A banner from Street Talk’s Cape Town office. (Zhang/TYG)
By: Zoe Rubin and JR Reed.
This past Monday, a group of four of us met with Jo Mennel and Richard Mills, two of the co-founders and directors of Street Talk, a documentary-style news organization that produces weekly segments on Capetonians’ daily life experiences.
Street Talk is a young organization. Started five years ago, the television series broadcasts conversations between residents in various Cape Town communities. Locals from affluent suburbs and informal township settlements alike can tune into the series, which airs on public television via Cape Town TV, Bay TV, 1KZN TV and DStv.
Mennel and Mills believe that, through their unique, simple, and non-intrusive filming techniques, viewers feel as though they are “eavesdropping” on real-life conversations, rather than watching a filtered version of stories. The making of a Street Talk episode typically begins with a day of on-location filming, followed by two days of film editing, and then another day of sound editing. Using approximately an hour of film-recorded conversations, the directors create a fifteen minute episode, or sometimes even two episodes. Rather than showcase a back-and-forth interview, Mennel and Mills prefer to film a group of people talking to each other about issues, to get them “riffing” in a rough product that will then be edited down afterwards. In a society very much geographically and socially divided along racial lines, showcasing raw conversations from different neighborhoods and communities is vital. “By allowing people to hear what the ‘other’ has said,” Mennel explained, “they will then realize their commonalities.”
With more than 1.3 million viewers in Cape Town, and likely far more in the townships and Eastern Cape (where the organization lacks viewer statistics), Street Talk hopes to raise awareness across communities about the personal and national issues facing Africans. Currently in the program’s fourth season of shooting, Street Talk has produced over 162 episodes, 2 short-films, an internationally screened documentary, and its videos have ushered in more than 21,000 YouTube views.
Jo Mennel talks to Rachel. (Zhang/TYG)
In some instances, Mennel and Mills have deviated from their usual weekly 15-minute episodes to instead profile unique Capetonians in various areas of the city. We were fortunate to get a sneak preview of one profile that will soon be aired – a 30-minute interview featuring flamboyant, mixed-race Gugulethu Township resident Shane. Although Shane lives in this neighborhood, one where it is would be considered “very dangerous” to be a homosexual male, he says that his immediate community embraces his identity.
Growing up in this township, one of the most dangerous in all of Cape Town, Shane was brutally beaten and gang raped by eight men when he was 11 years old. During this traumatic event, he contracted HIV. Shane must face the devastating reality that he will continue to live with this disease until the day that he dies. But, rather than letting the disease consume him, Shane has managed to “rise above it”, as he notes in the Street Talk segment. He lives his life as if he is not HIV positive, going out and drinking during the weekends and embracing his job working as a host at Mzoli’s, a famous butchery in Gugulethu. He has his fair share of sexual adventures as well. Cocking his head back and forth, he told the Street Talk cameramen: “I love my threesomes, my foursomes.”
Although Shane looked as comfortable as ever in the camera spotlight, it took time for both he and the Street Talk directors to go ahead with the interview. For Shane, this was a decision that took a long time for him to make. During our group’s trip to his township two days later, we actually ran into Shane during our stop for lunch at Mzoli’s. Before stopping, we did not know that he worked there. It was an incredible shock when we stepped off our bus to a greeting from the very man we were fascinated by two days earlier. He ended up hosting us and showing us the ropes of the Mzoli experience, letting his vivacious personality shine the whole way through. Shane sat down to lunch with us and explained his goals to travel to different parts of the world and leave his township in the future. But he also expanded on some of the reservations he had agreeing to be featured on Street Talk.
Shane described this decision as a big step for him. He didn’t know if he wanted his greater community to know about his traumatic childhood events. He didn’t know how other members of his own neighborhood would respond to the short film. And he didn’t know if he, himself, would be willing to be his true self and fully disclose his story to these film directors. Ultimately, however, Shane decided it was worth it. And, when he agreed to the interview, he said he didn’t let the camera change the way he acted, reiterating to us time and time again that you have to be “fabulous” during your life. Shane’s courage to follow through with this piece will enable South Africans and viewers around the world to gain insights into the life of someone who deserves to share an incredible story.
At first, Mennel and Mills were actually hesitant to produce this type of profile, believing it would be risky in terms of viewership. “This is something that you don’t see in South Africa – allowing a gay man to riff on this,” he said. “There’s the risk of people thinking, ‘Why this?’”. By “why this?”, Mennel suggested that Cape Town viewers could potentially question the filmmakers for deciding to pursue an interview with a flamboyant homosexual male like Shane. Nevertheless, they decided to go ahead, and, from what we could see during our 10-minute preview, viewers should be excited to see what Shane has to share and eager to learn from his experiences.
Richard Mills answers JR’s question. (Zhang/TYG)
During our time at the Street Talk headquarters, the directors also showed us an episode of their regular weekly documentary television program that focused on youth gang violence. The segment featured two rival youth gangs from the Delft township: the Italians and the Vatos Locos. Whereas the gang members were mostly high school age, and some even continue to attend school, their lives were consumed by seemingly endless cycles of violence and death.
The incredible sourcing talents of Street Talk’s researchers allow the organization to have immense access in the township areas. Highly respected in his home community, one researcher was able to invite the Italians and Vatos Locos to meet in his own home for a conversation about their involvement in youth gangs. In the his home, the gang members did not dare break into violence. Instead, they sat side by side with their daily enemies and discussed their ongoing rivalry. “The way I see it, we’re the best, since we just killed one of them last week – we wanted a balance,” boasted one teenager, smiling broadly. “The score was 1-0, we wanted to make it 1-1.” Later, another teenager took of his shirt to reveal knife wounds from a recent stabbing, for which his neighbor took credit.
Hearing such language and seeing its gruesome consequences was particularly unsettling. Walking through the neighborhood around our hostel, lined with colorful Dutch Colonial buildings, leafy trees, and outdoor cafes, we often feel isolated from the living conditions of much of the country’s population.Youth unrest is a pervasive problem in a country with a national unemployment rate of over 25%. Mennel and Mills emphasized how inescapable the gangs are for youth growing up in these areas like Delft: “if you’re not in them, then you’re victimised, so you almost have to be in the gangs.”
Throughout our time in Cape Town, we’ve been increasingly more and more uncomfortable by the divisions between neighborhoods and communities. Pressing issues affecting the townships, like HIV/AIDS, poverty, and unemployment, seem to be foreign concepts to the bustling urban neighborhoods of Tamboerskloof or posh Camps Bay. Yet each time a viewer tunes onto Street Talk that divide can be somewhat breached, if only for 15 minutes. Seeing their documentaries and talking to Mennel and Mills remind us how important it is to ask hard questions, talk to unconventional sources and engage in difficult conversations. As we continue our meetings and interviews, we hope that our article might be able to breach these divides too.
Check out Street Talk’s three-part series on the “Gangsters of Delft.”