Dublin based photographer and filmmaker Zithelo Bobby Mthombeni explores the positive impact of immigration in his latest documentary. We speak to him ahead of the online premiere of his doc this Thursday.
Congratulations on This Land, it’s a beautiful film. Can you tell us a little bit about it, who is involved and what you discovered on the journey to creating this documentary?
Thank you for the kind words! At the core of everything, This Land is a short documentary that explores the positive impact immigration has had on Ireland in the last couple of years. It is also a film that explores new ways of experiencing Irishness, via discussions with chefs, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, journalists and activists. It also explores the impact of racism and Direct Provision on the outlook of the people interviewed.
The film features a number of people who themselves emigrated to Ireland, or who were born here to parents who moved from another country. I had the pleasure of chatting to the likes of poet Felispeaks, 2FM’s Tara Stewart, Senita Appiakorang of Shookrah, head chef Pedro Ferraz, the amazing crew from Beyond Representation, journalist Dean Van Nguyen, owner of Tola Vintage Ayuba Salaudeen, as well as the activist duo behind Black Pride Ireland and lots more.
Not to give too much away, but the majority of this film centres around the topic of race and racism, how these individuals have either dealt with racism or how it has impacted their lives.
I’d say throughout the making of this project, one thing that stood out to me the most would be how other people roughly my age self identify. I’ve met a lot of people who are 100 per cent certain they know who they are and how they identify, but I also found great comfort in finding that so many other people featured in this documentary are in the same position as me. They’re still in the process of figuring out who they are and sometimes they struggle to either call themselves fully Irish, or even “half” Irish.
What did you want to achieve going into this? Was it what you expected?
The whole idea for this project and all my previous projects has always been wanting to start a conversation, get people talking about certain ideas and themes that I feel aren’t showcased enough in the media or maybe not showcased the right way and maybe answer some of the questions I’ve had for a long time growing up in Ireland about self-identity.
I suppose we’ll have to wait for the premiere to see how people respond and see if any conversations are started. Once that happens, I think I’ll know if I’ve achieved what I was aiming for with this project.
“I also found great comfort in finding that so many other people featured in this documentary are in the same position as me. They’re still in the process of figuring out who they are and sometimes they struggle to either call themselves fully Irish or half Irish.”
There’s a real sense of sadness, but also hope and joy in this film.
That’s the thing about this film, I wanted to produce a positive documentary about race and Irish culture, but the more I thought about this, the more I started to realise I couldn’t ignore the difficult subjects. You often see racist attacks on video, social media, but you hardly ever see these victims talk about how these events have made them feel or impacted their lives.
Those emotions you described are some that these people go through on a daily basis. They’ve faced racism (some are still facing it to this day), yet they don’t let that stop them from waking up in the morning with great hope. They don’t let race define them. They’ve somehow managed to find the funny side in some of their tragic experiences. They continue to create, fight for human rights, they continue to fight for change. And that I think is something I hope people notice in this film.
The focus of your films is often young musicians, but on This Land there are chefs, journalists, entrepreneurs, activists and others. Did that change your approach to film-making? Did it change the energy?
Personally, the attempt for this project was to not be known as the “hip-hop camera guy” or the guy who does films about musicians.
At first, I did think about focusing on musicians with This Land. The idea was to go for the same themes and ideas but with musicians, but the more I thought about the concept of race or identity, the more I realised it affects all kinds of people. We’re all the same and face the same problems, it just so happens that we share different occupations.
Plus, it was an opportunity for me to speak to people outside of my field. For example, I was eager to meet Dean Van Nguyen. I spent a lot of my time reading his work whilst working on Up Next and a huge portion of his writing was a major inspiration for me on that project. Not to mention, he is one of my favorite people to follow on Twitter! Most importantly all these different people featured in the film play a massive role in bringing something to the Irish culture.
Do you make a point to centre your work around creative and passionate people?
I suppose it’s because I can relate to these people and creativity is one of the biggest things in Ireland. There’s a striving creative community all around Dublin, and I want to be one of the people that documents it all. Most importantly, I’m very curious – I find creative people to be some of the most fascinating people. I love all the mundane stuff, such as what it takes it to put a record together, how and what drives these people, I think there’s a lot to explore.
What was the difference in approach creating this film to Up Next and even your film about jazz?
Up Next and Down With Jazz are somewhat similar films. One explores a dying art form the other explores the growth of a genre in Ireland.
I spent a lot of time researching the history of jazz culture in Ireland, I watched a lot of old interviews featuring jazz artists, I spent most of my time listening to a lot of jazz and constantly reading whatever I could find on jazz just so I knew what questions to ask how to structure the film. That was more of an immersive approach to it all, which was somewhat similar to Up Next.
“I feel as if I have been gathering the research for this film the moment I landed in Ireland when I was 10-years-old.”
With Up Next I borrowed that same method but instead I spent most of my time going to live Irish music gigs and being around these artists, just so I could take the excitement you feel at a local Irish gig and put it on film and have the viewer feel as if they were at one of these gigs. I also wanted to make them feel the need to go to a local Irish hip-hop gig!
This Land however was a completely different approach altogether. This may come across cheesy, but I feel as if I have been gathering the research for this film the moment I landed in Ireland when I was ten-years-old.
I’ve heard about the racist attacks, the discrimination, and may have faced some similar experiences in my life, so all the research I needed was already there.
The approach with this one was to try not to make the film “cool” or too stylised. I was already dealing with some heavy topics, so the best approach was to keep everything else simple such as the visuals, the music used along with the style of the film. I didn’t want the visuals to be too distracting or the music to overtake the narrative. Everything around the narrative had to be subtle in order for the viewer to stay engaged with what the people on screen were saying.
This Land carries a more emotional punch. There’s the potential that This Land will make some people feel uncomfortable, as it’s a film that’s unfiltered from the language used and stories that are told. Everything is raw and straight to the point.
You can view the documentary here at 7pm on Thursday April 2nd. The live screening will be followed by remote Q&A on @tenthmanhello IG live with director Zithelo, as well as producer Eric Davidson, poet Felispeaks and musician Senita Appirakorang from Shookrah.
Words: Richard Seabrooke
Main photo of Bobby by Derek Doyle