Andrew Worsdale speaks to filmmaker Vincent Moloi, director of A Pair of Boots and a Bi-Cycle, the opening film at this year’s Encounter’s Film Festival. The festival plays from 13 July in Johannesburg and from 20 July in Cape Town.

During the various states of emergency in the mid-eighties his family took the nine-year-old Vincent Moloi out of Soweto to live in the more peaceful Qwa-Qwa in the Eastern Free State. He believes that experience as a child was decisive in developing the imagination he now flexes as a filmmaker. “I remember during the night we would listen to radio drama and when that was finished my uncle would tell me stories. That helped my imagination a great deal; it was a far greater influence than all the Chinese Kung-Fu or American propaganda films I might have seen as a kid.”

This April, South African Moloi was among eight filmmakers from Europe, Asia and North America who travelled to Cannes for MIPDOC, the international showcase of documentary films. They were all chosen as ‘trailblazers’ for their visionary documentaries.

Steven Markowitz of Encounters, who is one of the selectors, said Moloi’s films “exemplify his youthful, adventurous and concise attitude. We selected Vincent because of his distinct, energetic, sensitive, bold and surprising approach to filmmaking.”

Moloi had his first screening of A Pair of Boots and a Bi-Cycle in Cannes, where it received an enthusiastic reception. The incredibly poignant film is about the 120,000 black South Africans who fought in the Second World War. In it Moloi tries to unravel the mysteries of the life of mineworker Job Maseko. He became a hero at Tobruk for sinking a fully laden enemy steamer while a prisoner of war and survived 23 days in the desert. But then he returned home to poverty and a lonely death.

“I first got the idea when I was a ten-year-old boy in Qwa Qwa and heard his story on the radio. It was one of those nights when I couldn’t sleep and our radio was old and did not have an antenna. But on Radio 702 they were talking about this man and I really understood very little English, but his story remains in my head to this day. It stayed in my mind like his memory stayed in the minds of his family.”

Moloi has consistently produced imaginative documentaries, from I Am A Rebel about poet and activist Dennis Brutus to Men of Gold, his tale of a poor white man selling fake gold jewellery on the streets of Johannesburg. At a Trailblazer conference he spoke about the battle for editorial independence and financing. He believes international broadcasters tend to have a preconception about Africa, centred on AIDS, poverty and “kids dying”. “You have to pitch a good story and then you have to try and make the movie in your way and not fit into their perception of Africa,” he told Il Manifesto magazine.

The fiercely independent Moloi has made the move from Soweto Community Television to making very striking, cinematic documentary films that are world-class. His subjective take on material – whether it’s about a woman who sweeps Joburg streets at night or a war veteran coming to terms with the fact that he’s still just a ‘kaffir’ in his homeland – makes his films more than objective, unimaginative recordings of reality.

“My style has matured and that could be attributed to the artist in me. When I was at primary school in Soweto drawing was popular amongst my peers. In fact I ended up winning a drawing competition,” he says. “Storytelling is subjective, otherwise it would lack imagination and be very boring. It needs to come from somewhere. And that place is not the statistics or academic analysis but a place of feeling.”

The strength of A Pair of Boots lies in the way Moloi uses the veterans’ oral histories to paint a vivid picture of what it was like to be a black serviceman – they were oppressed at home, yet volunteered to fight the war of their colonial oppressors, only to return to face even more discrimination under apartheid in 1948. Maseko, who became a hero entirely of his own volition, had a tragic life story – he fell in love before going off to fight and was hoping that his meagre payment as a lance corporal in Her Majesty’s Forces would help pay lobola for the woman he planned to marry, but on his return she had found another man. Destitute and heartbroken the hero threw himself under a train.

It’s a wonder that the filmmaker managed to track down the elderly men, and what’s truly engaging is how he allows them to speak for themselves – although the film uses some very simple reconstructions and a lot of adroitly edited archive footage, it is the words of the veterans that stick in the mind of the viewer. It’s an emotional documentary and makes you long to be moved by the feature film that could be made from the story.

“I wanted to let this film be a canvas where veterans were able to paint their life stories. I’m not a great history person, so my strength I suppose is in understanding people’s emotions. I can only attempt to feel what they felt but I’m still far from the depth of their pain and bravery,” Moloi says.

Finding the soldiers and piecing together their stories involved exhaustive investigation. “We researched while we were shooting. So we did things as per their needs rather than logic. I’m glad we took that direction because as it is some of the characters in the film have passed on. My producer Edwin Wes did a lot of historic research while I concentrated on characters and formulated a strong relationship with them. We had lots of script drafts, but like most of my work the film takes its shape in the edit, when you have real textured emotions rather than wishful ones on paper.”

Moloi believes that once you pick up a camera you are bound to be judgemental but “the difference is how you do it. So by emphasising integrity and sensitivity in my work I guess I aspire that to be my signature.”

It’s a long way from a modest Soweto school to the Cannes Croisette and Moloi was understandably nervous before the event earlier this year. “It’s all very exciting, but I’m also terrified by the responsibility and expectations that come with it. I enjoy my underdog position but I also like the prospects that being a trailblazer might bring.” By being recognised in Cannes earlier this year and being chosen to open South Africa’s premiere documentary film festival Moloi is earning his place as a maverick director who has gone the distance, an empathetic storyteller who leads the way in making documentaries that are far more than mere history lessons.

The Encounters Film Festival is screening over 50 films from South Africa and the rest of the world – it is also holding panel discussions, workshops, master classes, presentations and workshops.

For the full details of the programme log onto www.encounters.co.za