FINN DANIELS-YEOMAN & DARA WALDRON
Song For Hector - the utopian promise of the archive
FDY: Aryan Kaganof’s Song for Hector is a five minute “found footage” film that discordantly remixes archival footage of the Soweto student uprisings of June 1976, a particularly violent episode in South African history in which apartheid police opened fire on students from the Soweto township as they protested against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in South African classrooms, killing hundreds. The film’s namesake, and to whom the film is dedicated, is 13-year old Hector Pieterson, one of the many children who died in these events. Played over M. Ward’s melancholic cover of David Bowie’s 1983 Let’s Dance, the grainy archive footage, which has been slowed and rearranged by a series of glitches, returns and repetitions, takes on a both mournful and ethereal quality in Kaganof’s treatment, resulting in a discordant, indeed angry, but also contemplative appropriation of this documented act of state-sponsored atrocity. Part of the film’s power, in this respect, is how Kaganof returns the violence within the footage back against the images themselves, in an act of cinematic iconoclasm that does not negate or somehow domesticate this violence. It rather works to defamiliarize it, or to make it strange, so as to see it again with a renewed impetus, and I think this is the source of the film’s intrigue as Dara mentions below.
DW: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wrote to Aryan Kaganof to discuss the profound emotional impact his short found footage film Song for Hector had on me. I wasn’t sure why moved me so much. I was thinking about children and the way COVID-19 had altered their education. I remember thinking that Aryan must have missed my email, with no reply for nearly a week. Then, having written a brief ‘thank you,’ he took me by surprise by writing the following to me:
You know that work had a very deep personal background for me. I was 12 when those school riots took place. And I remember being shaken to my core by the way my mother and other white people around me responded to these kids being massacred. All the white people in my vicinity, all my family, were all delighted that these children had been shot down. I had already been pretty much dismembered from my mother and my family – but that event really exposed it for me, the naked evil of whiteness, their ability to respond to the loss of children’s lives as if those children were not in any way human. It was nauseating and many years later I hoped, by using ostensibly incompatible music, to give some sense of the individual humanity of each human child in that mass of demonstrating humans, that every single one of them was intensely, perfectly human and deserving not merely of these “rights” and “equality” but, most importantly of being recognized as human, of being loved. My mother’s maiden name was Peterson and, also because we were the same age, Hector Pieterson’s death made me think about brotherhood, being kin, how inter-related we all are. From Peterson to Pieterson is not far, just an “i”. Could it be the “i” in melanin? My mentor Bra’ Geoff Mphakathi taught me that a Black Consciousness perspective speaks ultimately to and for all humanity, that the stages of consciousness from racist white power, through reactive and liberatory black power, are meant to continue to evolve until we are always seeing humans in front of us whatever their melanin quotient.
(Aryan Kaganof, May 2020)
DW: I thought long and hard about what to write before replying with the following. Song for Hector is a harrowing watch. I agree. But it is also deeply affecting. It offers strange hope, channelling the ‘utopian promise’ I write about in my text New Nonfiction Film: Art, Poetics and Documentary Theory. It is a memorial to the massacred children of which Hector is one. But it is also a plea to the future; a hope for another form of life. M. Ward’s brooding version of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance brings a unique atmosphere to bear, beside the remixed archival images of the massacre; slowly repeating like a trauma that won’t abate. Repetition harmonises with the hushed tones of a song released a decade after the events shown in the film. One act of cultural appropriation begets another. Song for Hector offers in this way, a retracted cultural memory of the Soweto massacre, with the utopian promise of the archive all the while pushing against the horror these images evoke. Questions thus accrue. Does Bowie celebrate the dance so succinctly in song (‘under the moonlight’) as an instrument of utopian hope? If so, will we all dance together at some future point? Like the children in the film? And could such togetherness offset the trauma of the massacre itself? There are no answers given to these questions. Song for Hector doesn’t elicit the answers to the questions it so majestically evokes. There is only hope, hope that comes from the dance of image and sound. The dance is the archive invested with the poetry of the new; the promise of a shared future. The utopian promise is the glimpse of this future; a time when we dance together as one.
FDY: Released in 2007, Song for Hector resonates with similar episodes in South African history: the massacre of protesters in Sharpeville in 1960 and the notorious killing of striking miners by police forces at the Marikana Platinum Mine in 2012, the latter of which is the focus of Kaganof’s incendiary Night is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (2014). Comparisons can also be made to the Fallist protests that rocked South African universities across 2015 and 2016, and indeed this short film is a harbinger of sorts, in both theme and form, to the trilogy that Kaganof released in response to these more recent student protests: Decolonising Wits (2016), Opening Stellenbosch: From Assimilation to Occupation (2016), and Metalepsis in Black (2017). Alarming similarities can also be drawn between the “1976 generation” and today’s so called “born frees”, notably between the calls to decolonize South Africa’s education system that occurred in Soweto in June of 1976 and the Fallist’s contestation of the entrenched forms of colonialism that continue to configure the institutional structures of the country’s higher education system more than two-decades after Apartheid’s official end. There is something compelling about watching Song for Hector in light of these events. It is a reminder, for those of us who need it, that struggles for decolonisation are by no means new and by no means over, and that state-sanctioned racialised violence, whether in the form of police brutality or otherwise, is as endemic in the “Rainbow Nation” as it was in Soweto in June 1976.