Director Daniel Zimbler On Taking David Goldblatt’s Portrait
After hearing about an archive of unused footage on David Goldblatt at the Goodman Gallery, Josh Ginsburg and Daniel Zimbler became excited about the idea of turning it into a feature film about the prolific South African photographer. Invited by the director of the gallery, Liza Essers, to propose a film, they combed through the hundreds of hours of footage shot by Cliff Bestall and Greg Marinovich and emerged with an even stronger motivation to make a feature film, and with the realisation that they’d need to shoot more footage themselves. Daniel says, “We returned with the idea of making a complex portrait on Goldblatt – a man who has himself taken many thousands of portraits. And so we set out to capture the essence of a man whose own life’s work strives for that same objective: to capture the essence of things (people, places, structures, values) through the lens.”
Produced by Josh Ginsburg and Liza Essers and directed by Daniel Zimbler, the result is ‘Goldblatt’, a documentary described as “a meditation on identity, place, and longing, set within the complex, ever-shifting landscape of South Africa.” The film made its world premiere to sold-out screenings at the Encounters Documentary Festival in June this year and went on to show at the Durban International Film Festival in July. The team have their sights set on international festivals next.
We found out from Daniel how you go about turning the lens on one of the country’s most celebrated image-makers:
How familiar were you with David Goldblatt’s work before this project? How did you go about researching for this piece?
I had grown up seeing Goldblatt’s images. They are ubiquitous and powerful enough that they lodge in the memory. I had always known of certain images from “Some Afrikaners Photographed.” I knew about Farmer’s Son with His Nursemaid, I knew some images from “On The Mines.” It wasn’t until I saw a retrospective at The Modern Art Oxford in 2004 that the great breadth and force of the work hit home. For me, that exhibition set down a visual marker, became my point of reference for so much that I knew (or imagined) about life under Apartheid.
Once we had been given the go-ahead to make the film, the first thing I did was study Goldblatt’s photographic books, read his essays (Goldblatt is an excellent writer and explicator of his own work), and spend many of hours poring over footage, marking moments, phrases, images that struck me as significant to the building of his portrait.
This process was highly iterative, and the deeper we went, the better our instincts became in determining what mattered to the film we wanted to make.
Increasingly, we also became aware of the limitations of our received archive – and so proposed that we spend more time filming Goldblatt. This sparked a year-long on-and-off process of filming Goldblatt as he went about his photographic work.
Did you find Goldblatt forthcoming when it came to speaking about himself, his life and his work?
Goldblatt is incredibly articulate when it comes to discussing his ideas, relating histories, framing arguments. He’s thought in great depth (and spoken in great detail) about his work, his role as a photographer, and his particular point of view. This was a great gift for us in making the film about him. His ease and eloquence as a communicator put us at a huge advantage.
On the other, it was sometimes a challenge to steer Goldblatt in the direction of questions he had no interest in answering. These tended to be the more personal questions, where we inquired after his self-doubts, disappointments, hopes, deeper (non-technical) challenges.
But ultimately, he did open up, and was immensely generous and giving as a subject.
What are some ways you get a subject to open up?
Mostly, we were candid with Goldblatt open about our process and about the kind of film we were making. When we needed to be, we were very direct about what we were trying to get at. Goldblatt seemed to value that, and if he disagreed with an intention or an angle we were taking he was happy to tell us to “bugger off.”
But for the most part, Goldblatt was open and willing – and probably eager to expedite a process that would get us out of his hair as quickly as possible so that he could continue with his work.
Did you have a story you wanted to tell in the beginning or did the narratives reveal themselves in the process?
The narrative evolved. By necessity, we had to propose a structure to the film, a set of ideas. This is something that took a great deal of time. But as I spent more time combing through footage and assembling an early edit – and my discussions with Josh went deeper and further – a structure to the film revealed itself. We knew from the word go that we were making a portrait — and we set off with that in mind.
We considered three aspects (or phases) of Goldblatt:
1. The cartographer: Goldblatt as a map-maker, plotting moments, places and people, in the landscape. His project “Intersections”, where he literally set out to photograph South Africa at every intersecting point of longitude and latitude is a case in point. More broadly, we understood this version of Goldblatt as someone creating a geography and history of people in place – and situating himself in relation to it.
2. The wayfarer: Goldblatt as the restless traveller, constantly on the move, existing always in the space between places, in the liminal. This version of Goldblatt was more the existentialist and the poet, drifting across the surfaces of things in search of the elusive moment of inspiration and poetry.
3. The deep miner: Goldblatt recast as one of his own photographic subjects. He grew up in a mining town among mining people — and he talks still in terms of his attempt with photography to pierce the surface of things, to discover their core, to explore inner space
rather than outer. In one interview, David describes an hypothetical: take him underground in a mine, he says, take him through tunnels and slopes, and he’ll still have a sense of where north is. It’s an interview we use toward the end of the film almost as an incantation, an expression of his deep love and longing for “this” place.
The film includes interviews with the late Nadine Gordimer, William Kentridge and Zanele Muholi among others. What went into the decisions on who to feature?
In a few cases, some interviews already existed. As for the rest, we looked to colleagues and fellow practitioners of Goldblatt’s, who we knew had been impacted by him. In several cases, we reached out to critics, journalists, academics who were able to assess the impact Goldblatt’s practice.
It is my great regret that due to his illness, we were unable to interview Santu Mofokeng – a close friend of Goldblatt’s, whose insights about his work are among the most interesting and profound.
Would you say it’s a political film?
Yes. It is a portrait of a deeply political man, and so in that sense, the film is political.
In making the film, the biggest criticism we found levelled at Goldblatt concerned his political activism: did he do enough publicly to denounce and battle apartheid?
It’s a question that Goldblatt grapples with in an ongoing way. And today, his photography and writing have become even more overtly political than in his earlier projects (his concern with the ANC’s corruption, the erosion of democracy, the further divergence of our already divergent socio-economic system, have taken centre stage in his latest projects).
His critics point to his reticence during the years of apartheid to take on a classic “struggle” mantle. And in his own words Goldblatt admits never to have been at the scenes of the riots, at moments of acute political strife — rather, he was interested in “looking obliquely at things.”
All of this is true. And yet the so-called “dispassionate” frame that David held up is heavily inflected. It captures life as it was under apartheid. In a system characterised by legislated inequality, holding up a mirror to that system is a form of powerful protest with a humanist agenda. Goldblatt’s humanism is the most striking feature of his political philosophy – and to that I believe he has always held true.
Do you have a favourite photograph of David Goldblatt’s? What does it mean to you?
Probably too many favourites. Instead, let me talk about a series that I have deep affection for: as part of Goldblatt’s “On The Mines” book there is a sub-section called “Shaftsinkers”, in which Goldblatt documents the highly destructive, dangerous process of sinking a central vertical mineshaft, around which the mine’s network of lateral shafts and tunnels is organized.
This particular project is unlike the majority of his others: in this case, Goldblatt was forced to
shoot from the hip without the luxury of setting up a careful frame. What I see in these images is a photographer’s instincts laid bare, operating at their most fundamental level. When I see them, I can’t help but imagine Goldblatt – typically so deliberate with his subjects and austere with his frame – at the centre of his inspiration, in the moment of ecstatic discovery, descending with the shaft sinkers deep into the core of a contested land where he claims his true north.
A bold statement coming up: I think these photographs are the best portraits we have of Goldblatt’s inner world.