’s just – East Africa without corruption is not the way it is. And where does it come from and why are these people so nasty and so vicious and so manipulative? It’s very difficult to find a policeman to be a character so I ended up finding Peter who is a commercial preacher. And yeah, he’s actually a very powerful, very dangerous person in Tanzania at the moment. I’m much more connected with Kenya than I am with Tanzania, and so Ukiah and Peter are actually Kenyan. But Kenyans and Tanzanians cross over the border very easily.
The Pavlovic Today: I was really astounded by the level of intimacy you had with these characters.
Jeroen Van Velzen: Yeah, I was really lucky to get so close to them and to have them open up so easily.
The Pavlovic Today: And was that before you were on the train with them?
Jeroen Van Velzen: Definitely, yeah. Actually, I spent a lot of time with Ukiah, a lot of time to really get to know her. But she was actually the easiest person to open up, very quickly from the beginning, which just completely surprised me because women don’t really talk to men about their problems. It’s just, men don’t really want to hear them so it’s very uncommon. And to then have a white man, which to them is very inferior, it’s just difficult for women to talk to white men. So there’s this whole cultural taboo about women talking about rape, about pressure. So how do you find a woman to talk and open up about that? And she’s really great, she’s really one in a million. She helped women to stand up for other women in their community. So if someone gets raped or something happens, she will actually get up, get a mob together, get them to go to a police station – the police station will push them away but it’s all about saying, ‘Hey we’re not taking this, we’re standing up.’ For Ukiah, I loved to see that she walked into a room – and, you know, she was in the second-class women cabins – and I was scared because I thought, as a man, I’m not allowed to be in a female carriage, and we had an all-male crew. And if one of the women said, ‘No, we don’t like this, it’s awkward,’ we had to go. So I was terrified that we’d be pushed away, or that maybe there’d be women that don’t want to be on camera, and so it’s all about how she – because she’s traveling alone – she needs to interact. Her story needs to come out with people. I’m not gonna interview her because that’s not my style, so it needs to just happen naturally. And it did, it just happened so naturally, and the people that she was with were just so curious. You know, ‘Why are you being filmed?’ and one thing leads to another. And you’re just living in a such a small space together, you’re just sharing your food, you water, you don’t sleep well together – they all fell out of the bunk beds in the middle of the night, with kids screaming. They want through all these traumas and this hard travel together, and it just builds up this relationship. All these deep stories from both sides just open up, I mean, it’s not in the film but the women in the carriages, they told us these amazingly intimate things about their past, growing up as girls. And I was just flabbergasted that they could be so open with us, so close.
The Pavlovic Today: There is so much content there – just the fact that they were segregated by gender is so striking. I wouldn’t have known that.
Jeroen Van Velzen: Yeah, once I say it you’ll notice it just when you watch the film again. It’s difficult because it wanted it to be noticed in the film but I didn’t want to have to explain it, so it just has to be self-explanatory. It didn’t work out. But I think it’s all about the essence. The film, as you rightfully say – you’re fascinated by how close you get to the people, and I think that’s really the essence of this film. We manage to get really close and really intimate. And maybe some of the stories I wanted to hear, I didn’t hear them. I chose things that came to me that I didn’t expect, but they were really intimate. It’s about this feeling you want to gasp. Getting so close to these people and then understanding how they’re living and the struggles they go through, but also just the hope they have for the future.
The Pavlovic Today: Absolutely. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the train is a really interesting combination of public and private space. I was curious if that had anything to do with why you wanted to film there. Was it about intimacy for you?
Jeroen Van Velzen: Well, all my films in the past have always been very intimate. I think that if I’m not convinced of somebody’s story being authentic, I can’t use it in the edit. I have to have this feeling while I’m filming, it has to feel like people are saying a story and they’re meaning it or they’re having emotions with it. I think why I chose this train is because I had these characters in mind to kind of talk about the problems of this fast-changing landscape – this modern world coming out in Africa, and all the problems and themes surrounded with it. I wanted to make a film about East Africa, and I had all these characters and knew they were great metaphors for all these things going on. I just needed like a place to put them in. And when I traveled on the train myself for the first time, I was just amazed at all the people that were living there. There’s a police station, there’s a doctor’s cabin and a post office, there’s a bar and a restaurant. There’s a whole little economy, a whole little village, a whole little social structure moving on this train. And this train became a metaphor for East Africa. This train keeps derailing and breaking, and it’s literally dying the whole time. And it gets mended and screwed up and pushed forward again a few miles and it breaks down again. But it does get from A to B, you know, with a lot of struggles and a lot of conflicts. And that’s how I think East Africa is; the people there are struggling and fighting but they do get somewhere, you know, they are moving. It’s just not an easy path. And so getting these people in the train, having this microcosm – East Africa on the rails – I just thought that would be beautiful.
The Pavlovic Today: I was struck by the subjects of this story, and the way they all seem to represent the place they come from while still being very exceptional stories. The Maasai, for instance, are a cultural group not many Americans know about, and to watch the prejudice they face is both shocking and, it seems, deeply representative.
Jeroen Van Velzen: They are quite exceptional stories. And I think that’s kind of what gives their story more of an edge than if I had just gone onboard and said, ‘Hey, let’s just make a film with people who are on the train.’ Because I put these characters on the train, knowing them from before, knowing what their stories are. I think there should always be an element of control when making a documentary. You should know what you want to say and have the best elements made available to you. There are people who do not agree with me on this at all and believe that documentaries should have an essence of finding something on the spot. Those kinds of films can work very beautifully, I’m just not that kind of maker.
The Pavlovic Today: There’s a perception that Africa can be a monolithic place, that the vast array of people on the continent are all similar because they are African, and I think your film shows us how wrong that is.
Jeroen Van Velzen: It’s very much the opposite of that. You know, it’s difficult to talk about this subject because people don’t want to hear about it, but there’s been a lot of war in Africa and still is. There’s a lot of tribal war between countries, and a lot of social war between men and women but also between religions within the countries. There’s prejudice on so many different levels.
The Pavlovic Today: Do you feel like there are any perceptions or myths in cinema that you wanted to confront with your film?
Jeroen Van Velzen: Talking about all of my films, this one’s a but dark for my liking. For Tanzania Transit, I knew that from the start; it would be a very confronting film with a lot of heavy sides to it. But I do hope that this film has what my other films have – a bit of humor and a bit of love and a bit of light, and also hope. I find that something that really agitates me is all these foreign filmmakers that go to Africa and portray this kind of devastating landscape where everybody’s just kind of fighting to survive but also their hopelessness. And there only being poverty and war and destruction. I think that there’s so many things changing in East Africa at this moment and I was hoping this film could show that – negative sides and positive sides. People are coming out of heavy, heavy poverty. In the twenty years I’ve been there, the number of schools that have been built, the number of kids now going to school – the number of girls now going to school – I mean, the numbers are huge. You can’t talk about America or the West changing as dramatically as they are, in a positive sense. There might be a lot of negative sides, but I wish there would be more filmmakers looking at the beautiful changes that are happening, and the cultural heritage that is there, and the kind of resilience people have. I think that’s missing in a lot of films. My previous film, Wavumba, is about an old fisherman trying to catch a big fish, and it’s all about mythology, telling stories, and about wanting to be a very courageous fisherman. That story could be told anywhere in the world; it wouldn’t make a difference. My other film, about three students trying to become the president of a school – you’ve seen that film before, you’ve seen it in China, in America, you’ve seen it everywhere. What I think makes that film so good is that people relate to the characters: their hopes and dreams and things that they do are things that we see here as well. It’s about finding the same similarities.
The Pavlovic Today: President Trump was recently revealed to have called certain developing nations ‘shithole countries.’ What is your response to that as a director that has spent time in developing nations?
Jeroen Van Velzen: I think Donald Trump could be linked very much to my character Peter, really – someone who is very egocentric, and sees the world only through his own glasses, and doesn’t really capture the essence of what’s really going around. When people become so egocentric, they lose all touch of reality. In Tanzania, one of the worst issues they face is with corruption. And it’s not a problem because it’s there, it’s a problem because it’s accepted. And the problem with people like Trump, who think making a profit in any way, going over the backs of other people, this is exactly what Peter does, and I wanted to show how crazy that is – the concept of not understanding that these people’s lives matter. I think that’s the same thing as what Trump’s doing. He’s just very egotistical.