Producer Allison Swank On Working With Young South Africa
On her first trip to South Africa, producer Allison Swank was exposed to the poetry, music and culture that rose out of the political oppression of our country’s past. It wasn’t long before she returned, choosing Johannesburg to lay down roots. It’s in this city where she works with directors like Lebogang Rasethaba, Adriaan Louw and Zandile Tisani, producing some of the most exciting work coming out of the country.
Formerly Allison worked as the content manager and then head of film for Okayplayer and Okayafrica, and a focus on music and youth culture in South Africa remains a thread throughout her work: a variety of music videos, brand films and documentaries as authentic representations of young South Africa – the hustle, the potential and the politics. She took the latter head on when she produced the feature length documentary The People Vs The Rainbow Nation directed by Lebogang Rasethaba for MTV.
Here, she talks to the INDIE Channel about Joburg’s influence on her work, the creative scene in South Africa, and the shared values necessary for a successful director-producer partnership.
What brought you to South Africa and why is it the place you choose to live and make work?
I never quite know how to answer this question in a succinct way that will help people understand my relationship with South Africa, but will also not bore them.
My relationship with South Africa dates back ten years. I had a mentor in my undergrad in Chicago, Prexy Nesbitt, a black American guy, who was involved in Southern Africa’s liberation movements – particularly with Samora Machel in Mozambique. He brought me for the first time in 2007 and introduced me to a bunch of his old comrades. The stories of personal sacrifice and bravery that came from the fight for freedom really grabbed me, as did the amazing poetry, music, and other cultural items that derived from the circumstances of oppression. After that I chose to get my masters degree from UCT in 2009. I studied African studies (the program should be called decolonial studies), and more specifically looked at western media representations of Africa – and how that informs continued cultural imperialism.
After my grad degree I was in New York working in post-production at CBS and received the opportunity to quit TV and become the first content manager for the then-brand new Okayafrica.com – a sister-channel to The Roots’ Okayplayer.com. Through my work with the website, first as the content manager, then as the head of film for both Okayplayer and Okayafrica, I was able to build quite a nice creative community in South Africa. For example I knew about, and had relationships with Christian Tiger School, Nonku Phiri, Spoek Mathambo, etc. before I ever moved here. At the end of 2014 I had been living in New York for 6 years, had a bad break up, and grew tired of winter. I booked a one-way ticket to Cape Town for the holidays. Fate had it that Lebo Rasethaba was looking for a producer at the time so I took the leap and didn’t return to the states (less the 2 months it took to settle my visa).
I now focus on bridging the worlds between South African creatives and artists that I worked with while in New York. No doubt the most successful bridge has been between Mumford and Sons and Beatenberg, which resulted in a collaboration album, TV appearances on Jools Holland and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and of course now Beatenberg are signed to Mumford’s UK label Island Records. You really never know where a simple email or meeting can lead.
What were your first impressions of the creative industry here and have these changed over the years?
There’s a lot of space here to explore ideas, fail, try again, re-invent yourself. The raw talent here across the creative spectrum is really impressive. I’m drawn to the creative ambition and energy in South Africa. I often felt that New York was over-saturated and blasé. This opinion hasn’t changed over the years, but I do see how the most talented creatives hit a ceiling at a certain point. There’s just not the cash flow or infrastructure to support an independent artist’s career after a certain point of success. I think that’s why SA loses some of its most talented folks to the US or Europe. And I don’t know what the solution is. I think there are people in South Africa working on building that infrastructure for artists, Black Major agency is one of them.
You’re a producer with co-credits as a director and videographer, what has the role of producer meant for you and the way you work?
Producing is something that’s chased me around my whole career. I’ve tried to be an editor, a writer, etc. but I always find myself re-assuming the role of the organizer, the mom of the project. Producing is a delicate balance of intuition, common sense, and people skills. As much as I want to escape it sometimes, I think that I genuinely enjoy being the person to bring the project together and execute. It feels really good to see the finished product do well. I often cry when I see an edit for the first time. It makes all of the behind-the-scenes struggle and pains worth it when it comes out well.
Does Johannesburg influence the kind of producer you are?
Yes totally! Joburg is a city of hustlers and it has taught me how to be a hustler. I rarely take “no” for an answer – I always assume there’s a way to make things happen and I’m certain that I’ll find it. Haha it’s just the dumb confidence of a hustler. I wonder how I’d get along producing in a place like London or LA. They might not like me so much in those places.
What’s important for a successful director-producer partnership?
Two things: trust and respect. The relationship can be quite intimate at times so there’s an emphasis on creating a safe space for ideas and strategy. Both parties need to feel assured that no judgment is being passed, and that whatever is discussed is followed up on. I have had really good luck working with directors in South Africa.
Looking through your portfolio there’s a definite thread which runs throughout your work. What projects are you driven to take on?
I’m really proud of the lane I’ve found myself in. The thread seems to be largely art and music-related. I’m happy in that space. There are some fundamental things I ask myself in no particular order when a new project comes across my proverbial desk: 1. What are the politics of the project? 2. What are the known politics of those involved? 3. Will this project inspire? 4. Will this project harm anyone? 5. Are the visuals on point? 6. Do I trust this director? Etc etc. you get the idea. I’m not always able to check every box, but I do my best not to participate in anything too egregious.
What inspires or motivates you to make the work you do?
Not to sound pessimistic, but the world is a dreadful place for the majority of humans, myself included. I’m motivated to take part in work that could potentially provide people with even a small sense of relief. If the work can provide an inspirational visual or sound, or tell a story that connects with someone, then that’s considered successful to me.
What was your experience making the feature-length documentary The People Versus The Rainbow Nation With Lebogang Rasethaba?
There’s a lot to say about this, but I’ll keep it to the two main take-aways:
First, the process of making this film was a roller-coaster of emotion and self-reflection. I was often physically sick from the stress and responsibility of such an important story. We were so thankful to the young people that let us inside their worlds to tell their stories. It was inspiring to hear the way that 19 year-olds in these movements speak. They shared ideas with us that I wasn’t able to understand until my late 20s. It gave me hope for the future.
The second part is that it put me face to face with my own privilege as a white person of a particular class (amongst many other classifications that give me an advantage). I learned that being responsible in my privileged position is an on-going learning process with many blind spots that I need to be considerate of. There’s a reason they call it “The Work” – and I’m thankful to the people in the film that trusted us enough to give us the space and time to feel through the blind spots and share their stories.
Can you reveal anything about what you’re currently working on?
I’m at a very exciting moment with projects. Adriaan Louw and I just wrapped a music video shoot for Major Lazer’s song “Paricula”, which features Nasty C, Jidenna, DJ Maphorisa, Patronking, and Ice Prince – keep on the look out for that.
I’m also working on a long-format documentary with Zandile Tisani about 90s rave culture in Johannesburg for Red Bull Music Academy. It’s a film that they are hoping will serve as a pilot episode for a global series about rave culture. It’s important to revisit rave now to note how young people of the past organized and thrived under oppressive power regimes. Furthermore, this time period has never been put on public record here in South Africa – and based on what we’ve found so far, it’s a story that far exceeds the club space and speaks to the complicated revolution that was happening in the country at the time.
There may also be a Swazi cowboy doccie in there somewhere. And lastly I’m finishing up a scripted sci-fi horror film about influencer culture with the global art collective CUSS Group in partnership with William Kentridge’s the Centre for the Less Good Idea.