Omelga writing her treatment in Mina's Restaurant
In fact, Omelga came to China with several ideas. That may be her way of working. She pretends not to know or not to be sure and starts discussing several options. How about going to a factory where they make vuvuzelas? she said, for example. Do you think that’s possible? Depends on how far it is. The factory turned out to be in Zhejiang, not too far from Shanghai and I guess even our limited budget would have allowed for that, but Omelga also gave the arguments against her own idea. Not original, she thought. All the things that we think are African or South African, like vuvuzelas, are in the end made in China. What is new about that?
Mumu Wang and Omelga posing as tourists in Beijing (Photo: Inge de Leeuw)
I suggest to Omelga that she should discuss her ideas with a well informed local. Why not talk to a smart woman like Mumu Wang? Mumu is a former scout of the International Film Festival Rotterdam and now works for the Beijing Goethe Institute. She is a very busy woman, but she made time for Omelga to show her around Beijing, while discussing her ideas. Mumu knows the places to be. She was in the middle of organizing a German techno party for the cool incrowd of Beijing. But Omelga had already fallen in love with Xiaopu, the farmers’ village part of Songzhuang, where the Film School has its offices. It was good she went to the big city with a good guide, because it confirmed her feeling that she did not want to do it there.
Songzhuang girl. Her mother is busy selling a phone to an African filmmaker.
I have to admit that the little girl is not looking up to Omelga in amazement. But she easily could have been. In fact she is looking at Yves Niyongabo and Xenson and clearly she has not seen many Africans before. For the African filmmakers it was sometimes a little uncomfortable to be stared at so much, but they mostly took it lightly and in fact soon felt at home. The villagers were curious, but mostly shy and nice and there has not been any trace of aggression in all the time we were there.
However, these reactions to her appearance confirmed Omelga's first notion that she should be in the movie herself and that the reactions of the Chinese to her should be the main theme. And from the beginning she knew how to do that. She would go to hair salons. Just go in and ask them to do her African hair. Talk to them. Film their reactions. Very nice idea.
Omelga's Camera Woman Zhang Yixin
Normally Omelga does her own camera work, but since she has to be in the frame for this movie she needs a camera person. Preferably a woman, who feels at ease in a hair salon. And someone who can translate between English and Chinese. Where would we find such a person? But she just came to our lunch table that same day. Enter Zhang Yixin.
Zhang Yixin came with a crew from CCTV (China Central Television, yes, the state broadcaster with the big new head office designed by Rem Koolhaas) to make an item about art activities in Songzhuang. They were following a group of Dutch musicians working on a special recording project called ‘In A Cabin With…’, in a local studio. Somehow we ended up at the same table. First it did not strike Omelga as special that the Chinese camera person was a woman and that she had African-style braided hair. Then it turned out that Zhang Yixin spoke fairly good English as well, so I suggested that the ladies should talk. That almost ended quickly, since we could not afford to pay CCTV salaries.
Omelga With Hairdressers and Camera Woman in Songzhuang Hair Salon
Still, we came to an agreement and so Omelga now had a camera woman and translator in one. But after a few days Omelga had seen enough of herself in the frame and started do to her own camera work like she was used to. Also, her hairdressers preferred to talk to Zhang Yixin because of the language, which was another reason to cut out the middle woman. Omelga wanted them to talk directly to her.
I missed a big part of Omelga's shoot since I was lured to a Netpac conference in New Delhi. Inge de Leeuw (partner in crime in the Rotterdam Africa projects) took over in this period.
In the little main street of Xiaopu Omelga found her main character, who was running a small hair salon of her own. She is called Ding Li Xia and so Li Xia's Salon may very well be the title of the movie.
'Li Xia's Salon'
Nice little place, but very small inside so a crew of more than one or two will not fit in.
Omelga filming in the small Hair Salon of her main character (Photo: Inge de Leeuw)
Not surprisingly in the artist town of Songzhuang is that Ding Li Xia is also an artist and does the hairdressing work to support her career as an artist. This gives Omelga the opportunity to show more than just hair salons and explore the lively art world of this community.
Two Women Crew. Omelga and Local Production Assistant Tan Mo(Photo: Inge de Leeuw)
In former Li Xianting Film School student Tan Mo Omelga finds a strong and practical woman to show her around and I guess this efficient tandem is just what Omelga needs to do her kind of intimate documentary filmmaking.
Tan Chui Mui, Omelga Mthiyane and Inge de Leeuw in Li Xianting's Garden
Nice surprise for Omelga (and for me) is the visit of Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui to Songzhuang. Mui made a short documentary on Omelga for last year’s Forget Africa project. For that documentary she was filmed in her family house in a township outside Durban. The house by the way burned down shortly before Omelga travelled to China. She was very keen however to do the project anyway. Not easily defeated, this woman.
Omelga Singing and Dancing with Group of Chinese African Drummers.
The nice students of the Film School organized a special party with (Chinese-made) African live music in honour of the African filmmakers. This was very much appreciated by the Africans, not least by Omelga, who confirmed the widespread belief that all Africans can sing and dance.
The Girl that organized the Africa Party in the Li Xianting Film School.