Developing I am Chuma - Within and Without en France!
An international creative residency awarded to Cape Town based creative Wendy Spinks, founder and team lead at Zeropoint528 for an experimental animation and VR project - “I am Chuma”- held at L’Abbaye Fontevraud in the Loire Valley Region of France.
Firstly, it was a real honour to have won and been awarded the opportunity to take up a full month’s residency at the L’Abbaye Fontevraud with the assistance and support of Digital Lab Africa in South Africa and the acceptance and support of NEF Animation in France as part of an African continental competition held in 2018. Our selected winning project, "I am Chuma”; is a feature-length animation hybrid documentary and 14-minute VR experience was announced at DISCOP Johannesburg (14-16 November 2018).
Developing I am Chuma - Within and Without -The Experience Shared:
I landed in Paris on the 30th of April 2019, the day after Belgian-born French film director, photographer and artist Agnes Varda has passed away at the age of ninety years old. Agnes is known to have represented the rare feminine voice within the French New Wave movement, encompassing her works which stretched from her 1955 debut La Pointe Courte, to her 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary “Faces Places”. I knew very little of Agnes or prior to my arriving in France, but would be introduced to her work and approach to her filmmaking when met by a dear colleague and friend in Paris. We spent our time together discussing Agnes's work, as well as the project and the angle I had embarked on this journey to dedicate my focus to for a month (under very fortunate circumstances having been selected to attend L’ Abbaye Fontevraud Residency.)
I could not have asked for better preparation before diving into the month ahead, a warm weekend in Paris, two women on seemingly parallel paths, musing over film, stories and other inspirational women of film. I had an entry point, new reference points, fresh insight and above all, new questions I wanted to explore and dive into.
On arrival at the Abbaye, I was really taken by the beauty and effects of spring in the village and the Abbaye and the sense of place and peace. We were in a remote place, no public transport and about 30 minutes from the closest town, but we were surrounded by beautiful countryside which called to be explored.
The bedroom assigned to me was a wonderful discovery, very comfortable and offering all that was required and more than expected. It was more an apartment than a room, except for the kitchen which was shared by the residents. My room was in the Abbey's Manor section, I had not really known what to expect, I had not really enquired too much about the living situation until a few days before when I began packing and wondered about out living conditions and arrangements.
Despite not having internet in my room, all was perfect, the lack of connection turned out to be a positive as part of my process. It required that I switch off the outside world and also get to know my fellow residents better, by embracing this creative community living concept and communing with them. Instead of watching content or catching up with loved ones, family and colleagues from back home in Cape Town, I shared with new people from different cultures, got to know them in such a natural way. I felt very comfortable amongst them, even if they are all incredibly talented artists, each is unique and each of us created some special bonds in different ways. The social and creative dynamic in this group of people was very special, and we remain in a social “Abbaye Bubble” on What’s app, sharing a unique humour that seemed so natural to our group.
Cooking, walking and laughing together became our social pastimes, we mostly all tended to work late, mostly till sunset or dusk which was already 9 pm in France this time of year. At first, the idea of all cooking together in one kitchen, with one stove and sink and fridge, etc. seemed daunting to me, I could not really even cook with my daughter in the kitchen at home before. At times in the beginning when the kitchen was full, with 8-10 hungry people, I found myself challenged, my OCD traits appearing, feeling out of control I guess, but this began to dissipate, the more I embraced the experience of this “community”. In Cape Town, I have a very insular life, I live alone with my daughter and dogs. I often work alone, even if always in collaboration, it is mostly remotely, and work long hours and hardly ever socialise.
Interestingly for me, I was excited about having even more alone time ahead before I arrived, having even more time alone to just immerse myself in the experience and silence I imagined. What happened, was that I was thrown into an experience that was more social than I have experienced in a long time, I was almost never alone, except for the times when I headed out on a bike we had managed to arrange to borrow, or a walk or two in the beginning. After the first few days, it was rare to ever be alone. Thinking of myself as not a hugely social person, or even as a person who preferred the company of animals (especially dogs) more to the company of people, I was quite amused by how I had found myself enjoying this experience. I found the mix of cultures, creatives and projects to be so stimulating and invigorating in many ways.
The first week was a good time to settle in, get to know the group better and our new home and surroundings. We discovered the kitchen at night and worked long hours during the day in the workspace which was in the infirmary part of the Abbaye. It was in all honesty very cold to work in those rooms with big thick stone walls, there was an interesting energy in those parts of the buildings, which were naturally steeped in history, both of light and dark phases of occupation in different times.
It was good for us to have to walk to our work stations, and for it to be on the opposite side of the Abbaye, which meant we would walk through the main buildings, cloisters and gardens every day, this I found to have an interesting effect on me. I was inspired by the details of the architecture, the textures, the smells, the vibrations of sounds within the walls and from the bells and her visitors, blended with the sounds, smells and sights of nature, all around us. Creating deep reflection, and space … Just as I walked to and from my workstation.
Personally, I decided to approach this month in a completely new way to how I usually work, taking lead from my own inner voice and that of Agnes Varda herself. My friend in Paris had advised I try and approach the project as Agnes would... And dive deep into my subject and really get clear on my curiosity with the subject, the questions I was raising and asking, and how I would frame this all from my point of view, in a unique way, with my voice.
I did a fair amount of researching the first week. I dove into Agnes’ works, podcasts, and videos, etc. As much as I could find in English and what the internet connection in the workspace would allow (It was very slow and those thick walls of the old Infirmary proved tough to penetrate). At the same time, I was asking questions about Chuma, how would she influence me? How can I be authentic and represent her voice with clarity? And be and remain sensitive, while framing a homeless person’s portrait in a new and more experimental manner? I began by really drilling into core issues and questions with as much raw honesty as I could, trying as best I could to step into her shoes or at least her states of being.
Chuma’s visual style of sketching with the original burnt stick, ash and charcoal led me to explore a silhouette monochromatic treatment for her time in her “dark period” before colour. William Kentridge has always been a huge inspiration to me, having seen his Magic Flute Opera in my younger days, so it was natural that his images were popping up in my awareness, but I also dove into his methods and approach, as after all I was on a deep dive and I had the time. It was at this point when I found myself looking to Agnes and Kentridge as pointers, while Chuma herself remained my “golden” compass, that my own voice and unique angle began to emerge.
Agnes pushed me to clarify my point of view and my dramatic questions, and how I wanted others to experience both the documentary and the VR project.
Kentridge offered me a moment to just be inspired by one image that captured my attention. The Abbaye was perfect for this, as there were no other distractions. I had begun unplugging from the world, diving deeper and found a quiet place where I could just allow things and thoughts to arise. Focus only on them. Contemplate them. Let them marinate. I began to take many pictures and just contemplate single images. The spring blossoms caught my attention as they were everywhere and so beautiful, but also Chuma’s name means Blossom in Isixhosa (her mother tongue). As a child, she was teased about her name, her surname, Somdaka, “daka” loosely means mud, “dirty blossom” emerged and Chuma strongly identifies with this, offering it as the meaning of her name in the opening paragraph of her blog.
I continued in this way, allowing nature and my surroundings to inspire me while working with Chuma’s poems and her words from her interviews. A new version of a treatment and narrative approach began to take shape.
The following week, working on a full linear outline of events and primary plot points and beats to include I began looking at the potential structure of the documentary and how it appeared to be shifting. In a discussion over Skype with my co-writer Clea, and with one or two of the residents whom I shared the project within these early stages, it became a reference point to consider a new, even more, experimental structure. The suggestions around various references were to consider including my reflections of Chuma’s state, which are based on my interviews and interactions with her, but also many years of studying Jungian psychology, human behavior, human potential and the quantum field and cosmology.
It became clear that I had a very profound connection to her story, and the parallels of my own stories went even deeper than I expected. I was now able to reflect my own journey after a near death experience and the subsequent time in my life that I began painting while living in the UK... And while working through the book; The Artists Way, it was reconnecting to my creativity and self that began to heal some of the traumatic events, accident and loss I had experienced through my own expression of them.
I was able to dive into her experience and through my own, understand her better, and question all of it. We have not decided as yet to what the extent of my involvement or inclusion in the documentary will be but we are just exploring how this could bring more meaning, add deeper insight, layers of interest and take the framing of the story to a more personal, and unique one.
On completing the outline of the documentary, it felt right to begin to work with some imagery, research the metaphors and dive in a bit deeper into the visuals and connections to the visuals as we progress. Through light, metaphors, inspiration, contrasts, the passage of time devices and ideas, etc. and the techniques we will employ to have the audience follow, while we may not always remain linear, may not explain everything in detail, but rather experiment a bit with the structure. To rather give the sense of being Chuma, how it felt to be her; a bit destabilised at first, quite traumatised, and non-linear in her expression of words and thoughts herself, etc.
Light sources communicate the states of being she experienced/s, as well as “the exhibited self” as a homeless woman, and as a street artist seeking for galleries as a home for her work.
The diving into images was very helpful in leading up into my approach of the VR experience. The idea was to have a holistic picture and view of the full project and have them be different stories for different platforms but still be of the same sensibility, synergy and framing. I worked on the VR treatment and approach next, rewrote and realigned according to the deepened development and new themes or framing and concepts and ideas evolving, then created an outline for a 14-minute script.
The following week, I worked to get a first draft of the VR script completed. I am reasonably happy with the start but acknowledge it is just a first draft. The residency allowed a bouncing of the concept and ideas with fellow residents, offering responses, reflections and ideas and many helpful explorative discussions were had.
The NEF team invited me to the national animation festival held in Rennes, to discuss the project and experience at L’Abbaye Fontevraud. This was a great opportunity to gain a bit of perspective again, to touch the outside world and even take in some VR experience films at the festival, which strangely were perfect for parts of the VR concept I was exploring but struggling with on the how to, or was it possible in the tech, etc. So, this was a brilliant opportunity to do so and I found quite invaluable. Being able to present the project at this stage was a positive experience, to objectively see my concretisation process and observe my clarity and obscurities before diving back in for the last few days. The remaining days were spent getting the VR draft into new VR script software and doing some more interesting research in a variety of directions to allow me to refine and hone in with more clarity.
It is hard to know what you have accomplished in this time, beyond the physical markers and maps on a wall, plus the outcomes on volumes of paper. I believe the true results will come down the line, in the realising of a clear vision I now hold. I know my state of being was permanently altered, I was able in a way to birth something new within myself. But it would not be true to say; that through this process I experienced a knowing or clarity of the value of my work or the standard I achieved to go on to make this film a success.
The Residency is set up to provide you with little or no feedback. You are out there is the boat on your own. If you seek to sail in a certain direction, it is up to you to use the wind on offer or find a way to create your own. If you fall into a tunnel of self-doubt, the decision remains yours as to whether you seek to fight, sink, swim, do nothing or surf the wave you find yourself on. I know in the case of my own individual experience and project, these conditions were perfect.
Yes, perfect for an extreme empathic creative type, whom in the past inclined to fall into patterns of self-doubt, suffering the harms of the imposter archetype, addicted to feedback, to receive some validation of my worth… But mainly to hear that someone finally figured out that I never belonged here, was not good enough and certainly was not talented enough. These thoughts were brought to the surface when one of our group, challenged my true nature to the core. I had worked hard to pay little attention to these thoughts of comparison, being good enough, amidst such talented and esteemed artists, and mostly I was able to hold my course and confidence.
But on this one occasion after having shared so much of myself, my vulnerable insecurities with one of the residents, having believed I had given every reason to truly be seen, I would be faced with something Chuma often felt and still feels, the experience of not being seen, but rather being labeled or boxed by outward perceptions. While this experience felt deeply painful, and hurtful in the moment, I was able to see where it came from and the gift of the experience in parallel of my own human experience with Chuma’s. It would offer a deeper connection, compassion, and valuable insight into my own core themes and fears I still have running in my program.
The truth of it is, we are all so interconnected, so entangled and the players showing up in my game or universe are really showing up on cue, in a game I designed. The dialogue is also written by me, having my other selves show up to say to me, that which I am really saying to myself. Offering me deep reflection and pointers on what I am creating out in the world by my own projection upon it.
There were times when I wondered if I had fallen too deeply down my own self-created rabbit holes or been swept off in a bubble that was no longer relevant to the project.
At times, I saw how easily one could fall into the dark void with no connection to home.
I pondered on where home really was, whether it was a location or a state of being and if we were not all merely voyagers in pursuit of our true “home”. There were times that this process felt self-indulgent and moments when I no longer identified with parts of myself, ego/ personality. At times I felt so alive, so free and so much joy because I no longer identified with many of the old limiting stories of myself. There were many times I was so present, only to the moment, that I did indeed forget that anything else existed, including my debt and dire financial situation and reality that before had plagued my every thought, pervading my state of being. On a few occasions, I would give way to uncontrollable fits of laughter and hysterical bliss, so extreme, I imagined I may float up to the ceiling like the entire cast in the original Mary Poppins, and have no way to come down.
From the outside, I began to worry if I had swum too far beyond the view of my boat’s bottom, so far that I myself may not return, even if it was I who had provided the boundaries of the exploration on this voyage.
In a conversation with Xavier, the Head of Animation at NEF on the way back from Rennes. I asked him about my process, had I gone too far out? Meaning, no one could see even a path to follow me? Would they care? Did it matter? He answered me with a most profound and beautiful anecdote. He said, that once he asked about this creative process from a painter, and the painter replied; if I am to paint the ocean, the viewer needs not to know the exact details of what lies beneath the water, to be able to feel and understand the water. But I the artist, must know every rock, every detail of the depths and shallows, tides, everything, in order for the viewer to experience the ocean in my picture. Without the depth of the exploration by the painter, we would only perceive a flat surface blue paint on a canvas, and feel nothing about the ocean.
Thank you, Xavier, this answer not only restored the trust of my own instincts about this project but as with the interconnected tapestry being woven, it quietly gave sense to the seeker, that all the diving in this lifetime was both valuable to the one who dared to paint, and the one who saw the painting.
I discovered a calm and peace within myself that I had never before touched. It was out on the edge of sanity for sure, at times I saw I could drift off if I chose, but the place, the community, my new friends and the environment were so nurturing that my experience was held, and always completely safe. While I had, without planning, experienced small glimpses in so many ways of what my subject, Chuma had lived and experienced, I trusted I was safe.
I held a perception of, or trust in my safety that my subject had not... A pointer perhaps to personally explore next through this project, this concept of safety. How did Chuma deal with feeling unsafe? As she has become such a teacher to me on this journey. She in her own words distracted herself by painting constantly, in other words, she shifted her focus, and her world began to reflect back to her what she focused on.
I am deeply grateful for this authentic, holistic and enriching experience. Perhaps my approach to my own creativity and worth has been altered for the better. Certainly, I believe the project will benefit greatly.
All in all had I not had a month to focus on this project, we would never be here, ready for the next steps. I would never have had such an enriching experience and been allowed to dive into Chuma's head and my own in this way. To have even healed some old wounds released some traumas and learned so much about what it means to be human, traveling the voids of this beautiful universe together.
My deepest thanks go to this beautiful, courageous Chuma herself, for allowing me into her unique life story and into her traumatic and extreme experiences with such trust. While it has become clear to me that we are both on a journey seeking to blossom out of safety to self-actualization, seeking a deep connection back to ourselves (home). We are also on a parallel road of healing. Each at their unique perfect place and timing, learning to forgive and establish and regain trust, both out in the world and within ourselves.
I often wonder if she is the angel amongst us leading the way, opening a door for all of us to walk through. And if the story of this rare human holding a deep capacity for forgiveness, is a universal gift, igniting a remembrance within each of us, so that we may all walk ourselves home into light, together. Free.
#Wendy Spinks, Co-founder and creative head at #ZeropointStudios and project lead of the #Zeropoint528 collective, was the winner of the DLA x NEF Animation - Nouvelles Ecritures pour le Film d'Animation #InternationalResidency
See more about the I am Chuma doccie and VR project here : https://www.zeropoint528.com/project-3-i-am-chuma