Chris Kets: Observing Culture / Filmmaker for Change
A Profile written by Matthew Rightford:
It’s a warm winter’s afternoon and I arrive at Azania Rizing – a production house where Cape Town-based filmmaker Chris Kets works. He greets me downstairs with his refreshingly unassuming nature – an element of his personality reflected in his approach to filmmaking.
Chris first found interest in film through his father, who put him on to films directed by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola. He gleefully tells a story of being a youngster having a conversation with a woman selling Crocs in Green Market Square. They spoke about his interests in drawing and story telling, and she suggested that he think about becoming a filmmaker because of film’s ability to incorporate all the different spheres of creativity into one medium.
“I started out with skate videos, filming my friends doing tricks, being inspired by Jackass and Spike Jonze – that was all so revolutionary in my mind at the time – the idea of shooting on a shitty camera, just you and some friends, and being able to make a movie out of it. But then as I got a little older, I started getting into other filmmakers like Harmony Korine, Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, Werner Herzog and African cinema like Ousmane Sembène. I also started getting into a lot of film that was online – the kind that blurs the line between movie and music video, and makes the film feel a lot more accessible. The kind of film that showed that you didn’t need a big budget, especially if the story and content were good enough.”
Chris pursued his career in film after he finished high school. “I started out at AFDA, but it felt like the agenda was more to just copy-paste the Hollywood way of filmmaking into South Africa and that wasn’t really the direction I wanted to go. I was more excited about telling my stories and the stories of South Africa that were happening around me. I still really value the theory and technical/editing elements that I learnt at AFDA, but it reached a point where I knew I had to leave after one year.”
While working at a DVD store and watching as many of its films as possible, Chris moved to Big Fish, a school of digital filmmaking. Here documentary-based film, or socially conscious cinema, was more of a focus. “This resonated with me because as much as film is a means of escapism, it can also be a cause for change in society. I think it’s just such a great medium of storytelling that can help empower people and help them to question power within the systems we exist in, in reality.”
Big Fish was also where Chris met some of his best friends and worked on projects that would significantly shape him as a person and filmmaker in South Africa. He collaborated with friend and filmmaker Zolani Ndevu on a project. They filmed a trip to the Eastern Cape to meet Zolani’s father for the first time. “It taught me a lot about blending fictional elements into a documentary space – like finding the magical elements or moments in real life.”
I express to Chris, as a means to get his opinion, my observation of how socially conscious cinema has gained some staggering momentum in the past few years with many series and films portraying issues such as violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and sexual assault with far more nuance than those of their older contemporaries from the 2000s and prior.
“I think a lot of that has to do with film being much less exclusive than it used to be. I think now there is a much greater distinction between film and cinema – where cinema is still this largely inaccessible space, but then you’ve got this age of series which live on TV and online where they are so much more accessible. I mean there’s even an award for Netflix documentaries at the Oscars now. So yeah I actually feel like I came up on more online type film and it’s only now that I’m getting into feature documentaries, but I do think we’re really into a time where the line is a lot more blurred between all these different categories of film.”
Armed with an eye for this blurring of the line, Chris went on to direct his first music video for artist Dope Saint Jude’s brilliantly fun and light-hearted brag track ‘Keep In Touch ft. Angel-Ho’. Following this, a friend of his, musician Boolz, had started working with production team Visual Content Gang and through him, Chris started working with them too. His time with VCG would see him learning to apply his documentary-based style to mostly online branded content, most notably in his documenting of the subcultures surrounding gqom. “I’ve always been interested in subcultures. I come from a world of skateboarding and graffiti, hip-hop and punk, so I guess I’ve always been drawn to the idea of young people making their own shit outside of the system.”
He describes the experience of meeting DJ Lag in 2015 in the gqom producer’s hometown of KwaDabeka in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. This was to shoot a short documentary for Boiler Room and G-Star Raw, of which DJ Lag was the main subject. He described how it was great that in the two years that followed he would meet DJ Lag there again a year later to shoot the stellar video for the single ‘Ice Drop’ and again at the end of 2017, back at work with VCG, but this time for MTV Base’s Gqom Nation documentary.
“Yoh, that was so cool man. It was my first time working on TV and it was amazing to link up with VCG again and make this kind of full circle – going back to KwaDabeka to see DJ Lag and see him having made this transformation into this international success. It was also great to have a brand like MTV Base acknowledging the culture. We were given such liberty with our shooting, so we had the best time going around Durban and just soaking it all in. We had access to such great resources, which allowed us to really do the culture justice, you know, especially on that level.”
How does one do a culture or space justice when documenting them? “I think the most important thing is to not make assumptions. Of course it’s good to do research and get an understanding of a culture or place before entering it or trying to capture it, but once you’re there and things enter a personal space, it will always be different to how you might expect. You have to let the characters or people speak for themselves. You might be the one directing the film, but it’s ultimately collaboration between you and them, because they will often be able to direct something better than you can. I always ask the question: ‘Am I giving or am I taking from this person?’”
His approach to his work has led him to now be working with Kurt Orderson, who heads up Azania Rizing, after coming across the documentary Not In My Neighbourhood – a critical analysis of gentrification (particularly in Cape Town) – which was recently voted Best Documentary at the American Black Film Festival in Miami, Florida. Through crowd funding, the team was able to travel to São Paulo in Brazil to document the parallels of gentrification within the two cities.
During his time off, his love for music and subcultures found him being introduced to Baile Funk (commonly referred to as ‘funky’ in Brazilian Portuguese) – a style of dance music which combines West African/South American rhythms with the bass/melodic elements of Miami Bass music which filtered down from Florida in the 1980s. Chris noticed many similarities between the subcultures of funky and gqom and this sparked the flame for his current project: an in-progress documentary about ‘global bass music’, as a way to highlight the parallels between the various subcultures that provide the youth and communities of Africa and other previously colonised continents with hope and often a means of economic empowerment.
He also hopes it can be a way to create a more tangible linking of the diaspora through music and film. “We’re looking for directors and musicians across Africa as we want to make it something that could spread into an institution, you know? Like, after the film, we also want to put on events and put out publications on a level like that of Chimurenga.”
On his feelings about being a filmmaker right now, he says, “I’m feeling really hopeful… seeing how kids are able to just start filming with whatever they have as a means of learning how to do it. I think that what you’re filming is always more important than what you’re filming with/on. I remember making music videos when I first started and people wanting mansions and these American-style videos, which has its place in celebrating success, but for me, I think it’s so much more powerful to celebrate what’s going on around us. You are the only one who can tell the story that’s going on around you – with an insider’s perspective. And yeah, I mean big budgets are usually just capable of making things look slicker or prettier, you know, but money can’t change what you’re filming and it can’t give you style. So as long as you’re telling a story in your way and focusing on the story, you can get where you need to be in film.”
Follow Chris on Instagram to keep up.
Written by Matthew Rightford.
Photography by Jody Brand.