Chuck Schuldiner Project

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Interview with the director of Terra Pesada

So recently I had the honor of calling Leslie the director of Terra Pesada a film on death metal in Mozambique. She needs funds, so check out her site and donate HERE 

And here's the interview;

Can you introduce yourself and your movie?

My name is Leslie Bornstein. I'm the director of "Terra Pesada," a documentary on heavy metal music in Mozambique.

Can you tell us about Terra Pesada itself?

When people think of Africa they think of rural Africa. They think of women and children, not young guys in the city. "Terra Pesada" is an urban African story. These kids have grown up listening to the same satellite radio we hear. So metal's not that much of a stretch. They're secondary school and university students in Maputo, the capital, and are some of the 4% of Mozambicans to have access to the internet, which is how they first found metal. Facebook almost singlehandedly changed their lives. There's internet in Maputo and in a couple of the other major cities--notably Beira, where there is also metal--but there's very little access in the rest of the country.

They all have Facebook pages, and that's how most of them first heard metal. It's not a cultural thing. The reason you don't hear more metal coming from Africa, and India and China, for that matter, is because so few people in these countries have internet access. They don't know metal exists! Because when kids hear metal, they like it, they want to play it! Facebook changed their lives.

Metal in Mozambique started with the rich kids. The internet came to Mozambique around 1999, so the kids whose families had electricity and could afford internet and instruments and amps were the first to play metal and start bands. Then it spread to the poorer kids. They were introduced to it by friends at school, mostly through Facebook. Their instruments are castoffs or bought used, and the electricity isn't always so reliable in the zones where many of them live.

How did you originally get into African Death Metal?

I had been sick for 10 years. I was put on a new antiviral in December 2009. Within a few weeks I knew something had changed, so I contacted friends in different places seeing if I could come visit. Actually I had wanted to go to Paris because it's a city I like, but I just didn't have the money and no longer knew anybody there I could stay with. A friend was working for a Danish organization in Mozambique and said she had a huge house and I could have my own bedroom and bathroom.

I had been a journalist in Central America during Iran-Contra and wrote on sports and politics for Sports Illustrated--baseball in Nicaragua and hang gliding in Guatemala--and was a stringer for NBC radio. Then I went to film school. So when I went to Mozambique of course I brought a camera and a microphone. I like metal so I went looking for it, not to film, but I just wanted to hear some music I liked. I'm not a huge world music fan, so when I saw a flyer that said Evil Angels, I knew there was metal. It was in a township about an hour outside of Maputo, but still officially part of the city. I couldn't find anybody who would go with me, but I knew if I didn't go I'd want to shoot myself. And the thing about metal is it's so accepting. It's so comfortable for me. I've never felt out of place at a metal concert. And this was no different. As soon as I walked in and heard the music, I was just immediately at home. Afterward I talked to the kids and asked if I could follow them around with a camera. I recently came back from my fourth trip filming in Mozambique.

The remarkable thing about this movie is that it shows the enduring power of metal across socioeconomic boundaries. Was it a goal of your film, to show this?

I think it does show that there is a metal audience all over the world. Right now I've had viewers in 98 countries. Fewer countries in Africa have seen it only because most of these places don't have internet, or only wealthier people in the capital cities would have internet.

It's interesting because Mozambique is pretty much a cultural wasteland. There's very little to do there. It's understandable because basically it was run as a prison for 500 years. The Portuguese didn't educate anybody. When the English colonized somewhere at least they educated people. When the Mozambicans got freedom there were maybe half a dozen people with some kind of education. There was nothing left. So if you think of it in those terms and the country being only 20 years old…. So it was kind of surprising that there was metal. What was even more surprising is that it's so good. Some of these kids are so talented! You don't really get that much of a sense of it from what I've got up right now because the clips are so short, but there's some real talent there. I can listen to them play all day. I've seen some other shows in Mozambique, but I wasn't that impressed. The metal is of a much higher quality. (I hear there's a great guitarist, and that he had been a metal guitarist before he started playing more commercial music.)

What is the main difference between the African death metal scene and the European and American one?

Well, first of all, it's almost nonexistent in Africa. There are just so few bands, it's not even a scene. You go to a show and the crowd is almost totally made up of the musicians from other metal bands or aspiring metal musicians. It's the same people. It doesn't matter where the show is in Maputo, it's always the same people.

What's sort of neat, though, in a way, though to me it's godawful to listen to, is that usually at the shows there will be some band that has just started and isn't very good, or even a band that's been around and isn't very good, or there will be somebody with no talent playing acoustic. I want to hear metal and want all the bands to be metal. But no matter how bad some of these opening bands or musicians are, the metal kids are so supportive. I don't even bother filming these bands. I can't stand it; sometimes I leave. But the metal kids are so supportive.

In really poor places, and Mozambique is one of the poorest, you would think that people would join together and have some sense of community, but there's not! It's like every man for himself. If they think someone else might get ahead, people will destroy themselves if necessary to prevent someone else from having even small success. If they see someone getting ahead, they will do all to push him down. Anything that sticks up gets cut down. People will do anything to tear you down. So when the townspeople saw I was paying attention to the metal kids, they were just so nasty. If they saw I gave a kid something, someone would destroy it. But the metal kids definitely have a sense of community.

A friend told me she had given a CD player or something to one of the girls at work, and the girl said, "I can't take this home.” When my friend asked why, the girl said if someone sees it, they will destroy it. It's really ugly. It's a strange culture. The fact that the metal kids are such a community and share so readily with each other is really interesting to me.

I had been in Mozambique for less than two weeks when I found metal. I knew so many aid workers who had been working there for years and didn't know there was metal there. Granted, none of them like metal. A journalist, a really famous journalist--she was the first foreign journalist to be kicked out of Zimbabwe for telling the truth--and she's been living in Maputo for 20 years, and she never knew there was metal there. She had never been to the zones that I hung out in regularly. Neither had any of the aid workers. And here these people were writing policy for the country and they didn't even know the people! The only Mozambicans they know are the ones who are their servants or coworkers, but they didn't really hang out with anybody. Or they only hang out with the wealthy, successful Mozambicans. Which I guess makes sense, but it's their job to at least know these kids exist!

Shooting in Mozambique is next to impossible. You never see tourists on the streets with cameras. I was constantly harassed. People screaming I couldn't shoot there, wherever it was, demanding money. Not for shooting them. I wasn't shooting them! Every once in a while when I showed my press credentials, someone would say O.K. and leave me alone. If I was with the metal kids, which I almost always was, some of them could tolerate the abuse and harassment, some of them couldn't. As we were walking with the camera, people who lived in the dirt were telling the kids, “I'm going to cast a spell on you, and you're going to die in a horrible accident,” and at least one of these kids would believe it and get scared! I'd say, “These people have no power! If they had power, they'd fix their own lives. They can't hurt you!” He'd say, “You don't understand. This is Africa.”

What you have to understand about these kids is that they were born right around the time of the peace agreement and are the first generation to have the opportunity of a real education. Many of their parents are illiterate, and most of their grandparents still live in the rural areas. Most of the boys study IT (information technology). They can fix anything, and they're not afraid to take anything apart to see how it works. They build their own computers. I watched them use their phones as internet modems. One night I was in my apartment alone and I couldn't get online, then I remembered how the boys did it and was able to get online using my phone as a modem. They've got one foot in the 21st century and then there's part of them that still believes the old ways.

One of them is having a very hard time. He told me he wasn't sure if the reason he was having a hard time--this was a boy I thought of as one of the brightest and most sophisticated--but he didn't know if he was having a hard time because his brother had gone to a witch to cast a spell on him or because when he was born his grandfather didn't do the proper rites. These were the only two options he could see. When I first met him we were talking and he asked me if I believed in god. He wore a cross and I didn't know if the cross was because he went to Catholic school, because he was religious, or because it was a metal cross. I was brought up with god being like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, that's what my parents told me. At any rate I didn't want to answer him but he kept pushing. I eventually told him, and he said he was relieved because he didn't believe in god either. Yet, now he's convinced his troubles are because of these spirits. There's a part of these kids that's still in their grandparents' world.

It's not true of all of them, though. One of the girls, Erica, is getting her masters in psychology, and she's very skeptical and level-headed, and very smart. Another is now going to school in Iceland, another in Sweden. Most of the metal girls come from families that are better off and more educated than most of the boys. The original metal bands were boys, though. Monace joined them pretty early on, not long after she first picked up a guitar.

What was your motivation to make a movie about death metal in Mozambique. Just to share these stories?

I left Sports Illustrated to go to film school. I wanted to make films, particularly documentaries. Though for years I'd go to see documentaries and talk to directors and hear how many years they spent working on something, and I'm thinking to myself, “No fucking way can I spend that much of my life on one thing,” but as soon as I met these kids and started filming them, I thought I could do this for the rest of my life. I've always wanted to switch from journalism to film.

It actually started when I was in Nicaragua and we would be covering some atrocity. The photographers would just give the courier their film and then go out and have fun while the reporters had to go back to their rooms alone to write. That was when I thought I'd rather be a photographer. I had brought a camera to Central America and loved to take pictures, but I was there as a writer.

I've come across other stories that I thought were interesting, but nothing before was compelling to me. These kids were compelling to me.

What's the plan going forward from here?

I really need to raise money. So far the film has been entirely self-funded through rapidly depleting savings and on credit cards. I need to raise money so that I can hire translators and editors to work on the film. Portuguese-speaking editors and good sound people. An editor who can look at the footage with a more objective eye than I have. You try editing in a language you don't understand! I also need someone to investigate what grant money I'm eligible for, and someone who knows how to write grants. I love shooting alone--in fact, I think it would have been more difficult to shoot there with a crew--but postproduction is another matter. You really need a team. "Terra Pesada" has sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, which is cachet but no money. It does put me under their 501(c )3 nonprofit umbrella, making all donations to the film tax-deductible, at least in the U.S. (Donations can be made directly through the website

I'm thinking of going to Iceland in a few weeks. Monace, the only female metal guitarist in Mozambique, is going to school in Iceland this year. She started a new band there and recently contacted me, saying, “It's only a short hop. Why don't you come over and film me and my band in Iceland?” I'd like to because that would give her story a nice ending. Most filmmakers have some idea of what they want to film before starting to shoot. They usually try to raise money first based on the idea and go in with a crew. I found this totally by accident. But once I met these kids, I knew I wanted to film them and immediately started shooting. There was no preproduction. I just jumped in. When I came back to New York after my first trip to Mozambique, I thought I would be able to raise money, that people would fall in love with the kids as I had and that because of Obama people in the U.S. had some interest in Africa. I didn't realize this would be such a hard sell. Most documentaries on music usually end with a great concert. This film doesn't tie up so neatly. It's chaotic, like life. The music is what holds it together. There are several individual stories, and over the course of filming, their lives and the story changed in unexpected ways.

When I would come back to New York--I made four trips to Mozambique--I would look at the footage and see what I thought I needed to make a more complete, more interesting story. I would go back to Mozambique with something in mind, but then something always happened that threw me completely off-course and changed the direction of the story.

Mozambique has the world's fifth-highest rate of people living with HIV/AIDS. I told the kids I needed to meet someone either in their family or a very close friend who had AIDS. Statistics are meaningless without faces. Nobody knew anybody! Yet the rate where they live is almost 25%. Finally on the fourth trip one of the boys told me his father had died of AIDS and that he would talk about it on film. But when we actually filmed, he just said his father passed away, and didn't mention AIDS at all. I asked him about it, and he said his family told him not to say anything and he had to respect that. I thought, well that's kind of stupid because I can just do a voiceover saying, “His father died of AIDS.”

I also wanted to film a family member who had been in the wars. More than a million people were killed and over 5 million were displaced. I knew they had relatives who had fought in the wars, but when I asked if they would introduce me to someone, it was like no one knew anybody. There were things no one wanted to talk about. There are many interesting things I don't have on film. They really tried to control what I could film. Between trips they'd email me telling me they would introduce me to family members with HIV/AIDS, family members who had fought in the wars, but when I got back to Mozambique, they had changed their minds. They'd tell me they'd be willing to show me what I wanted to see, or tell me they would talk about something, and then I'd have the camera and it would be totally different. Yet we communicate regularly. I still think of them as good friends.

I would love as a result of this film for some of these bands, particularly OVNI and Damning Cloudiness, to get a record deal and have the opportunity to tour. They're good enough to play on any stage.

The ultimate goal of the project is to set up a scholarship fund to pay for the continuing educations of the musicians, whatever they'd like to pursue, and to give them instruments and amps. I'd also like to give equipment to several of the schools and rehearsal spaces.

To move towards the end, what are some African bands that my readers and I would like to check out?

I only know the Mozambican bands. I've Googled African metal and listened to bands from other countries in Africa, which you could do too, but I like the Mozambican metal sound the best. Of course I'm partial. You can find some clips on YouTube including some of the Mozambican bands. Though be warned. These clips are not of great quality.

There's no recording industry in Mozambique, so you're not going to be able to find CDs. Several of the bands record on their computers. Probably the best place to hear some of the bands is Monace's site, where you can hear some of the bands that she recorded:

Of the bands that are on the website, only OVNI and Damning Cloudiness are still playing together, though both have slight changes in personnel. Lost Grave is on hiatus; Silent Spirits and Darkest Place have disbanded. The last time I was in Mozambique I filmed Damning Cloudiness performing metal in Xangana, their tribal language, the first language for many of the boys. I'm not sure when I'll be adding that to the site. I have so much work to do. There are also several new bands.

Damning Cloudiness recently played at the Franco-Mo├žambican Cultural Center in what was billed as a battle of the bands. They were the only metal band invited. I hear they were great and should have won, but that FMCC would never give that honor to a metal band. Like metal kids all over, Mozambican metal kids cherish their outsider status.  

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