François Verster’s The Dream of Shahrazad serves as a close-study of the interplay between politics, music and revolution in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade between Turkey and Egypt. We caught up with Verster at Sydney Film Festival.
I wanted to start by asking what drew you specifically to the subject of The Dream of Shahrazad. That is, whether you had an interest in the political side or the musical elements or if they were both interests and you found this as something that brought them together quite interestingly?
I think the idea from the beginning was to do both – and to find a way to combine both. I grew up listening to so-called “Classical Music” and it’s a very big part of my life. Particular in a place like South Africa where it was very much a state-sponsored, largely “whites-only” art form. It has a kind of problematic political position. At the same time, it’s also where most of my deepest experiences in music come from. And what I was interested in – because I’ve been using music a lot more explicitly in many of my previous films – what would happen if you actually take a piece of so-called classical music, a supposedly safe, bourgeois, supposedly apolitical piece of music and apply it to a contemporary political reality; take power of the music and give it a sort of contemporary resonance. At the time that we started thinking about the film – which was in 2006 – it was very much, as we still are, in the aftermath of 9/11. There was a lot of islamaphobia going around and a lot of people quite close to me were directly affected by that. I started thinking about what was my first exposure or my first idea of the so-called Arab or Middle-Eastern world. And it seemed to me it was the stories of Ali Baba and the 1001 Nights. I thought about it and it seemed to me that the Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Suite was a very interesting piece of music, which is basically inspired by the stories of A Thousand and One Nights; that it would be the obvious classical music way of exploring the issues at hand. Originally, I thought of the piece as an orientalist piece of music: similar to a Flaubert – an exotic story – or a Delacroix painting; all the same political dimensions. The original idea was to take the piece of music back to Iran with an Iranian conductor, so you have a kind of exoticised vision of A Thousand and One Nights being taken back to the birthplace of A Thousand and One Nights to see what happens. But the film just kind of changed and grew and became very different from there.
I think an interesting part about it is how something like a Rimsky-Korsakov piece is going to be quite ‘high art’ in some countries and viewed as quite an elite text but in this it’s taken out of that context and used in this revolutionary, reactionary world in questioning. I thought it was quite interesting how that piece has been shifted and I wondered how you thought classical music was operating as a revolutionary thing in this particular context?
Well as I said, it was operating at the level of the film. Music is incredibly powerful and actually what’s interesting is that when the film screens in Amsterdam, people are asking me why do I use such violent images with classical music? Which I found very surprising on one level, but on another… this is music that is basically where a man is chopping someone’s head off every day, so in a sense the music is very violent. There’s a lot of passion, it is very dramatic.
What I’ve tried to do is have the images almost serve the music, rather than the music serving the images as you usually would have in a film. Or at least to have the two at an equivalence, rather than music being subservient to serving the story. So I think the two, in a sense, have an equal value. Obviously that’s my position of a piece of music upon a situation. On another level, it was very interesting for me, as I said, I went in there thinking that this was kind of an Orientalist piece of music. And what became very interesting was that people in Egypt particularly thought of it as Egyptian music because the music had been used so often in TV soaps and stuff that they all – or ordinary people, not uneducated people, or a little bit uneducated people – thought of it as music written by Egyptians. So they actually didn’t even see it as foreign piece of music. And I mean you can argue that it’s the internalisation of western orientalism as Edward Said or whatever would do, but I don’t think it’s my position to do that. People have claimed it for their own like people have claimed soccer for their own in Africa, even though it’s a game coming from Britain.
I guess that with the A One Thousand and One, or Arabian, Nights, it’s also an interesting thing where that is not specifically from Egypt or – I mean it’s from Iran, but its been taken out of that and again, feels very much at home like the pieces of music do as well. And I noticed at the Sydney Film Festival this year we’ve got Arabian Nights which is the same story but transposed into Portugal. It’s interesting to see that story getting all these different manifestations when it feels completely universalised.
Well look I mean, our core acolytes of A Thousand and One Nights would say that basically story telling, or contemporary TV story telling, or dramatic story telling was invented in A Thousand and One Nights. All the stories end on cliff hangers and then there’s a stop and the night breaks and then, you know, that for us is kind of a TV thing but they claim was invented. The story telling form is applicable, but if you go to the history of the convention itself the stories come from all over the world. China, stories from India, stories from West Africa – it’s not a Middle Eastern world, it’s a collection of stories from around the world. And what’s interesting is that early translations of A Thousand and One Nights, actually in France for example French publishers would add French stories, kind of like sexy, ribald stories and give them Arabic names, you know, Arabic place names, Arabic first names, put them in as if they were Arabic stories. And then those would get retranslated into Arabic and they would get published in places like Egypt again. So there’s a kind of cross-pollination. It’s a very universal work in many ways.
I wanted to talk a bit more about Cem, the conductor. He’s one of the most recurrently fascinating figures in the film in the way in which he was both their musical conductor, but also a political conductor. They would be talking to him, saying, I want to create change, and he’d be like, what are you waiting for? Or he’d be like, you’re asking the right questions, that’s half the way to gain the answer, and just have all these great one-liners and kind of as a character in the film sat as an embodiment of what it was all about, and I was wondering how you came into contact with him in the first place.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because the genesis was very lucky for me. He was a conductor who was interested in the political dimensions of music and the social purpose of music, and that’s very much his thing. We’d originally been planning to work with an Iranian conductor and filming in Iran and for various reasons that didn’t work out and I also decided he wasn’t the best character for this film. Then a youth orchestra foundation in South Africa had actually been working with Jim as a guest conductor and they said, you know why don’t you contact him, and I got in touch with Jim in Istanbul and we had a fantastic conversation and he had these fascinating stories about orientalism in music and so on. And I ended up actually making a short film for Al Jazeera where he was conducting a youth orchestra in South Africa and we just had a good relationship and he’s a very charismatic guy and he’s very open to the idea and as I said he’s also somebody who, in the sense of the film, does the work of Shahrazard, he uses art to try and make the world a better place and to give a voice, to some degree, to people who don’t have words.
I guess considering the films placement in the festival as part of a broad South African focus, I was wondering how you feel that sphere exists, as a community. Did you have your beginnings in South Africa cinema?
I work from South Africa; most of my films are based in South Africa. This is the first big film of mine that has nothing of South Africa in it. But on the other hand I think a lot of the totality of the film is something people have picked up on, also a lot of the interest is South African and I think for me as a South African, coming from a specific history, me making a film in Egypt is very different from a northern American or Australian coming to do it, so there’s definitely South African interest being pursued and I think South African audiences resonate with things in the film in a way that possibly other audiences don’t in the same way, or they find different things in it. I mean I probably would not have immediately accrued this film under a South African section in the festival, maybe you shouldn’t say that in the publication [laughs] but its an interesting thing, making this film, there’s kind of a fledgling South African film industry that’s growing all the time. Some of our feature films have done fairly well. We won the best foreign Oscar with Tstotsi – we’ve won best film, we’ve done that before, so now and again there’s kind of a big film. Documentaries go through phases, there’s been a couple of years here and there with very good films, then there’s been long dips, we’re going through a long dip now and then 2-3 years ago it suddenly picked up and then suddenly there’s a couple of really good films again. So you know, it comes and goes.
What’s interesting about making this film is that I was looking for funding, especially Northern American and Northern European funders, and I always got the response, why do you as a South African want to make a film and to work in Egypt? And I think they would never ask that of a northern European filmmaker. I think its kind of a given that a person from one of the so-called first world countries can go and make films anywhere in the world because audiences are interested, but if you come from the developing, or so-called developing world, you’re expected to make films in your own country. So there’s a kind of cultural colonialism at work.
I was interested in how the South African film industry operates when you were talking about interacting and having a relationship with classical music in South Africa is segmented to certain areas, do you feel that film is still quite – not upper class or anything, but quite niche?
Well South Africa is a very dynamic country, things are changing, things are politically debated very vehemently particularly along race lines. Classical music, for example, has changed a lot, there is a lot of initiatives to have black musicians trained as classical musicians. So a lot of the star classical musicians are now black players, so that’s already changed. The film industry, look, there’s different opinions on that, there an association in South Africa called the association for the advancement of, uh transformation of, the film industry which promotes young black filmmakers to give them access to the film world. If you look at any given program of South African films, you’ll find that a vast number of them are black filmmakers a lot of – I’d say the majority – of South Africa’s successful filmmakers are black filmmakers so that definitely has changed. But at the same time you still have all the hang ups of economic inequality in South Africa so young black people don’t necessarily have the financial means to go film school, or have access to know people in production, so on. So you can have a dissonance economically but in terms of story telling I think I would say a lot of black filmmakers have more direct access to certain stories, which white filmmakers don’t always have. So I think things are both radically transformed and not totally transformed at the same time.
Now that this film has had quite a few screenings around the world, I was wondering if you have, in that the time of touring the film, or just having time being away from the production stage of the film and spreading it around and whatnot, whether you’ve set your sights toward any other kind of points of focus, like a future documentary or other work?
I’m making, I suppose, some bread and butter work – I’ve made a couple of short TV films, which we do for a half-hour TV slot. I’ve made four of them now, two in Nairobi and two in Mauritius. And we’re looking a new film which is likely to be an Australian co-production if it does happen, about a topic of interest to both South Africa and Australia.