My involvement in The Thinking Garden began with an invitation from historian Elizabeth Vibert, who has spent several years conducting oral history research with the farmers at a women’s community garden in South Africa. The women frequently asked Liz, “Are you going to make a film about us, too?” Liz is a writer and historian, not a filmmaker, so she approached me to see if I’d be interested in such a project. I immediately said yes, and we have enjoyed co-writing and co-producing this film together.
Hleketani Community Garden was founded nearly twenty-five years ago in a village in northeastern Limpopo Province, one of the poorest regions of South Africa. The farmers (most over 55, some well into their 80’s) called their garden hleketani – “thinking” in the xiTsonga language – because it’s a place where women gather to think about how to effect change. I saw in the story of “the thinking garden” many parallels to the work I’ve done over the past thirty years, documenting on film the historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous women in Canada. My previous films have told stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things – “unsung heroines” who have overcome monumental challenges and obstacles to create change. The Thinking Garden is just such a story, from a country whose particular history of colonialism has played out in ways similar to but also very different from our own. In a place marked by persistent inequality and poverty, the women of Hleketani Community Garden have drawn on remarkable reserves of strength, courage and resilience to do something radical, and their story provides yet another answer to the question that has driven so much of my work – What does hope look like?
As an Indigenous woman from Canada, I found the experience of filming The Thinking Garden in South Africa both familiar and destabilizing. I recognized the legacies of colonialism, but I knew little about the local context and I didn’t speak the language. Fortunately I was blessed with collaborators who more than rose to the challenges. Liz’s knowledge of South Africa, and the close relationships of trust and reciprocity she’s built over years of working with the farmers, ensured we had the kind of access that would allow us to create an intimate, sensitive and informed film portrait. Our cinematographer, Moira Simpson, drew on more than three decades of experience working in marginalized communities around the world to create unforgettable images of the women and their farm. Mo then spent months editing the film and confronting its most daunting challenge: working with a story recorded entirely in the xiTsonga language. Enter our very gifted interpreter, Basani Ngobeni, who was fundamental to our ability to speak with and film the farmers and who travelled to Canada during post-production to painstakingly translate hours of filmed interviews. Without Basani there would be no film. She is credited as Assistant Director.
A year after we completed filming in South Africa, Liz travelled back to the village to show the farmers a fine cut of the film. “It’s like a miracle,” Rosina Masangu told her. “I never dreamed we would see something like this for our farm.” For me, the miracle is that, after all the opportunities we had to get it wrong, we seem to have got it mostly right. And that is due in no small measure to the boundless patience, humour and generosity of the farmers of Hleketani Community Garden.
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