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19 March 2018 16:30 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Jon Blair: a conscience and a camera

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc
john Blair

Jon Blair is the only UK-based documentary filmmaker to have won an Oscar, two Emmys and a BAFTA. He is also a son of our soil, though he didn’t always look fondly on the place. REBECCA DAVIS caught up with him when the Encounters documentary festival brought him to town.

When Jon Blair was 16 years old, he received an item in the post that would change his life forever: an envelope containing his draft documents from the South African army. Blair, then a Grade 11 pupil at St Stithians in Johannesburg, knew he wasn’t willing to fight for the Apartheid government. So he told his parents, and South African officials, that he wanted to go to England over the end-of-year holidays to visit his sister, Hilary. Both parties agreed, and his parents bought him a ticket. On December 24th, 1966, he arrived in London. Once there, he simply refused to return.

It’s an extraordinary step to be taken by a 16 year-old boy – to flee not only his country, but the safety of his family home too. “In one sense, it’s actually what’s dominated every piece of work I’ve done since, in a very oblique way,” muses Blair. “What makes someone, in some way – this sounds somewhat grander than I mean it, at least in my own context – a resistor, as opposed to the large number of people who were not?”

In Blair’s case, he attributes it partly to the influence of his parents – particularly his mother, a liberal academic – and his sister, a member of the militant African Resistance Movement, who fled into exile on the back of a motorbike half an hour ahead of the security police in 1963. But he also believes that an important motivating factor was his own sense of being an outsider. Younger than his peers, because he’d started school early, and resolutely un-sporty at a series of South African private schools which valorised sporting ability, Blair felt himself to be profoundly alien in his environment.

Arriving in London, and aware that he needed to finish his education, he knew of only one school – a “gothic red-brick building” on Hammersmith Road, which he had walked by on a trip to England three years earlier with his father. Intrigued, he had asked his father what the building housed, and received the answer that it was St Paul’s Grammar School. Remembering this, 16 year-old Blair phoned up the school and asked if he could enrol. They told him to write them a letter, which he did, and he hand delivered it.

“They rang me up and said ‘Look, this is a little unusual, who’s going to pay the fees?’” Blair remembers. “I said, ‘But you’re a grammar school, you’re free!’ They said ‘No, I’m afraid we’re not a grammar school, we’re a public [private] school.’” Blair phoned his parents in South Africa and explained that he had been accepted into St Paul’s and had no intention of coming home. They were, understandably, resistant, but Blair was adamant in his refusal to get on the plane. “Then I sort of persuaded them, and by then I’d won a scholarship to the school anyway.” Blair’s new life in England had begun.

As many exiles have found, however, it’s easier to step on to a plane than it is to shed a national identity. Does he consider himself South African today? Blair sighs. “It’s a bit hard. I don’t know quite what I am. When South Africa played England at football…I wasn’t sure. I copped out. For the first democratic elections I applied for my South African passport so I could vote, which is partly an answer for you. I really, really wanted to vote in that election. But I travel on a British passport.” He breaks off to consider the question. “I’m not any less South African than I am more British. I am to some extent a citizen of – this sounds incredibly pompous – nowhere. I am to some extent still that outsider.”

In person Blair is almost painfully self-deprecating, perpetually qualifying his statements out of fear that they come across as pretentious or self-aggrandising. He refers to his films at one point as “a bit same-y”, and later suggests that some of them are “a bit shit” – laughably untrue, given their critical reception. He says he is naturally shy, and despite his warmth and openness in the interview situation, it’s clear that he feels more comfortable being the one asking the questions than answering them.

The route Blair’s professional future would take was set when he was a 14-year-old pupil in South Africa, and his class was given an English project in which they were required to interview someone. “It didn’t matter who, a member of your family or whatever,” says Blair. “My mother arranged for me to interview Nadine Gordimer. Up till then, I’d wanted to be a doctor.” But from that point on, he became dead-set on becoming a journalist – so perhaps South Africa has one of its Nobel winners to thank for one of its Oscar winners.

In the course of his career, Blair has worked as a war correspondent, a playwright, a TV producer – he was the co-founder of the satirical cult puppet series Spitting Image – and a documentary filmmaker, winning accolades for each. “I always say that my career has been made up of a whole series of accidents that just happened,” he laughs.  Latterly, however, it is in the genre of documentary film that he has found his home.

The sense of alienation from the mainstream that Blair describes as being so central to his identity is perhaps most evident in the subjects he has chosen for his documentary work: Osama bin Laden, Anne Frank, the drug lords of Brazil’s favelas. In 1983 he made a film about a (then) little-known German who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Schindler went on to win a BAFTA, the British Academy Awards, ten years before Steven Spielberg brought out the blockbuster Schindler’s List. Spielberg leaned heavily on Blair’s documentary as a research resource.

I have to ask: didn’t that make Blair a little peeved? “No, no, it was part of a deal,” he says. Blair explains that Universal Pictures would only grant him the rights to Schindler’s story on the basis of having access to all the research afterwards. “Spielberg eventually told me that the only reason they did that was because he told them to do that, because it was the cheapest way of getting all the research done.”

Spielberg went on to repay the favour, however, by personally covering a funding gap for Blair’s 1995 documentary, Anne Frank Remembered. The result was an exceptional, haunting film, but Blair says it was a topic he was initially reluctant to take on because he felt there was little left to say about such a well-known subject. His other reservation was that “it’s actually bloody upsetting making this stuff.”

When he started thinking about Frank, however, he realised that all existing films had focused on her diary rather than the individual herself. It was this aspect that he resolved to tackle, as captured by the film’s tagline: “She is perhaps Hitler’s best known victim, but what was Anne Frank really like?”

Because Blair made the film in collaboration with Anne Frank House, he was able to gain access to extraordinary resources: interviews with Frank’s surviving childhood friends, concentration camp survivors who had known her, and Miep Gies, the woman who helped shelter the Frank family and who saved the diary after the war; archive footage of Otto Frank, Anne’s father; and, rarest of all, the only known film footage of Anne Frank herself: a seven-second clip of Frank watching a wedding from her family’s balcony.

The film won the 1996 Oscar for best documentary feature, making Blair the second South African Oscar winner after Ted Moore, who scooped the award for his cinematography on 1967’s A Man For All Seasons. Blair keeps the statuette in his living room. He remembers being “very, very nervous” at the ceremony, to which he brought Miep Gies, the protector of the Frank family and keeper of Anne Frank’s diary.

Blair remembers saying to Gies, in a limousine en route to the ceremony, how amazing it was that something she had done 50 years ago had brought them to this point. “And she turned to me and said something so simple. She said, ‘You know, Anne always wanted to come to Hollywood.’”

When he was announced as the winner, Gies accompanied Blair on stage to receive the award. Blair recalls staring into the audience below, seeing the faces of stars like Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise looking up at him, and feeling that it was “a complete inversion of reality – totally the wrong way round.”

In his acceptance speech, Blair said: “Anne Frank loved the movies. In October 1942, she even wrote that she wanted to come to Hollywood. Of course, that was a dream that she could never realise.” He proceeded to thank various people for bringing her story to Hollywood. “But most of all it’s this woman, the hero of the story of Anne Frank, the woman quite literally without whom there would never have been a diary for us to celebrate for fifty years. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Miep Gies, who found the diary on the floor. In the city of celluloid heroes, Miep is a true hero.” The audience rose to its feet as one.

Blair’s latest feature documentary, Dancing With The Devil (2009), shifted focus from the good guys to the bad guys, in taking on the subject of Brazilian drug lords. One of the most notable features of Blair’s style, however, is his refusal to make moral judgements on behalf of the audience. “I don’t make very didactic films,” he concedes. He says that while Michael Moore-style tendentious documentaries are “totally legitimate”, he would never make a film like that. “I much prefer people to feel that they are being led to their own conclusions.”

Sometimes this has a detrimental impact on the films’ reception. Blair points to the fact that Dancing With The Devil received “really polarised responses”, and he attributes this partly to the film’s moral ambivalence and partly to the fact that it conflicted with uplifting narratives constructed around the Brazilian slums of late. “In recent films, you can dance your way out of the favela. You can surf your way out of the favela. You can find junk and make art out of the favela. In my film, you go to the favela and you die.”

Many would say, however, that it’s Blair’s empathy for his subjects which makes him such a compelling filmmaker. It’s a trait he sees as emanating partly from his South African upbringing. “You can’t come from this place,” Blair says, gesturing to the window, “without an understanding that social environment is what makes people. You can be born into a favela, you can be born into Manenberg, and you can actually triumph above all the odds and become an extraordinary person and all the rest, or you can become a drug lord or land up somewhere in the middle. The people I feel most for are those in the middle, just trying to get by.”

For Dancing With The Devil, Blair spent months filming the drug lords, who allowed themselves to be captured on film without disguises for the first time ever. The film’s focus is also on the police dedicated to eliminating the drug trade, however, and Blair says this dual ambit often landed the crew in sticky situations. “Ourselves, we were dancing between the two sides, and with the cops it was fucking dangerous. On the second raid we went on, one cop got killed within 20 metres of us, and several other cops were killed too. I did think: what’s a guy my age doing here? It’s a little bit crazy.” The results were worth it, however: a film the Guardian accurately described as “horribly fascinating”.  

In the past, Blair hasn’t shied away from producing work about the country of his birth. One of his early big breaks was his play The Biko Inquest, about the death of Steve Biko, which he directed in London and New York. He also made the first British TV programme about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, There Is No Crisis! More recently, he collaborated with noted Shakespeare actor Antony Sher (another former South African) on a documentary about crime in South Africa, Murder Most Foul, in 2007. He says this film caused a very hostile reaction in South Africa, along the lines of “who are they to tell us what’s wrong?”

But Blair holds that independent voices are necessary to shed light on society’s ills. He uses the analogy of an unwell person going to see two different doctors. The first one looks you over and says, change your diet, you’ll be fine – but he really knows that you’ve got cancer. The second doctor gives it to you straight. “Which doctor do you want to go to?” Blair asks. “I don’t treat myself as a doctor, that’s far too pretentious. But if you see something, unless you recognise that there is a moral dysfunction at the core of society, how the hell can you do anything about it?”

Blair says he worries about the future of freedom of expression in South Africa. “The tendency now, with the Secrecy Bill and so on, to clamp down on the whistle-blowers, the consciences of the country, is, I think, quite disturbing.”  Then the self-termed ‘citizen of nowhere’ pauses. “But who am I to comment? I’m an outsider, not an insider.” DM

  • Jon Blair’s documentaries Dancing With The Devil, Anne Frank Remembered and Reporters At War: Dying To Tell A Story are all currently being aired at the Encounters festival

Photo: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God production stills (Brazil). Lance Gewer, left, and Jon Blair film police preparing for raid. (AUSTRALFOTO/Douglas Engle)

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc

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