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Jan 30, 2009

A new documentary looks at the ongoing racial conflict in South Africa.

By FLYP Staff

A black family cannot visit the graveyard where their ancestors’ are buried without the permission of a white landowner.
A white father is forced to vacate the land and business he has built a life on to make room for a black family’s expropriation claim.
Where do your sympathies lie? What’s a fair price to pay to get justice for a historical wrong?
Amid all the successes of post-apartheid South Africa, the process of land reform continues to sow deep discontent.
In 1995, the South African government promised to process 30 percent of land redistribution claims within five years, based on a principle of “willing buyer, willing seller.”
But 14 years later, fewer than 5 percent of those claims have been settled.
It’s a situation that has left blacks impatient for reparations, while many whites fear the situation will deteriorate into a violent, Zimbabwe-style land grab.
This conflict is at the heart of former ABC News and BET producer Yoruba Richen’s new documentary, Promised Land, which follows two parallel stories in the country’s ongoing struggle.
One is that of the Mekgareng, an impoverished tribe that has lived landless for decades, as it seeks to reclaim their old—now highly valuable—lands.
While most white landowners involved with the Mekgareng claim are fighting to keep their plots, Roger Roman drew the ire of his white neighbors by agreeing to give up his property.
Growing up white in the 1960s and 1970s with little contact with blacks except in a service capacity, Roman realized “my version of South Africa was an incredibly narrow, isolated one.” The decision to cede his land “became the moment of choice for my life,” he says.
The film also spotlights the Molamu family, an affluent, well-educated group who are responsible for a 2006 case in which the South African government for the first time expropriated land away from a white owner who did not accept the offered price.
Getting access to these white families as they battled to keep their land was one of Richen’s concerns going into the project, which she filmed during trips to South Africa in 2004, 2006 and 2008.
“As an African-American, I definitely had a lot of my own fears and prejudices about the white South Africans,” Richen says. “But one thing that surprised me…was how willing they were to share their stories and to be honest with me about their feelings and their experiences.”
For Richen, the relationships between race, space and power have been lifelong interests. Growing up in New York City, Richen called the African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights home. But she commuted to school each day to the affluent, predominately white Upper East Side.
“Seeing the differences between those two neighborhoods—and experiencing it in a very physical way—has shaped the kind of work that I’m interested in,” she explains.
Richen hopes viewers of Promised Land will experience the sense of urgency that underlies South Africa’s land reform issues, as well as the story’s relevance to other disputes like repatriation for Native Americans and African-Americans, and that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is a worldwide issue of how we deal with post-colonialist societies that still haven’t dealt with their inequality and that are still racially polarized,” Richen says. “We need to have a real conversation about what reconciliation means.”
Promised Land just completed a series of rough-cut screenings in San Francisco, New York and Boston.

Watch FLYP’s interview with Yoruba Richen about the story behind her film.

FLYP Media lets you watch the first eight minutes of Yoruba Richen’s new film, Promised Land.

Next up for Yoruba Richen is Sisters of the Good Death, a documentary exploring the fusion of Catholicism and the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé in an annual festival in the Reconcavo region of Brazil.
Each year, a group of Brazilian women—each of whom is over 50 and of African descent—come together to celebrate the end of slavery in their homeland.
The women call themselves Irmandade da Boa Morte (“Sisterhood of the Good Death”) as an expression of their devotion to the assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Richen’s initial interest in the Sisterhood began in 2004. She first heard of the festival from her mother, who persuaded her to make the trip to Brazil to experience the celebration firsthand.
“We went in really not knowing much about it, and it was really interesting to me that this had been going on for so long. But there was so little that had been documented and written,” she says.
“It was this festival that took over the town, that had all these different meanings around Catholicism and Candomblé, around women, around black women, around slavery and resistance to slavery.”
Sisters of the Good Death is scheduled to be released in 2010.

Watch a clip from Sisters of the Good Death, Richen’s upcoming project.

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