Feature documentary, 65 minutes, color
Producer/Director: Amie Williams
In the late 1980’s, the eyes of the world were on South Africa. An emerging nation, facing enormous challenges, South Africa has the potential to teach us all. many who monitor south Africa do not immediately look to its young people. Yet South Africa’s youth have been the driving force for change, leading the fight against apartheid and attracting world attention for their heroic resistance. The documentary “UNCOMMON GROUND,” is a film about the process of discovery and understanding that young people experience as they come of age and embrace the world they live in. Five multiethnic Los Angeles high school seniors travel to South Africa to meet and live with five South African students in a black township. The film focuses on the day-to-day activities of this diverse group of young people, as they share their experiences with family, school, violence, racism, and oppression. The result is a dynamic exploration of the process of cross-cultural exchange and personal identity.
The film begins in Los Angeles, where the filmmaker, an Anglo-American woman, meets the youth at an anti-apartheid rally on Martin Luther King Day, and questions the significance of the South African struggle to young people in America, including herself. Why is such a remote liberation struggle such a highly charged issue in the U.S.? for all races? We meet the students briefly, and learn about their identification with apartheid, and their initial feelings about what they expect to encounter on the trip.
Once in South Africa, the students are introduced to their South African student hosts and their families. Immediately, they are thrust into a whirlwind of activity: visits to black, “colored,” and white schools, community and political groups. Each American student, in collaboration with their South African friends, creates a short, video “diary” on some aspect of their experience there, which are woven into the film. Written journal entries of the students are used as commentary on the events as they happen. For example, one Latino student video profiles a homeless youth shelter. An African American youth videotapes and grapples with the meaning of a Xhosa male circumcision ceremony. The filmmaker, too, undergoes a personal transformation while walking through the white South African part of town, and confronting her own identity.
The film ends in Los Angeles, under the burning backdrop of the 1992 civil unrest. Each student, one year after returning from South Africa reflects on his/her experience and what impact the trip has had on their lives and future goals.
UNCOMMON GROUND is not about overt political expose. It is about youth awareness and concern, tapping into the personal, day-to-day lives of people living under oppressive, yet rapidly shifting conditions. The film carves a clear space for young people, often overlooked in the broader societal debates of multiculturalism and global relations. UNCOMMON GROUND asks one basic question: From Soweto to South Central L.A., what is it that young people are seeing and experiencing, and how can their concerns be addressed in the media and society at large?
Tis is my first film, produced as my thesis for the MFA graduate program in film at U.C.L.A.
I had been living for three years in Kenya working as an English teacher and educational media consultant for the Ford Foundation, CARE International and USAID. There I developed a series of plays on teenage pregnancy and AIDS that toured the country and were broadcast on Kenyan radio and television.
Ever since, I have wanted to return to Africa to produce a film about young people. I knew that the anti-apartheid movement was an international link for young people around the world, and I wanted to explore the cross-cultural implications of youth activism. However, I had no clue as to how to make a documentary film.
I heard about an incredible graduate program at UCLA that combined Anthropological studies and area studies with film, so I obtained an M.A. in African Area Studies and an M.F.A. in film production from UCLA. I worked as a research assistant at the James Coleman African Studies Center there, under Sheilah Clarke-Ekong, who helped me write grants, and we eventually landed the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in International Peace and Cooperation, and a SONY/Streisand Fellowship, an initiative of Barbra Streisand, to support emerging women filmmakers. For UNCOMMON GROUND, I also received grants from the American Film Institute for Independent Film and Video, the California Council for the Humanities, Eastman Kodak Product grant, and the Los Angeles Arts Recovery Fund.
I then set about identifying young people in Los Angeles who could make the trip to South Africa, and found out about the Los Angeles Student Coalition, who regularly held demonstrations in front of the Beverly Hills-based South African Consulate. There I met Kamau, Joann, and Martin, who eventually introduced me to the others, and we were on our way. We wrote numerous letters to find hosts, and were blessed to be invited by the cultural arm of the ANC through Kenneth Mdana, in Grahamstown, South Africa. The film is about all our journeys, at a time when both South Africa and Los Angeles were going through monumental changes, and at a personal crossroads for the kids, who were all graduating from high school that year.
A chronological listing of festivals and awards; (asterisks denotes awards won).
American Film Institute (A.F.I.) International Film Festival, Los Angeles
National Educational Film and Video Festival, Oakland
Chicago International Film Festival–Children’s Section
Columbus Film Festival–Honorable Mention
Atlanta Film Festival–Emerging Vision Award
Mill Valley Film Festival, San Francisco
International Documentary Association David Wolper Award and Screening, L.A.
San Jose Film Festival and JOEY Award
Austin SXSW Film and Music Festival—Finalist
USA Film Festival Finalist, Dallas
Rivertown Film Festival—Best Documentary
Cork International Film Festival, Ireland
One World Film Festival, Alberta, Canada
FESPACO Pan African Film and Video Festival, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Melbourne International Film Festival
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Student Award Screenings
Bread for the World Southern Africa Educational Tour
First A.M.E. Church, Anti-Apartheid Rally
Black Film Festival International (tour of Berlin, London, Atlanta, New York)
Black History Month Special Screenings–various groups and schools
A new look at South Africa through the eyes of five L. A. youth
Marco Williams Co -Producer
Marco received his B.A. with honors from Harvard University in Visual and Environmental Studies. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Afro-American Studies and a Master of Fine Arts, Film Producer’s Program, both from UCLA.
He is the producer and director of the documentary, “In Search of Our Fathers,” which chronicles the seven-year journey he took to meet his father. The film screened at festivals throughout the U.S. in 1992, including Sundance, Toronto, the Panorama section of Berlin, and the Margaret Mead Festival. It was also broadcast on the PBS program, “FRONTLINE.
Marco was the first African American to be selected for the Discovery Program of Chanticleer Films. From an original script, “Without A Pass” premiered in Feb.., 1992 on Showtime Cable, and was nominated for the CABLEACE Awards, as Best Director and Best Theatrical Special. Marco is also the Director of “From Harlem to Harvard,” which he made when he was at Harvard. He has since gone on to work on many projects, most recently The Two Towns of Jasper, a film for PBS about the Jasper, TX slaying of a young African American male.
Associate Producer (South Africa): Kenneth Mdana
Kenneth Mdana studied video documentary production at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley. He also worked for the PBS news magazine in New York, “South Africa Now,” where he met the Director of “Uncommon Ground.” Kenneth has also trained at the Swedish Film Institute, and worked as a sound mixer on two BBC documentaries shot in South Africa, ” Winnie Mandela,” and “Remember Mandela.” In South Africa, he has been involved in legal work as a clerk for political detainees, and owns a production company in Grahamstown. He is developing a project on Oscar Mphetu, a South African labor leader.
Production Manager (Los Angeles): Ben Caldwell
Ben Caldwell received his MFA in film and television from UCLA in June, 1976. From 1981-84, Ben taught film and video at Howard University.In 1984, Ben returned to South Central Los Angeles to initiate the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) project, “KAOS” Video 3333, a multimedia studeio for video production and experimentation. He has also worked with the Watts Towers Community Arts Center, where he started the youth-based “I-Fresh Express,” a supplementary educational program designed to broaden high school students’ knowledge of film and video.
Cinematographer: Robert Bennett
A graduate of the American Film Institute, Cinematography Fellowship Program (1988), and Colorado College, (1982), Rob worked as a news cameraman for seven years in Colorado, before moving to Los Angeles. His expertise in documentary was developed on many reality-based television shows, as well as independent productions, including works for Mexican television. His television credits include Top Cops, Totally Hidden Video, Missing Reward, and Dinosaurs, for NHK, Japan. Feature work includes Perfect Bride, Night Club, and Body Chemistry.
Editor: Lucyna Wojciechowski
Before moving to Los Angeles, Lucy worked as an assistant director in her native Poland, where she attended the famous Lodz Film School. She has worked as a first and second assistant with Millie Moore and Charles Bornstein on numerous television and theatrical releases, including “Under the Gun,” Psycho IV, Ironclads, and Sometimes They Come Back.”
Consultant (U.S.): Prof. Gerald Horne
Dr. Horne is Chair of the Black Studies department at UC Santa Barbara. He previously worked as a labor and civil rights lawyer in New York, and recently was part of a congressional delegation to South Africa and Namibia, for a conference on the US Constitution. Dr. Horne’s major work, Black and Red, W.E.B. Duboise and Pan Africanism Looks at South African and US relations across racial and ideological lines, with comparisons between Black American history and Black South African history. He is presently running for California State Senator, for the Peace and Freedom party.
Consultant: (South Africa): Keyan Tomaselli
Professor Tomaselli is the Director of the Center for Culture and Media Studies, University of Natal, South Africa. He is also a filmmaker and well-known film theorist internationally. Recently on a Fulbright grant at the Michigan State University, Prof. Tomaselli met with the project director, and suggested Grahamstown as an ideal location for the project. His publications, South Africa Imaged on Film and Video, and The Cinema of Apartheid (Lakeview Press), have both been very influential in the making of “NANA,” specifically his work on community-based media systems and film for social change.