Performer in the Shadows: Naomi van Niekerk's Masterclass at Animateka Festival 2023 (GoCritic! Review)

Naomi van Niekerk still from Animateka Festival 2023

The cinema hall of Slovenska Kinoteka gets filled all at once – people patiently waiting in their seats for the first masterclass of the AnimatekaPRO program to begin. Just under the screen, in a corner, Naomi van Niekerk sits behind her laptop, just as you could imagine her in her workplace behind the light table, her gentle and magnifying presence drawing all the attention.

“I see a filmmaker as a performer, performing in the shadows,” she begins her masterclass, in which she dispels the shadows behind her artistic process. In this year’s Animateka festival, Naomi van Niekerk – visual artist, animation filmmaker, and theater director from Johannesburg, South Africa – is in the grand jury, judging the Main Competition. 

Before diving into the work process on her latest animation ‘Box Cutters’ (2023), Naomi gives bits and pieces of insight into what shaped her as the animation filmmaker she is today. She received a BA in Dramatic Arts from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and a diploma in the art of puppetry from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in France. Puppetry started her passion for animation, as she was interested in animating objects without being visible on stage. However, the hidden artist approach truly settled with one more simple element coming into play: a fascination with light and darkness. 

We can trace this fascination even to the influences that Naomi shared during the masterclass: from the German woodcut artists to William Kentridge, another well-known South African artist, whose main material of choice is charcoal. Naomi has decided on another medium that could contain all of her passions – the sand. 

Between 2015 and 2017, the filmmaker directed and independently produced three animated short films: ‘To All Things Beautiful’, ‘An Ordinary Blue Monday’ and ‘My Mum’s Bonkers’. These first experiences in creating the films on her own gave van Niekerk time to explore the material without the pressure, schedule, or even the storyboard. In retrospect, she was doing the right thing, considering how successful films became: ‘An Ordinary Blue Monday’ won the Jean-Luc Xiberras Award for Best First Film award at the Annecy International Film Festival, and ‘My Mum’s Bonkers’ was awarded the Creative Revelation Award at the 2018 Anima Festival in Brussels, Belgium. 

My Mom's Bonkers

When working, people all around her thought she was insane to spend so much time in solitude on a job that had no paying guarantees. However, Naomi explains that at that time, she already understood that filmmaking is more than a want – it’s a need. It’s the process that gives structure to her life. “Sounds dramatic, but that’s just how she feels”, she laughs and adds self-awarely. 

During the session, the filmmaker repeatedly emphasized not forcing the material but seeing what a medium can give her. Such an approach, collaboration with the material, gives Naomi’s films unique textures and dynamics. The combination of black sand and light sounds simple, but this simplicity in the hands of the artist can convey feelings of incredible depth – the vibrating anxiety in every frame of ‘An Ordinary Blue Monday’, or the melancholic feeling of ‘My Mum’s Bonkers’. It’s amazing how much space the in-betweenness of the black-and-white images can give to viewers.

Van Niekerk’s latest film, ‘Box Cutters’, was the first in her filmography where a huge producer group was involved (the film was funded by ARTE, the European Culture Channel, among others). The filmmaker disarmingly jokes about her fear of tight-knit, overwhelming schedules and countless talks with producers. Although this was a new experience for her, she had certainly managed to preserve the core of her work. ‘Box Cutters’ focuses on the memory of the protagonist being attacked on the way home by three men and how she dealt with it. The film is based on a poem by Ronelda Kamfer, a South African poet (Naomi has used a poem as a base for her film before). 

'Box Cutters' trailer:

Working on the film, the filmmaker took a documentary approach, photographing the surroundings of Johannesburg, implementing those images in the sand, and seamlessly blending them together. During the masterclass, van Niekerk was generous with tips from her practice, from more amusing ones (“don’t animate a character with curly hair”) to more serious notions (“always leave a space for improvisation in the schedule”). However, if you are looking for only one key piece of advice from a filmmaker – key images are key (pun intended). For Naomi, key images are the first thing she extracts from her surroundings and the most important, thus non-negotiable things about her films.

One thing that the filmmaker is dauntingly self-aware about is her references, not only from the streets of Johannesburg but from other works of art. Naomi van Niekerk masterfully combines her experiences of life and art and weaves them into the fabric of her films – either a scene from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film ‘Three Colours: Red’ (1994), where an act of crime and violence beings depicted through the still life or the exploration of how Jim Jarmusch uses music in his films (which helped the composer Arnaud van Vliet in creating music for the animation).

'Red', Krzysztof Kieślowski

Naomi took us on a wild ride on her filmography in just one hour, giving us, as an audience, a deeper understanding of her work and artistic process. 

(cover photo: Naomi van Niekerk at Animateka Festival 2023: Photo: Andrej Firm)

Contributed by: Oleksandra Kalinichenko

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