“I get introduced to people often as a South African, which I take as a compliment. I’m happy to be that,” says Prague-based documentary filmmaker Keith Jones, who hails from Washington DC, but has lived in the Czech Republic for the past two decades.
Jones’ most recent film, “Punk in Africa”, which he directed and produced in collaboration with Deon Maas, is an in-depth look at the range and function of punk rock as a resistance tool against the South African apartheid regime of the 1970s and 1980s. It was screened at this year’s One World Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
It is an aspect of South Africa’s cultural heritage that, until production began, had never been explored on film. But Jones, who had worked as programme director of Prague’s Music on Film - Film on Music (MOFFOM) film festival between 2005 and 2007, realised early on the potential magnetism of the subject matter for an international audience.
“There was some freshness here in the sense of doing something, telling a music story which was a very cool music story. And the excitement is what got people on to participate. I felt we were blazing a trail with ‘Punk in Africa’,” says Jefe Brown, one of the film’s producers.
Jones was first encouraged to come to Prague by his film professor in Washington shortly after the Velvet Revolution.
A friend of late former President Václav Havel, he urged Jones to “just get out of this place and study (filmmaking) properly” at Prague’s Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), which had produced luminary Czech directors like Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel and Jan Němec ‑ another personal friend of Jones’ university professor.
In 2003, after many years at FAMU and work with renowned curator Otto M Urban, Jones was invited to attend a Jewish-Ndebele wedding in Zimbabwe.
“When I heard this, I was like, ‘I have to go,’” he says.
This trip jolted him out of the ennui he had started to feel and would indelibly change his life, because one of the guests at the wedding was Maas, a journalist and photographer who had experienced punk culture firsthand in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg during the apartheid years.
The two hit it off immediately.
“Within minutes, we had a connection; within hours, we realised we could keep up with each other’s drinking; within a day or two, we were already working on a documentary,” Jones says.
“I have a synergy with Keith that I have never had with anyone else. ... We discuss things beforehand, but we always have the same end result in mind,” says Maas, adding tongue-in-cheek, “The only thing we don’t agree on is me listening to better music than he does.”
The pair would collaborate on “Durban Poison”, a film about South Africa’s first black-owned independent theatre.
As the first ever Czech-South African documentary co-production, “Durban Poison’s” initial project of documenting a musical that recounts the theatre’s history turned into an exposé of the corruption plaguing the artistic landscape in the country.
The film was broadcast on public television, which opened doors for Jones and Maas.
On a road trip shortly after the success of “Durban Poison”, Maas introduced Jones to the full array of South African music, playing everything from 1930s concertina-heavy “folk music” to contemporary South African hip-hop, all of which contained some social or political commentary.
It was during this time the idea for a music documentary began to sprout. The original idea was to focus on rock music in the 1980s, but Jones’ experience at MOFFOM had taught him the value of more clear-cut topics.
“It was too broad. By being so broad, it narrows your audience. And by going more narrow with the story, you can broaden your audience,” he says.
Around 2008, Jones pitched the idea of a film about the apartheid-era punk rock movement in South Africa to Brown, who had also produced “Durban Poison” and a documentary about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, among other music-related projects.
“There are times when you know right away ‘I want to do this’, and there are not very many of those times,” Brown says.
Using social media networks like Facebook ‑ still a novelty at the time ‑ to connect with potential sources of information, and with support and input from Maas and two other producers, Bill Botes and David Chislett, Jones started to research the era.
A trailer was put together, with money from the National Film and Video Foundation in South Africa, to attract investors, and by 2009 production started.
Continuing over a two-year period with many trips between the Czech Republic and South Africa, “Punk in Africa” was shot in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria, with short stints in the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
It was not always plain sailing, as Jones makes clear by calling Durban a city that is “really off-the-charts crazy”, while adding in the same breath he loves to hang out there. In Zimbabwe, the shoot lasted a mere 24 hours, and the crew had to dismantle their equipment and smuggle it in and out of the country in many separate pieces to avoid suspicion of subversion.
The end-product is very clearly South African, with the multitude of musicians speaking in many of the country’s 11 official languages, but some of the individuals also have some personal connections to the Czech Republic.
Michael Flek of the band Wild Youth Gay Marines had a Czech father from Brno who had migrated to Durban in the 1960s, and Steve Moni of the band National Wake has lived in Prague since the mid-90s.
South Africa has become a second home for Jones, whose accent skirts the edge of South African. During the shoot of “Punk in Africa” in 2009 and 2010, he spent more time there than in Prague, but he says he has worked out a balance between South Africa and Central Europe, and maintains professional profiles in both corners of the world.
He will be involved in a music festival in Mozambique later in the year. He closely follows the South African music scene and has advised and has helped out the South African Embassy on many cultural matters, bringing famous jazz performer Simphiwe Dana to Prague Castle, for example.
“Punk in Africa” has already received acclaim at the Durban International Film Festival and recently at Cape Town’s Design Indaba, and had its Czech premiere at the human rights-oriented One World Film Festival in Prague on March 8. - Prague Pos