Up until this year there are many in South Africa who do not know the face of Ashley Kriel. Many will not recognize his image if shown a photo of the freedom fighter, let alone associate struggle with the poster of a face forever frozen in time. Upon viewing the first full featured documentary film on this fallen hero, that face may very much remain entrenched in mind. For the Cape Flats community it is uncertain how much is known about the Umkhonto WeSizwe member and leader, or how much it even matters. The elder generations of the Cape Flats still reminisce on the social order that Apartheid brought regardless of the hardships of the time. The youth ever drifting deeper into the darkness of gangsterizm and drugs if not slipping into premature teen pregnancies. The face of the Cape Flats image alone has always been associated with criminality, Afrikaans (the oppressors language) and laziness. Yet, we see a revolution of artists, poets, filmmakers, musicians and activists emerging from the flats, from the city with possibly the longest history in the country. It’s nothing new – it’s just that active members of the community of the Cape Flats remind us of the brave men and women of our past echoed in the work of those still struggling today. Those especially “born free”. The post Apartheid generation. How can a generation who have no experience of Apartheid or vaguely remember the Apartheid era relevantly relate to the struggle that was supposed to end officially in 1994? We would possibly have been explained at some point why warm, happy childhood weekends were spent on certain beaches and not others. Maybe we would have been told stories of our mothers carrying us in their wombs while travelling in the “coloured” section of the train. Journeys and travels we sense but somehow fully relate to because we were born into it. The struggle to live. To be what we are. Where we come from. To validate even how and why we a part of that struggle and even deserved of the fruits of that struggle.
Certainly, Nadine Cloete has struggled to achieve the feat of her documentary, “Action Kommandant”, the film on one of the youngest activists from the Cape Flats to die in his struggle for freedom. When asked about the long tricky process of assembling enough interviews, film footage and accuracy into depicting the most honest portrayal of Ashley Kriel, Cloete said “there were many issues”. The director started on the film in 2011 and says that she struggled to meet the budget and it was not that easy initially when approaching Ashley Kriel’s family. There has been a lot of pain surrounding not only his death but also sensitivity around how honestly he has been portrayed. The family has been interviewed many times only to be disappointed by misquotes and mistakes.
” I had to spend a lot of time with the family in order to gain their trust that I would portray Ashley’s story honestly and accurately”, Cloete says, “first meeting with his sisters was in their kitchen, where we just talked and got to know each other”. The process was daunting financially but worthwhile striking a relationship with the family for the director which also made the project a lot more emotional on a personal basis. Cloete feels that the more popular image of the “gangster from the Cape Flats” is easier to sell in film. Most recent films depicting the darker “coloured” side of the Mother City seems to always be about gangsterism meaning that obtaining funding would be an even more difficult task. The director went on to say that “there are many lost voices within the Cape Flats, because “coloured” activists are often overlooked and how many know about the MK heroes of the ANC”. Many of those heroes fought alongside Ashley Kriel and still reside in Bonteheuwel a place now known for its violence and problems with drugs. However, there is a rich history in activism during Apartheid and many activists still live in the community aligned with support from community members along with various religious leaders. The attendance at the screening of the film proved the pride and support of the community in the legacy of Ashley Kriel on Youth Day, June 16 as the Civic Centre in Bluegum Street in Bonteheuwel was packed out the door forcing organizers to install an outside screen as well for those who couldn’t make it in.
There was a tangible excitement and wavering emotion as the audience waited for the film to start. The event was hosted and opened by speeches of family members, comrades, poets,students and principle of Bonteheuwel High School, music by the Jazz Yard Academy and Emile YX(activist, hip hop artist, member of Afrikaaps and former member of Black Noise) as Master Of Ceremonies. Emotions ran high long before the film even started with heartfelt nostalgia from friends who fought alongside Ashley Kriel and still carry the torch the stigma of Apartheid is hard to shake in present time when segregation is still very real in Cape Town. The area is one of many that has been the dumping grounds of forcibly removed residents from locations strung along the Southern Suburbs of the city since the Group Areas Act. Yet, many members from the community, among them artists and activists spoke fondly of the suburb as a hub of activism, consciousness and a close knit community defined by those who fought and still strive for freedom. The speeches was followed by a moment of silence to reflect on the spirit of Ashley Kriel and others lost in the fight against oppression. Candles were lit and raised in the air and that spirit became more apparent as complete silence filled the room.
The film is haunting and dark and the light at the end of the tunnel is the poster image of the face that becomes ever more important after viewing, his family, friends and comrades who carry the torch and the community of Bonteheuwel from where he launched into action. Especially if little is known about Ashley Kriel, his short but effective life, his consciousness and how he died will be forever be remembered. The film has been hugely successful and acclaimed, Cloete travelled to the Cannes to promote the film, screened in Seattle and selling out every one of the seven screenings at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival in Cape Town. Currently, Nadine is hosting her film at the Durban International Film Festival. After attending the Bonteheuwel screening on Youth Day last week though, it’s hard to imagine a more electrifying atmosphere at any of the viewings of this film. For those unfamiliar to the work and life of Ashley Kriel, like ourselves there was shocking moments of discovering some of the extent to which the “Che Guevara of Bonteheuwel” dedicated his life.
We were astonished that this hero was never part of our public school curriculum as a historical subject. Why have our parents not told about this man and what he represented to the Cape Flats and humanity? Could it be that he went completely under the radar during the 80’s, the era within which Kriel was in his prime? Most of us at The Street Is The Gallery were born in the 80’s which may explain how we missed the news of the conscious movements happening within Bonteheuwel an area neighbouring our own hometown, Elsies River. We were born into a time when Apartheid may be ending but trouble within the Cape Flats was rising within gang wars elevating to its peak in the 90’s. It would seem that the “Coloured” culture sold to this generation of youth would be steeped in violence and power rather than the incredible legacies of such examples as those who actually fought for the people as opposed to killing them. Our heroes, as far as we were concerned were always graffiti artists and hip hop activists in the 90’s or gangsters. So the lie was sold the people in the communities which explains the lack of exoneration of positive images within which we, “The Khoisan” could reflect. In Action Kommandant we see the face of the man which seems now fresh to us, ironically a young image of a man in his youth forever fresh. A man before his time, who had to fill the gap of his father who was killed when he was young. A man who had to grow up quickly and become smart and conscious and rise above the mental state of a people oppressed not only physically but in spirit and mind. A man who had to go into exile because of his fight against the Apartheid police which he took directly to the source, their homes and disrupt the supremacist order. Most amazingly, a man who went into training in the MK camps to become even stronger before he even reached 20 years old, the age he was also killed by the police not long after returning to Cape Town from the camps. Since Ashley Kriel’s era, so many “coloured” youth strive are in prison by 20. This is clearly not our only story and existence.
Cloete further explains that complications continues, “there were some more issues with the filming and screening of the funeral, due to copywrite issues we were unable to broadcast the funeral at other than festival screenings”. When asked the importance of the footage of the funeral, Cloete says, “the funeral scene makes the depiction more real, the emotional power of the loss of this leader to the community of Bonteheuwel”. Indeed, the scene is powerful. Something that should be seen more than talked about. The face again, strong, frozen but not defeated. “For the first time, the face of Ashley in his coffin is shown in film”, says Cloete, “this adds to the emotional power”.
Nadine Cloete initiated the making of the film completely on her own budget. The director funded the project using money from work she did at Rainbow Circle Films where she cut her teeth working as an intern from 2005. RCF was based in Elsies River an area not far from Bonteheuwel. There she met colleagues from the Cape Flats who wanted to make a difference through film including Kurt Orderson, previously featured in RAW VISION. She also met other filmmakers like John Fredericks also known as Mr. Devious a former gangster from the area. Cloete did her honours at University of Cape Town working on the music documentary “Maak It An” for local rapper and activist, Jitsvinger. Her interest in making a film on Ashley Kriel sparked when she saw footage of the activist address a crowd in one of his public speeches. It inspired her to discover how young he was when did his first speech at the age of thirteen at his school. “He had the courage to express the right for the oppressed to say how they wanted to live” muses Cloete, “he initiated his first march at that young age from his school around the text book issue, targeting inequalities in education”. ” I was also intrigued by the advent of photos of Ashley that went missing causing he’s face to become obscured in the history of our own integral activists within the Cape Flats. Certain narratives become more dominant in the media while the heroes like many Bonteheuwel members of the MK have gone largely unknown or forgotten for too long.” When asked about the perseverance to see the film completed against many obstacles that even put the filming on hold for a while before finally being completed this year due to lack of funding Cloete remarks, “It is important to have voices from within the communities of the Flats telling our own stories and showing that other side our culture, how we contribute positively to society”
The film was edited by Khalid Shamis, the editor of Afrikaaps, another pioneering documentary directed by Dylan Valley who helped create awareness around the heritage and history around Afrikaans culture in Cape Town, specifically in the Cape flats.
We have only seen one of many of the screenings of this powerful film in Cape Town. It is hard to imagine a better environment or reception than the one experienced in Bonteheuwel. We are certain though that as this film travels the country as well as globally that many will be touched. If we haven’t acknowledged the face of Ashley Kriel before, then we definitely won’t be able to shake the image now.
See trailer below
Screenings currently continue to premiere at the Durban International Film Festival.