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June 2006
Pirates of the Caribbean: Interview with Noamie Harris

Pirates of the Caribbean: Interview with Noamie Harris
Harris speaks about her character, working with Johnny Depp, and filming in warm climate.
By Wilson Morales
July 3, 2006

With the exception of Alex Haley, wrote the famous book, Roots, there aren’t that many directors who make films based on theirs lives. Once the first film is complete, they usually go on to do something different, but for Thomas Allen Harris, exploring his roots is his passion. According to his bio, raised in the Bronx and Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania, Thomas Allen Harris is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentary films, installations, and experimental videos have been featured internationally at festivals, museums, galleries, and on television. His most recent film, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

His previous film, É Minha Cara/That's My Face (2001) premiered at the Toronto, Sundance, and Tribeca Film Festivals and won seven international awards, including the Best Documentary at OUTfest and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury of Christian Churches at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival. A recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, CPB/PBS, and Sundance Directors Fellowships, Mr. Harris graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Biology and is a former tenured Associate Professor of Media Arts at the University of California, San Diego. Mr. Harris worked as a producer for public television in New York, prior to founding Chimpanzee Productions, Inc. a company dedicated to producing unique visual experiences that illuminate the human condition and the search for identity, family, and spirituality. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Harris talks about “The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela” and discovering more about his father after he died and went to South Africa and heard about his reason why he came to the states. The film will be shown at BAMcinematek, the repertory film program at BAM Rose Cinema in Brooklyn, New York from July 5-11.

What is this film about and what are you looking for the audience to get out of it?

Thomas Allen Harris: The film is about the first wave of exiles who left South Africa in 1960 to tell the world about the anti-apartheid struggle and one of them was my step-dad, who raised me, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng. He raised me since I was 9 years old and I kind of grew up hearing this story, but it’s different when you hear it as a kid and when I heard it as an adult it was at his funeral. It was my time in South Africa and I was going to say goodbye to him and I heard the colleagues that he had left with tell the same story. It was an interesting thing because I also realized that this man who raised me, in South Africa, there’s no such thing as “step”; he was my father. I think culturally in America, even though we are African Americans, we adhere to certain Western European concepts and in South Africa, if a man’s in the house, he’s taking care of you and raising you, the concept of step doesn’t exist. I began to see him as my dad and also the fact was that we had a difficult relationship in part because of the issue of “step”. More important was the cultural differences, being an American kid and having a traditional South African dad. In some ways what the film does is like a eulogy to him. He came into this country in ’67 to fight apartheid using the tools, and his weapon was media. While doing the film, I realized that he came here to become a political TV journalist and also radio and film and that’s exactly what I ended up becoming although I went to school to become a doctor. I ended up becoming exactly what he ended up in this country for. It’s a journey of discovery of the man who raised me and also the story of these 12 revolutionaries.

How much research went into this?

TAH: I was lucky because I grew up with a lot of the history. This is the first film to be done about the exile experience. He kept an amazing archive, but it took about five years of research and really to understand of what was going on; because both my parents and uncles and aunts grew up in the struggles so a lot of history was available to me.

Was there any resistance to you following up with this story?

TAH: No. Most people in South Africa, the story of the exiles, some of them think it’s about people who went away and got an education, got good jobs, came back and are now ruling the country. They didn’t realized that tremendous sacrifice and incredible discipline that these men and women brought to bear on their lives in terms of keeping the struggle; not selling out and really keeping the dream alive. Can you imagine having a goal for 30 years? When my dad left South Africa, he was in his late teens/ early twenties; he and the other guys and so they thought that in five or ten years they would go back to a free country. Only 30 years later they were finally able to go back. Their parents had died and many people that they knew had been killed. The kind of discipline to stay away from home and if they had gone back they would have been killed or tortured or put in jail. It’s a reality that we as Americans never had to experience. We wouldn’t understand this until we go South Africa and see how close people are to each other and with their families. To away from one’s family and country and at the same time, several of them went to Cuba and many went to Eastern Europe. They were caught in the throes of the Cold War, and my father came into this country in the late 60s, the African National Congress was considered a communist organization, a communist terrorist organization. My parents told me the phone was tapped. It wasn’t an easy road.

How was shooting out there?

TAH: It was amazing. We shot in Bloemfontein, and it’s the place where ANC was founded in 1912 and it’s also the place where apartheid was created there because that’s the place where the Dutch settlers ended up going to, the Africanas, and so you have this mixture. It’s like Mississippi; it’s like the old South. This is the first film to be shot there in history. I had a very multi-racial crew and cast and we brought people together. I used a lot of actors. The film has a lot of dramatic recreations in it, about 25%; and one of the reasons I used these actors is that I wanted in some ways to use the film to tell them about this history. Most people in South Africa when you ask them about when the struggle began, they have the date wrong. They have no idea of what happened with these guys or what happened before them; it’s been ongoing. I didn’t just want to make a historical film; I wanted to somehow activate this community and so that’s what I did. I shot on 16 millimeter. I worked with over 100 actors on this film. For me, I grew as a director on this film as well.

Do you think this is a story people would want to see?

TAH: I make the best film I can make. I make a film about my passion. When I started this film, I had no idea I would be using actors. I had no idea it would win an award. It’s a film about these guys and my dad. Every film I do is about something important to me and I think it has an effect on some people.

How happy are you that BAM is taking a big interest in your work and giving you the spotlight?

TAH: I’m thrilled. It’s a blessing. The three films that they are showing are all part of a trilogy called the Paulding Avenue Trilogy. Paulding Avenue is where I grew up in the Bronx and these three films are all based on me growing up in a Pan African household in the Bronx in the 70s and 80s. The first film is called VINTAGE – Families of Value and the second film is called E Minha Cara/ That’s My Face.

What’s next for you?

TAH: I’m actually working on several projects. I’m moving on to narrative films, so I’m working on a sex comedy, that’s tentatively titled “On the DL”. That’s a working title. I’m also working on a documentary; a big documentary feature film called “Reflections in Black”, and that film looks at the way in which black photographers from 1840 to the present have used the camera as a tool for social change. That’s the kind of work I do in terms of the way I use the camera as a tool for social change. Looking at the way at black photographers from 1840 in New Orleans used a camera to help with the abolitionist movement to who we are now.

Why should we go see “The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela”?

TAH: It’s an incredible inspirational story and most of us need stories about ourselves and so many people in this country were part of the movement to liberate South Africa and young people need to see this so they can say to themselves, “I can have a vision and I can follow that vision through”.

BAM cinématek Presents the New York Premiere and Theatrical Debut of Thomas Allen Harris' Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, July 5-11

Also featured are Harris' first two films of the Paulding Avenue Trilogy
E Minha Cara/That's My Face (2001) and VINTAGE - Families of Value (1995)

For more information, visit www.bam.org





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