Through the Ombetja Yehinga Organisation (OYO), Philippe Talavera has worked on several thought-provoking film and theatre productions which deal with social issues like rape, child marriage, HIV/AIDS and poverty.
Some of his films include Pap and Milk (2016), the mini-series My Best Interest (2012-14), Kukuri (2018), Salute (2018) and Kapana (2020). Kapana, a story about same-sex relationships in Namibia, recently scooped the runner-up title at Atlanta’s Out-on-Film festival as Best International Film. The film is also selected to screen at the Reelout Queer Film + Video Festival in Canada early next year with more screenings lined up at Ster Kinekor, Grove Mall this year.
NamibInsider! reached out to Talavera to take us through his process of weaving a social message in the fabric of storytelling and the challenges everyone involved goes through.
First let’s talk OYO. My first encounter with OYO was when I was in High School and back then OYO mostly used dance and theatre/drama performances to disseminate it’s socially engaged messages. Now you have been using film as well to tell stories.
I come from the theatre and dance side, so I prefer live performances. Unfortunately, we live performances we cannot tour so many schools or communities. Touring a life performance is very expensive. We therefore added one tool to our packages: the videos. While videos are more expensive to make, once done they are easy to share. Videos allow us to reach a wider audience.
OYO has always used a mixture of the professional/experienced actors and members of the OYO dance troupe, and I think it is a wonderful mixture because it somehow brings an exchange of skills to the actors involved. Is that what it is about- for actors to share skills from their various years of experiences in the acting field? How do you bring these actors together when doing a film?
Definitively. When you cast for a film, you have clear indications from the script about what a character should look like. It is not always possible to find the perfect match among the professional actors. As Namibia develops its film industry, it is therefore important to develop a pool of trained or at least experienced performers. The professional actors bring in their experience, while the newcomers bring their enthusiasm. It is a mixture I like. When we rehearse, I encourage the professional actors to share some of their tricks, exercises, etc. with the newcomers, and I encourage the newcomers to ask questions. A film can only work if there is a good chemistry between actors, and we can only achieve this through intense rehearsals. I think the combination of Adriano Visagie and OYO dancer Monray Garoeb in Salute! is a noble example, and the combination of George Antonio and Hanty Kashongo in Kukuri or Adriano Visagie and Simon Hanga (first time actor) in Kapana.
OYO Films are about situations, and people who are often sidelined or ignored by society. How did you go about earning the trust of the people whom you film? For instance, films like Kapana, Salute! and Kukuri are placing actors in ‘new’ or uncomfortable situations and I am sure it takes a lot from you as a director as much as it takes from the actors? How do you navigate directing these films?
Again, it’s a question of trust. I spend between five and six weeks rehearsing daily with the actors before I shoot. It’s not that common in Namibia and I have had some professional actors complaining it’s too long, but I disagree. It allows me and the actors to get to know one another and the characters they portray. The famous kissing scene in Salute! was really hard on Adriano and Monray but we had talked a lot about it before the shoot. We cleared the set and kept only the Director of Photography and myself and took our time. Hanty was only 14 at the time of Kukuri – the scene after the rape was the hardest for her, but again we took time and made sure she felt as safe as possible. Those scenes are draining, both for the actors and myself. I usually have sleepless nights before they happen. But they are important as they give depth to the characters.
Is there a moment you remember from a specific film where things were a little too uncomfortable and how was the situation handled?
There’s always difficult moments with every shoot. In Kapana the day we shot at the pool was freezing and the actors were turning blue, so we had to compromise and couldn’t do as many takes as I had wanted. The scene after the rape, as I mentioned, was really hard on Hanty. Just before shoot, she didn’t want to do it. I was adamant we must never force a child to do something they don’t want. So we talked and looked at what was making her uncomfortable and found a solution. It turned out to be one of the best scenes in the film.
If I am not wrong, ‘Kapana’ is the first Namibian film that boldly carries a queer narrative. Was there a moment during pre-production or post-production you were afraid that the film will not happen because of censorship? Namibia is, still, a conservative country.
Definitively. When we embarked on the project, I was afraid about the impact, it might have on OYO as an organisation, especially considering the negative impact, Salute! had on the cast. I think it is incredibly brave for any actor to have been in that film. At the time of casting, some actors refused the parts, fearing it will have a negative impact on their career, and I respect that. It is heavy to be the first queer Namibian film, and that is part of the reason I wanted it to be a positive love story. I wanted people to fall in love with those two characters and forget they were both men.
But the film is well received among queer Namibians and international queer festivals alike. You must be proud?
Definitively. We recently won the runner-up prize as best international film from the audience at the Out on Film, Atlanta LGBTQ Film Festival, and I am thrilled. For me an audience award is the best type of award. Jury awards are important, but juries look at technicalities while audiences will tell you if your film has touched them. There were over 100 films part of the festival, and we ended second from the audience perspective. This is something I am extremely proud of.
Now let’s talk about Philippe. Where were you born and when did you come to Namibia?
I was born in France, where I also completed my studies. I did a master’s in Veterinary Science, a Certificate in Human Biochemistry and studied theatre (acting mostly). I always had two passions: performing Arts and biology. In 1995 I had the chance to do my PhD in South Africa and jumped onto this opportunity. In 1997 I was invited to come to Namibia for a 16-month project as a Volunteer with the French Embassy. I was based in Ongwediva and fell in love with Namibia. The rest is history- as they say.
Social awareness is of course something you are very passionate about. Why do you tell stories which raise social awareness? Why did you start OYO?
I have always wanted to tell stories. Ever since I am a child, I loved reading and acting. I think I was six when I did my first performance for school. I have always wanted to tell stories that matter. I enjoy comedies and thrillers as entertainment, but for me artists have a duty to critically look at society and try to right the wrongs. Across the years the arts have always been important to challenge the status quo, to expose abuse and tyranny and to witness history. I am totally self-conscious I am privileged because I was born in a loving family. When I see something wrong around me, I want to make it right. I know I can’t change the world sadly, but if I can make a difference in the lives of a few people, then I am happy.
As for why I started OYO, well, I guess it was partly by accident and partly for this reason. I was in the Kunene Region back in 2000, there was a need to tackle HIV/AIDS and I knew I could try to make a difference. It was supposed to be a one year project that became a two-year project that became an NGO. It was not planned, it happened.
Your work with OYO has inspired many, especially teenagers across Namibia. Do you get people who come up to you and tell you about how OYO has given them direction/or changed their perceptions on any of the issues you shine a light on?
Oh yes, and it is really nice when that happens, but it is important to remember that OYO is not me. It is a team of incredibly dedicated people who throughout the years have committed time and energy to make it all happen. A person alone can’t do much, and nothing would have happened without the incredible work of past and present staff. I really can’t take the credit for our achievements. But to come back to your question it is a beautiful feeling when you get a letter from an inmate who tells you how the work done in correctional facilities has helped him, or from a learner who tells you how he/she survived a situation thanks to the magazine or the dance troupe and found the strength to seek support. It is nice when a grandmother in a village comes to you and tells you her grandson has changed since being part of a youth group OYO is supporting and it is equally rewarding when you get feedback on social media. We need those actually, as sometimes the work is heavy and the funding not enough and we doubt ourselves. Those keep us going.
Throughout your career, you must’ve encountered various challenges? What is the one challenge that stands out or you keep experiencing?
Funding. We are not a big international NGO. Because we are doing a lot and are quite visible, many people think OYO is rich. But actually it is not the case. We are constantly seeking funding, constantly wondering if one day we will have to close shop, constantly having to navigate between various budgets. We are lucky to have some very supporting partners such as the Valentine Trust and Horizon who have supported us for years. But the misconception that OYO is rich is a challenge, and people do not understand how much time and energy we spend trying to raise funding to keep going.
What is something or someone that’s had a big impact on you and resonated with you throughout the years?
I’d say, even if it sounds stereotypical, my family. My mum is a tremendous source of inspiration. My parents divorced when I was 11 and my mum then studied to be a nurse while taking care of two children. It taught me discipline, and that everything is possible if you put your mind to it. I remember evenings when the three of us (my mum, my brother and I) would sit around the table, each studying for exams. My grandmother definitively taught me kindness and my grandfather who survived the second world war and was imprisoned seven times, yet seven times he escaped. He taught me to value life and always keep fighting for what is right. I have a wonderful family and they are my support system.
What makes you truly relaxed?
Reading. I read fantasy to relax, as I love creating imaginary worlds in my head. I am a big fan of Harry Potter and everything Cassandra Clare writes. Another secret I relax is to take a warm bath with candles and delightful music. I am conscious water is scare in Namibia, hence don’t do it often, but it is really a source of relaxation.
Any last words? Is there a new project coming from OYO?
We always have projects and ideas. Right now we work towards World AIDS Day: while COVID has occupied our lives in 2020, we must not forget the rest. Next year we will organise a youth festival in the Karas region with the youth groups we have been working with and hopefully start performing with the dance troupe again. As for films, I have an idea but not the first cent, so for now, I’ll keep it to myself.