Teddy Goitom Finds Africa's Creatives in the Streets: An Interview

Documentary Interview





Teddy Goitom is a filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden, where he operates the Stocktown cultural movement, which includes a curated online video magazine, and a film production arm. Along with collaborator Benjamin Taft, he directed the 5-part Afripedia series of short 28-minute documentaries about urban street culture in different African locales. Kenya was shot in Nairobi, and includes interviews with 3D animator Andrew Kaggia, Afro-futuristic pop band Just a Band, and found-material visual artist Cyrus. Angola was shot in Luanda, with a look at the local “kuduro” electro music scene, including interviews with musicians Titica and Nástio Mosquito, and producer MC Sacerdote. Senegal features interviews with fashion designer Selly Raby Kane, photographer Omar Victor Diop, dancer Khoudia Roodia, and beatmaker Fanny Elsa Eva. Ghana was shot in Accra, and includes interviews with musician Wiyaala, BMX trick-bikers, and visual artist and environmental activist Afrogallonism. South Africa was shot in Cape Town, and includes a look at streetwear label 2BOP, and interviews with “limpop” music genre inventor Gazelle. Goitom then takes his camera to Johannesburg for a block party featuring a performance by heavy metal group Ree-burth, and a tour of Soweto with fashion trend-setters, the Smarteez. The five parts of Afripedia screened at 2015’s New York African Film Festival, and I interviewed Goitom at the Film Society of Lincoln Center about what inspired the series, the importance of the art being created by the creatives he interviewed, and the struggles of getting the project financed and screened.


What follows are his words, adapted from our conversation.



On his Filmmaking Roots

I am based in Stockholm, and what I wanted to do very early was to document the street culture scene. Because I could see that there were so many talents based in Sweden, in the network that I found, that didn’t have a voice. We wanted to use film as a medium to put that out, and that’s actually how I started to get into documentary. I didn’t go to any film school. So I created this platform called Stocktown, and through that brought people who had skills in editing and shooting. Together we wanted to tell these stories, because we had a common passion with music in the beginning. So we did a music documentary series called Stocktown Underground, where we actually travel around the world, in the U.S., in Brazil, Australia. It was a lot about the remix culture – how people remix other people’s music, and how people find inspiration. So it was like a global journey through music, and we interviewed a lot of independent artists. Basically we’re at their studio, at their home, and in their surroundings, and we let them tell their own stories. So there was no narrator who was explaining where we were. It was themselves. That fascinated me, because I could see that the creative process, there was a lot of similarity in the scenes. For instance in Japan, people connected us to people in Brazil. And in Brazil, people connected to the U.S. So it was interesting how everything was linked together. You just found out that the scene is big, but still small if you know what people are doing. That was before the internet was beginning to explode. That was in 2002. So that was my entrance into the documentary scene.


In our team, we have great photographers and editors. I think what we wanted to do was, “Okay, how do we make it beautiful? How do we tell the story as good as possible through editing?” I think our background through producing music documentaries and music video has helped a lot in how we edit the stories as well. Because in every episode, you have four or five creatives. How do you do that as a kind of visual mix tape? We had that idea, “Let’s do it as a mix tape, and edit it that way.” So that was kind of our recipe, and it’s a lot also of having good people around you who can contribute with music. Music has been very important for us; background music that you hear. We work closely together with a music producer named Marcus Price and Jaqe in Sweden. We also used the artists’ music to tell their stories. I think it helped a lot that we have been heavily into music videos, and to edit with music, and also to get the stories to go further on.



Still from Afripedia



On the Afripedia Series

Our latest project, going through blogs, that is how we started out the research [six] years ago in 2009. What is happening in the street culture scene in Africa in major cities? Who are the movers and the shakers? How do we find out? So we were looking into different blogs that were popping up. I mean, even here in the U.S., you have Africa Is A Country, Another Africa, Okay Africa. In Kenya, there is a site called African Digital Art. We also follow personal blogs and Tumblrs. Just following what are people posting, and where are those links going. And through that, we started to look into who are the people who are in the scene, and trying to contact them. So our first trip was to South Africa in 2010. We followed the photographer who was blogging about the fashion scene in Soweto, and through his contacts we got introduced to other people, another network. We got into the music scene. We saw that there is a heavy metal band [Ree-burth] in Soweto as well. So you do both online and offline research. Many artists recommend other artists while shooting.


We are looking for people who are do-it-yourself, who are independent, inspiring, influencing the scene, and who are also pushing the boundaries. We also decided very early that, “Okay, music is fantastic. That’s something that we most often hear about, but what about the film scene? What about the art scene?” So we wanted to find people in different genres as well. But I think a common theme is that we wanted to find people who are influencing and just pushing the boundaries.


It is very important to have a vibrant art scene because, especially in the time right now, where we are living in very visual world, we need to see more role models. I think with the street culture scene, you got interesting ideas coming out, and you see also people remixing other cultures – taking inspiration from neighboring countries, but also taking inspiration from outside Africa as well. It is going vice versa. Before, it was always from outside taking inspiration to Africa. But it is going on both sides. That is what you are seeing right now. I think it is important also to support the art scene. In many countries, they don’t have that cultural support from the government. So it is a big challenge for many artists. And it is very inspiring to see that even though they don’t get support, they still make it happen, and also inspire others.


We met Selly Raby Kane from Senegal, a fashion designer and also president of a cultural [collective] called Les Petites Pierres. It’s a cultural center where they make exhibitions, and they have a platform for people to get out their music. So it’s interesting that people living in these difficult times still see hope, and do something for the people living in the city. So Selly Raby Kane was a very inspiring person. Another person is Wiyaala, an artist from Ghana. She is actually from the northern part of Ghana, and in the film she tells a story about how she moved to the capital city, because it was difficult to be an artist in northern Ghana as a female artist who wasn’t supported at all. Now she is becoming big in Ghana, and she wants to go back to her town in northern Ghana to do a festival only for female artists. So there’s a lot of people who want to inspire others.



Still from Afripedia



There is a great example, an artist named Serge goes under the name Afrogallonism. He uses yellow gallons that you carry water in, and he makes masks out of them, and he does these street performances to make awareness of the water shortage that is happening, and also electricity. He also started an art collective where he finds local talent to be part of this political art activism, and they do performances on the street. I think that is great, when you make the public aware of what is going on.


The culture infrastructure in many countries is coming from former colonial institutions. You have Alliance Française, Goethe-Institut from Germany – those are the ones who are supporting many artists. But there are so many more. That’s what’s needed, for the government to also pay attention, and see that culture is also capitol. The future consumers of culture is an investment for the nation as well.



On Getting Afripedia Seen

We thought it would be easy to finance this film because we haven’t seen anything of this kind. We thought it would be easy to finance it in the home base where we’re living in Sweden, but it wasn’t. So we had to do a tour through Europe, Berlin to London to do these pitches. Still it was difficult to find financing, even though we had a lot of material that we already produced. Many times it failed when it came to channels who, for instance, wanted to have narrators explaining what was happening – especially if we could have western celebrities going to different African countries, and doing a kind of collaboration. Then they said they would finance the project. But we didn’t want to compromise on that, so we still continued to produce it as it is. And at last, we got financing from Sweden from a cultural fund to finish the last stories. But the landscape for us, if we are looking into what is happening in Europe, the best thing would be to get support from Africa, for Africans to get involved in this. Because that is the type of group that needs to see these films.


We have a very, very ambitious plan to build an online platform that is going to be called Afripedia, which is going to be like a visual Wikipedia where you can find more creatives from many, many more countries. But we are not the only one who can find them. We need to get together and collaborate with all the other blogs that have an eye on what is going on, and to curate that. Once you find that database of thousands, or maybe millions of talents, that is when you make a huge impact. Because there is a lot of talent, and there is a lot of good work going on. But it’s very difficult to navigate, and find where do you start. We want to start that movement. So that is what we are working on, because making film is a long process. We would love to go to many, many more countries, but It is difficult to finance that. I think if we collaborate with others who are bloggers, writers, photographers, who are documenting the scene and putting it for the world to see… and not only on what is happening in Africa with African creatives. What about all the African creatives living outside, who are also having challenges in getting into the creative industry? We need to celebrate them as well, and have everybody on this big journey. So that’s our next trip.


In New York, Mahan [Bonetti], the director of the African Film Festival, she has always been supportive. They actually showed our first pilot from South Africa here a couple of years ago, and it is great to show it here also for the African diaspora. The film that we have been doing, it is a five-part episode. It is mostly a TV episode, so we never actually planned to have it go around in festivals. But people have approached us from all over the world to show it – from Brazil, to other European countries – so we are just blessed and happy to show them. 



Still from Afripedia



Kenya, Africa, Angola, Senegal, Ghana, South Africa