For years the massive Ponte apartment building in downtown Johannesburg has been associated with inner city crime and grime – gangsters, drug dealers, fugitives. But a new documentary reveals a different picture, of a colourful and cosmopolitan community, a safe refuge for ordinary people from across Africa, under one roof.


Ponte, Africa's tallest residential skyscraper, viewed from the Yeoville koppies in Johannesburg.

Africa Shafted: Under One Roof, a self-funded labour of love by documentary filmmaker Ingrid Martens, begins a limited release at the Bioscope independent cinema on Saturday 30 June. The film explores the experience of living in Ponte, a magnet for economic and political refugees from all corners of the African continent.

“The documentary was an opportunity for me to share my travels across the continent,” Martens says. “I’ve been to about 28 countries on the continent, which is my passion to tell stories about.

“I was even scared to go downtown to this building because it was known as one of the most dangerous places in Johannesburg.”

Ponte is a vast place: the tallest residential building in Africa, it has 54 floors and eight lifts. When filming on Africa Shafted began in 2006 it was home to 4 000 people. Built in 1975 in the dark days of apartheid, the building initially attracted wealthier white people wanting a taste of Manhattan-style city apartment living. The building is cylindrical: bylaws of the time required kitchens and bathrooms to have windows, so its architects gave the building a hollow interior, allowing light into the apartments from both sides.

From the late 1980s the Johannesburg inner city entered a long period of decay, and wealthy white businesses and residents fled north to the suburbs. Ponte was no different. The building soon had a reputation as a crime hotspot, a den of gangsters and Nigerian druglords.

Martens had to face down this reputation when she first started filming in 2006. “I eventually got the courage and went down there, and found out that it was exactly the same as anywhere I go on the continent,” she says.

“In fact, one of the residents called it the building of the organisation of African unity. It was like Lagos, or Kigali, or anywhere else. It’s Africa under one roof. Absolutely every nationality, from every corner of Africa. Which made it really exciting, being the tallest apartment building in Africa.”

Watch the trailer for Africa Shafted: Under One Roof:

The film was a long time in the making, taking four years to complete. This was partly because of the demands of its unique primary narrative device: most of the documentary is filmed in Ponte’s eight lifts, providing an intimate, in-depth view of its subjects.

“I rode the lifts on and off for two years, and I got to know the residents,” says Martens. “It actually became a vehicle for them. They created a relationship with the camera.” This relationship brought out an array of experiences, opinions and world views, from intimacy to politics to identity.

“They started talking about how they love their home, and what their people stand for, and what they symbolise in Africa. Or the economic realities on the continent, or why they’ll only go home when their president is kicked out. Or,” Martens says with a laugh, “what it’s like to be in love. You know, from every level of existence, every part of life. That was the conversation.”

Martens got the idea for the lift method of intimate documentary-making from a short film created by British film student Marc Isaacs in 2002. Simply called Lift, this mini-documentary was created by Isaacs standing for 10 hours a day in a typical London residential tower, filming the residents as they came and went through the course of the day. What emerged was an intimate, sometimes funny and often sad vision of ordinary lives.

“What was interesting about it is that the people were so depressed and grey,” says Martens.

Martens had already started on Africa Shafted, filming in apartments and outside the building, when she got her inspiration from Lift.

“I had to go back and use his concept because it allowed me the opportunity to force people not to look at other people as – poor. We used to call that building the five-star refugee camp. You are actually forced to look at them one-on-one, as human beings. I have to credit Marc Isaacs with a great concept, but it translated so well in Africa because of the colour, and the laughter and the – ja, the absolute beauty.”

Watch Lift:

During the four years of filming, in 2008, the country was convulsed by an outburst of angry xenophobia, as South Africans turned on African immigrants in a wave of mob violence that saw countless people beaten, stabbed and burned to death. Xenophobia looms large in Africa Shafted.

“It’s only when the lift starts breaking down and people start blaming the ‘foreigners’, then that conversation starts coming out – about being foreign. Before that you actually see that [Ponte] was one place that they felt incredibly safe, in the building of the organisation of African unity.”

Martens hopes the film will be taken up by schools and colleges, and used as a tool for educating young people about the issues of xenophobia, African immigration, and South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the continent. It can be a useful catalyst to get people “talking about these issues that we are not talking about”.

“Why is it that we have this serious issue of xenophobia? Why do we not understand each other better? Why is South Africa being called the America of Africa? And unpacking those concepts: you know, the notions that they come and they take our wives, and they take our jobs.

“A lot of the Ponte residents have come to the screenings, and I’d love them to be part of this process, where they go and talk to young people.”

Apart from its value in schools, Martens also sees Africa Shafted as a good fit for public television broadcasters, both at home and in other African countries, to educate their citizens about xenophobia.

Despite the horror of xenophobia, Africa Shafted is also a celebration: of community and friendship, and of a dizzying array of African cultures. This is enhanced by the soundtrack, which features music by artists from such different places as Comoros, Namibia, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Uganda and Mali, as well as South Africa.

“The music is incredible,” Martens says. “It’s largely what I’ve found in my travels across the continent. All of these musicians – who have willingly contributed this music – also have a very important story to tell.”

The musicians – including Jackson Kaujeua of Namibia, Dobet Gnahoré (Ivory Coast), Mapumba (DRC) Samite (Uganda) and Nawal (Comoros) – all donated their music to the project, as Africa Shafted effectively had no budget.

“It was personally funded,” says Martens, “so it really was my passion project.”

  • Africa Shafted: Under One Roof will be screened at the Bioscope independent cinema, 286 Fox Street, Maboneng Precinct, City and Suburban, on Saturday 30 June at 15h00, 17h00 and 19h00, and Sunday 1 July at 13h00, 15h00 and 17h00.

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