Sisters of the Wilderness: SA doccie embodies the abuse of women and wildlife

Sisters of the Wilderness is a new 90-minute documentary about the impact of wilderness on the lives of five young Zulu women, and the damage caused by coal mining near Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The documentary will be screened at the upcoming Durban Film Festival from 19-29 July.

Director and cinematographer Karin Slater has created a profound film that casts a subtle focus on the abuse suffered by both wilderness and women in South Africa.  Scott Ramsay interviewed Slater about the film, her own experiences of wilderness and her early childhood growing up close to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, speaking Zulu and dodging hippos.

READ MORE: Get your popcorn ready for Durban International Film Festival + SA’s art festivals not to miss

Scott Ramsay: Most films about African wilderness tend to focus on wild animals, or on white men toughing it out in macho fashion. Sisters of the Wilderness is a refreshing alternative that reveals the immense importance of wild places. What was your intention when starting out with this film?

Karin Slater: I didn’t have any firm goals. I just wanted to go along, observe and film. I didn’t want to interfere too much with the process of the five young women, who had never been into a wilderness area like iMfolozi before. 

Immersion in wilderness usually has a big impact on anyone. I’ve made several films over 30 years with African wilderness as a backdrop, so I knew its power and how it can help people heal themselves.

If I did have a theme in mind for the film, it was the parallels between women and wilderness: what’s happening to women on the continent is what’s happening to Africa’s remaining wild places. The earth is being mined of its minerals and riches, as women are being “mined” of theirs. Women don’t feel safe anymore, and our continent isn’t safe anymore. Like women, the earth is being exploited.

SR: Where did the five Zulu women come from, and what were their backgrounds?

KS: The women on trail were Amanda Ntombela, Andile Nxumalo, Nokuphila Cele, Thembani Mdunge and Wendy Mkhwanasa. They all came from townships outside the town of Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, and they ranged in age from 19 to 32.

They’re a mix of township women who are struggling to make ends meet. One could say they’re having a rough time, like most South African women in a township.

Through a network of trusted contacts – including Ann Player, wife of Ian Player – producer Ronit Shapiro and I found the five women, and we visited their families explaining what we were going to do.

None of them knew each other. We took them on the iMfolozi Wilderness trail with the Wilderness Leadership School and walked for five days, carrying our own backpacks. We slept outside under stars, keeping watch at the fire because there were potentially dangerous animals around like lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo.

Lihle Mbokasi, Janet Frangs and Bongimpilo Zondi were the wilderness trail guides who accompanied us.

SR: The film is ostensibly about a group of women experiencing wilderness for the first time, but it’s much more than that. The Zulu women are able to talk openly on camera about their struggles in life. Their stories are juxtaposed with beautiful scenes of iMfolozi and its animals, along with harrowing scenes of the Somkhele coal mine on its border. The result is subtle but impactful.

KS: I was trying to portray how the wilderness is always listening and is always there for us. After the emotional scenes of the women telling their stories, there are silent scenes of animals like impala and kudu looking at the viewer. Wilderness creates the safe space for people to be vulnerable and honest. It’s very cathartic.

I also filmed the memorials of the ancestors, the cairns of stones in iMfolozi, and juxtaposed these with the destruction of mining. I hope the viewer comes away realizing that coal mining is destroying the land of the Zulu ancestors.

Sisters of the Wilderness, a hard-hitting document

SR: iMfolozi has traditionally been very important to the traditional Zulu people, but the connection is increasingly being lost. How did the young Zulu women respond to being there, a place so different from their homes in the townships around Howick?

KS: There was a huge transformation in the women. Almost everyone who spends a few days in wilderness changes at least a little. I’ve felt it happen to me and seen it happen many times to people of different races.

For the Zulu women, their ancestors have been here for hundreds of generations, so their connection felt very deep. iMfolozi was always sacred to the Zulus, it was Shaka’s exclusive hunting area.

For the women in the film, the unconscious connection to the land would have always been there perhaps, and maybe this sense of homecoming was re-awakened in them while they were on trail.

SR: You also have a close connection to Imfolozi, and you’ve spent a lot of time in Africa’s wilderness areas. How did this influence your film making of Sisters in the Wilderness?

KS:  I was born in Empangeni in 1969, and my birth certificate actually says “Lower Umfolozi”, so it really does feel like home to me. There’s something very grounding about it. The cells in my body just feel more alive there.

My parents farmed sugar cane on the Nyalazi River, the same river that flows through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. We lived in thatched rondavels and there were crocodiles and hippos below us in the river. Every Sunday we used to go to Hluhluwe on a game drive.

I have a lot of memories of walking along the Nyalazi River with my grandmother and her two Doberman dogs. We had a walk that she taught us, skipping along the river. I still do this with my two daughters today!

I spent a lot of time with Zulu people who worked with my parents, so I grew up speaking the language.  

My dad, who passed away recently, was also good friends with Jim Feely, who worked with Ian Player. Jim started a lot of the trails in iMfolozi. And my grandfather had a small plane, so he used to fly for the rangers a lot, doing a lot of aerial surveys.

So all those experiences have given me a deep love and respect for iMfolozi and Zululand.

SR: You’ve been filming in wilderness areas for 30 years. What’s been some of your most formative experiences?

KS: I was fortunate to work with John Varty at Londolozi for many years. My first film-making job was to raise two leopard cubs that came from a breeding centre in Zimbabwe. That was an unbelievable introduction. Every morning I would go walking with the leopard cubs down the dry river bed, filming every moment of their young lives. We ended up making the documentary series Living with Leopards, and a feature film called Running Wild.

Then I helped Jon with filming Shingalana Little Lion for a six-part Disney series. She was a lion cub that had been abandoned by her pride. She was an extraordinary lion and an incredible soul. She touched me deeply. While the leopards were usually aloof and solitary, Shingalana would often come lie on my bed, put her leg around me and suck my thumb. She could not sit nearby me without putting her head on my lap or paw on my lap. We were her pride, her family.

Sisters of the Wilderness, a hard-hitting document

SR: What has wilderness done for you?

KS: For me, wilderness represents unconditional love. It’s a place that I can go to and feel completely loved, and feel totally open. You can let down your guard and just be yourself. Wilderness works on me in a magical way. It’s a deeply spiritual experience.

When I was in South Luangwa with Shingalana the lioness and the leopard cubs, I lived in a tent for 2 years without anyone else, without any electronics, except a 16mm film camera. It was very difficult to come back into a city and live inside four walls again. The artificial noise and bright lights were really shocking to me. Wilderness had rewired me.

Even now, whenever I come back to my home in Cape Town after time in the wilderness, I can feel the layers of protection start coming up again. I don’t want those layers of defence to come up, but it happens.

SR: If you’re a poor Zulu girl, living outside iMfolozi, and she asked you why we need wilderness, what would you say to her?

KS: One of the Zulu women on trail – Andile Nxumalo - was asked a similar question after a screening of the film. She was asked: “if one of your relatives was offered R1 million to poach a rhino, because it would pay for an expensive medical operation to save your mother who was sick, how would you convince them not to kill the rhino?”

And what Andile answered was very powerful.

She said “the rhino is my brother, and the giraffe is my sister, that they are also my family. There is no separation, we are one and the same thing. How can you kill something that’s part of me? And part of yourself?”

She carried on answering: “But how do you explain that to someone who has never experienced walking among wild animals? How do you explain the connections that we have with wilderness if you’ve never been there? The best thing for anyone is to go and experience it for themselves, because it’s something that can’t be explained in words.”

I was blown away by how profound that answer is, because it speaks to something deep within all of us. It speaks to us on a spiritual level, and it simply can’t be argued with by economists, politicians or miners.

SR: What is the future of wilderness areas in Africa, and what can be done to ensure they don’t disappear?

KS: I don’t know what the future holds. It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening to wilderness. It’s been really hard for me to watch it disappear so quickly, even in my adult lifetime.

The tragedy of conservation is that we’ve lost our connection to wild animals. Africa’s peoples always had a way to protect nature through its legends, myths and totems. Lots of Zulu surnames are names of wild animals. Since colonial times people have been forced off their ancestral land, especially from the national parks. That connection to our ancestors and the animals has been lost.

As Bongimpilo Zondi our guide in the film says to the women: it’s all about respect. If you respect the rhino, it will respect you. We have lost respect for wilderness. How can we bring that back? We need to reconnect people to these places. Everyone needs to experience it for themselves. And through that reunion, there can be deep healing for us. That’s the story we tried to tell with Sisters of the Wilderness.

SCREENING TIMES at DURBAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2018

22 July – 4pm – Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre

23 July – 8pm – Garden Court

26 July – 6pm – Musgrave 6

READ MORE: Get your popcorn ready for Durban International Film Festival + SA’s art festivals not to miss