The inner world of South African “drums”

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The inner world of South African “drums”
The inner world of South African “drums”


In 2018, South African filmmaker Jesse Zinn saw something he knew he had to archive for later. This was the Photo Booth featuring images by photographer Alice Mann. The photos were of young Cape Town cheerleaders bewitched, bedazzled and decked out – in shiny, shimmering jewel tones and towering fuzzy busses and the kind of boots Nancy Sinatra could walk miles in. Some of the girls carry flags, others maces. But they all look like they can—and do—run the school. “They exuded such a sense of power and strength and just this incredible sense of personal ownership of the image,” Zinn told me. She had known about drum cheerleaders—or drummers as they’re called—growing up, but she hadn’t understood them until now. For Zinn, as an artist and filmmaker, the mission has always been twofold: to portray South African women and girls in a truthful yet empowering way. And Mann’s series was the embodiment of that goal.

But that was 2018.

After COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Zinn’s time at Stanford Film School, bringing her back home and allowing her to complete her education remotely, “later” finally arrived. She pulled the memory of Mann from the mental archive and created the short documentary Drummies. The film follows a group of drum cheerleaders for children and teenagers from Groote Schuur Primary School in Cape Town as they use their sport to navigate different aspects of their lives. It’s a work of non-fiction, but there’s an element of the fantastical about The Drums – less Ken Burns and more documentary dream. He opts for voice-overs in select cases over talking-head interviews, dynamic cinematography over rawness. The camera shots are meditative, as if Zinn is a portraitist trying to capture the stillness of these girls.

Zinn had recorded sit-down interviews with her subjects. Still, seeing footage of two of the drummers lying atop a ruffled pink bed, cellphones in hand, talking to each other—a scene that’s about forty seconds into the short’s finale—she came to a realization that would ultimately shape all that “Drummies” would become. “These girls are—in their minds, in this movie, in this moment—the main characters in their own movie,” Zinn recalls thinking. “It’s like this teenage coming-of-age movie.” To make the documentary more aesthetically clinical than necessary, she concluded, would be a disservice to how the drummers imagined themselves in their time and place: as stars.

Despite the film’s dreamlike feel, there is no disconnect from reality, no separation of girlish beauty from the tragedies of being a girl. “Drummies” is tinged with loss, generational trauma and just the desire to get away, to leave home, to never look back. There’s also the inherent irony of being a teenager: being the protagonist of your own world while being unsure of how to fit into that world. Girls have an inescapable self-consciousness when they stand in front of a ring light and do a TikTok, trying to please the social media gods. This contrasts with their almost complete lack of awareness as the camera rolls, when they are unabashed, brash, completely themselves.

And then, of course, there is COVID.

“A lot of them were in their last year of elementary school where they had to participate in all these events in addition to being drummers,” Zinn said. “They were really upset a lot of the time and really frustrated.” These unprecedented restrictions are a constant part of the short film. Girls talk about the absolute idiocy of having a Zoom “huddle” or how hard it is to make new friends on COVID Limits. At one point, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, interrupts the otherwise all-female universe of “Drummies” to announce that the country has surpassed a million COVID cases. “Infections are increasing in part because as humans we are social creatures,” he says.

“In our country at this point, a teenage girl like me is actually living in fear right now,” a drummer later notes. “But when I hold the mace in my hand, no one can hurt us. Nobody can touch us.” In the final scene—a series of shots most like Mann’s photography—the drummers, dressed in bright pink, silver, and black, swing their maces in choreographed unison. Some are smiling; others are defiant. All are firm in their power, in their truth. They cannot be touched, or rather will not be – neither in their territory nor in their world.


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