Telling Beautiful Stories, Beautifully –
An Interview with Green Renaissance
TAT: You’ve filmed people before, during and after the COVID crisis. Have you seen a change in outlook since the pandemic? Have you noticed a pattern? Are people more introspective for example?
M: I think that Corona Virus has been a great leveller. It’s the first time that I’ve experienced something in my life where we’re all in this thing together. Your wealth, your status, how old you are, the colour of your skin, your gender, nothing matters, we’re all in this. We’re all suffering from a collective grief, in terms of dreams not being fulfilled, or whatever it is, and not just from losing people we love. There has been a bit of a shake up and an alignment to what is important in life. It’s a very interesting time to be alive. For our project, it’s catapulted the films into something we never thought they would be, because people only really started properly watching them during Corona Virus. Our films were getting hardly any views and then the traction really started picking up; subscribers and views… So, there was something about this whole thing we’ve gone through as a society that somehow made people stumble across what’s important in life and people are resonating with these little films.
: I think people have realised that there’s actually a lot we can learn from each other. Regardless of whether you live on the opposite side of the world and have a different skin colour to me. There are things that we all experience that make us human. And they’re all universal. The people who we’ve been speaking to, since COVID has started, in our interviews and in comments and emails that we receive from people all around the world, have realised that we have taken each other for granted. We’ve taken our families for granted, we’ve taken our friends for granted. A realization, oin some level, that a reconnection is needed, not just back to Mother Earth and to nature, but to each other and to really find a way to be more caring and kinder to each other. It might not directly reflect in all of the films that have come out since COVID, I think it’s definitely been almost a universal theme in all of the conversations that we’ve had with people since COVID.
TAT: With respect to how people have suffered through the pandemic, do you think there might be a positive long term effect from it?
J: I do and I think there’s also something about a realisation of how vulnerable we all are and in that is also a beauty in a way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to realise that we as individuals and as a species are vulnerable, and that we shouldn’t be taking so many blessings in our lives for granted and that every single day should be appreciated. For me, that is beauty and that is a gift.
TAT: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in making these films?
M: For me it’s been gratitude and not taking things for granted. There have been so many people that we’ve found with who’ve had a near life death experience, or have really been shaken to their core about losing someone they love, or losing their health and it really kind of reminds you about appreciating what you have; your health, your family, nature, your animals. We’ll do a story about someone talking about unconditional love, and we’ve chosen not to have children, but we have a lot of animals in our house, rescued animals, and they show us on a day to day basis, what unconditional love is. The same with nature. All these universal themes. And it’s about being it’s almost like a meditation for us. Some people have the discipline to meditate every day, to be mindful. Justine to listen to the same voice over and over again, and it’s almost like a mindfulness exercise to hear what these people say, and they almost become mantras; we can almost quote the lines on each of the films where people talk about what’s important to them, and they kind of like resonate through us. In a way that is our meditation. It’s very hard to pick one thing, but it’s these constant reminders. Often the reminders are from the people who have the least, from the poorest of the poor, from people of whom society wouldn’t have said, “You’ve done well in life.” Those are the ones who remind us about what really is important in life and that’s the most humbling thing.
J: This film journey has fundamentally shifted the way we live our lives, for both of us. We used to live in the middle of Cape Town city centre; I worked in marketing for a big corporate alcohol giant company. We had a big house with three bedrooms, and we were eating out all the time. Fast forward 6 years, we live in a tiny home, a 40 square metre space, off grid. We have one car. We spend way more time out in nature than we ever did, and hanging out with people who mean something to us. I realise, to some extent, how frivolous my life used to be; how I used to do so many things that actually had no meaning. They were doing nothing for my soul; I was just doing them because everybody else was doing them. I was doing them because that’s just how I grew up and that’s what all my friends from school did. This journey has taught me that just because that’s what you used to do, it doesn’t mean it’s what you have to keep on doing. You regularly need to step back and question why you do things, and how you do things, and whether there’s a different approach that you could be taking, that would resonate even more deeply with who you are. This project has allowed us to do that.
M: A lot of the films have been around death and 1 thing that keeps coming up is that unless you’re comfortable with living, you can’t be comfortable with dying. Quite a few of the people we’ve told stories about are no longer here, they’ve passed on. It’s a reminder, when we watch a film of that lady or that man who’s telling us beautiful things, who’s no longer here, that life is so fleeting. We make mistakes, like everyone else, we sometimes just lie in bed and binge watch some random Netflix series. We definitely don’t always tread lightly on the earth and buy packaging, but we’re very blessed to have an occupation or purpose that reminds us continuously. That nudges you back again.
TAT: Current favourite amongst the films you’ve made?
M: I love the last film we made with Terry; the man in the wheelchair. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJIY-wO5e-c&ab_channel=GreenRenaissance) It’s not the most beautiful looking film, but I suppose it’s because I was caught so completely off guard. Here was a man in his 70s, with one leg, in a wheelchair, and I just assumed he’d be a grumpy old man and bitter, but I’ve never met someone who is so happy with his lot in life. He’s not financially rich. He only has one leg, yet he’s just so content with everything and that was very humbling. My assumptions were so turned on their heads and I keep thinking, “Would I be okay?” When I get a flu, a man flu, I’m useless, the world is going to end, yet here is someone without a leg, he can’t walk on the beach, and he can’t go to the forest, and he can’t swim in the sea, when what often defines me is my ability to do stuff yet.
J: My current favourite is Chaeli Mycroft, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFpg-kOyIK0&ab_channel=GreenRenaissance), she lives in Cape Town and she was born with cerebral palsy, and she now has her master’s degree in law. I think we’re so quick to judge somebody who looks different to us or who has a physical deformity of some kind. I have never met a woman with such courage and such strength and such a wicked sense of humour, in my entire life. She had me in stitches of laughter. Here, is this woman, who for her entire life has had to battle, has had to struggle, and yet she keeps her love for life and her amazing ability to look at the world with wonder and deep appreciation. She is incredible. I love Chaeli. She really taught me to be grateful for my health and what I am physically able to do.
M: She goes to CrossFit to learn how to craw; she can’t even crawl.
J: The other one would be Sparky (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2tgibFZdzM&ab_channel=GreenRenaissance), whom we met on the on the streets of Edinburgh, a homeless man. We were walking past him and he had a little sign that said: “Please don’t spit at me. Please don’t kick me. I’m just human.” We were just walking past and the message filtered into my brain about a minute after we’d walked past him, so we backtracked and started speaking to him. For 2 days, he shared that corner of his pavement with us, and what he endures, through the unkindness of people every single day is heartbreaking, but he continues to see the beauty in people around him.
TAT: Can you speak to your films being a positive answer to the pervasive negativity in media?
J: Mike and I are both very sensitive to bad news. A perfect example is the relatively recent unfolding of events in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with looting, and rioting, and demonstrations. Mike was in the Northern Cape filming, and I was here at home, and I decided that I couldn’t watch any of it. I’ve heard little bits on radio broadcasts, but I did not open myself up to getting pulled into watching endless news streams about what was going on, because it makes my heart too sad. Another example was the American politics; how we got so sucked into the world of Donald Trump and watching that mess unfold, and in general, how quickly you can get sucked into watching and listening to bad news. I don’t mean bad reporting, I mean negative news that doesn’t do anything to uplift your day, and because we’re both sensitive, it deeply affects us. What we also realised very long ago, on YouTube, was that there is a serious lack of content that is produced with the aim of inspiring, and bringing hope, and uplifting. So much of it is just bad news. People are bitching, and moaning, and complaining about things, we just got tired of listening to that kind of stuff. We realised that there actually is a lot of beauty and good in the human spirit and in the human story, and why is there not more of that. We realises that we can just do our little bit to share exactly that.
M: Everything we tried to do and are still trying to do, is the opposite of the well oiled, consumeristic wheel. Not that we are super against it, but there’s another way of doing things that can be a more beautiful kinder, authentic way that doesn’t have an agenda at play, where we’re not only telling the stories that are sensationalised or negative, or of a voyeuristic, “Look at me, look at me, look at me,” mentality, which we seem to be obsessed with, and also not this obsession with famous people; this idea that there are ordinary people all around us doing beautiful things. We’re trying to turn everything upside down, to say let’s make stories about ordinary people, let’s show the other way, let’s do stuff that resonates with us, without any agenda. If people watch them then they watch them; if one day they financially cover costs, great, but we weren’t worried about what thumbnail, what title, how many people watch; we just got on with creating a body of work. Now, close to 200 films later, when someone discovers these films, they can go back and watch a whole lot more. We’re not waiting to make 1 film and seeing whether people resonate with it, which then gives us enough courage to make the next one, we just kept doing it. It wasn’t like a well thought out, we just kind of just trusted what made sense to us and trusted that innate kind of thing says, “It will work out, it makes sense to you, and somewhere across the world, other people will resonate with it,” that has now started to happen. But even if it didn’t happen, we’d just keep doing it until somehow it didn’t make sense.
J: We’ve definitely had phases of doubt. We were in the early stages of lockdown, and I was a little blue, and Mike was gardening 1 day and I was like, “Why do we even bother making these films!?” Our content was getting less than 1000 views per film. I said, “No one’s even seeing them. What’s the point? We put our hearts and souls into this!” We just kept tracking along and Mike talked some sense into me and calmed me down. At that point, when we needed it, things happened, suddenly, that’s when things started picking up. We were receiving these amazing comments and beautiful emails from people who started saying, really for the first time, thinsg like: “I need to hear this, please don’t stop making these films, please keep creating,” and suddenly this little groundswell started. You only need to read 2 emails like this, to realise that it really does make a difference, it does mean something to somebody. That’s all I needed to remind myself why we started making these and now I’m back again, now I’m happier, now I know why we’re doing what we’re doing. But for everyone, in everything that you do, there are moments of doubt, and Mike and I are lucky in that we never go through that phase at the same time. When one of us is a little down, the other pulls the other one back up again. Then there’s our community of people, the 20 people around the world, who give up all their free time to help with translations into foreign languages. They’re like little angels, who regularly reminded me about why we do what we do.
M: I do get a bit depressed sometimes. I do feel the pressure, especially now that 10s of 1000s of people are watching the films, that each film needs to be great, and you’re only as good as your last film, this has its own challenges, but I think I just need to get over that and just immerse myself… I think the other challenge with COVID is that we haven’t been able to travel. We had booked a trip to India and Singapore to do a series, then COVID hit and both of those projects have been put on hold. They were both 6 week projects where we were going to go up into the Himalayas, so now we’re just stomping around our networks: Cape Town, Overberg, occasionally we’ll jump in the car and drive away. It would be really nice with contacts we’ve made now across the world, to go to different countries, and people who support us on Patreon have these links and said, “Please come to this country,” or, “Please come here…” It would be nice to do that again.
TAT: I do foresee that for you, but I also think it’s very valuable for South Africans that you’re showcasing the local gems. SA has sustained you and you’ve maybe paid that back a little bit, and perhaps then the doors will open for you…
M: The hardest part is finding the stories. That’s the thing that takes up the most time. The filming and even the editing aren’t as hard as getting that 1st foot in the door. Sometimes you get lucky, you meet someone, but often it’s quite a challenge, and it’s not something you can just sit on your computer and research. It really is having to go out there and meet, the kind of people you resonate with.
TAT: How much of that do you still have to do? Are you getting a lot more recommendations, or do you still have to do most of the hunting yourselves?
J: We have to do the hunting and it’s interesting that even people who’ve watched a lot of our films will still write us and say, “You really need to go meet this lady, she’s really successful at running this small business that does this.” We say that that’s great, but for us; it’s never about what somebody does, it’s about who they are. Even our parents, from time to time, say, “Oh, you should go film with this person, they’re a really famous archaeologist.” That’s lovely, but what about that person, and their insights makes them appealing or interesting? People don’t seem to quite get that sometimes. We do find a lot of people recommend colleagues, or family, or friends who are successful in some way in sphere in which they operate, but that’s not really what we’re looking for.
M: Occasionally we do get lucky, mostly from characters that we’ve filmed with. Who will say, “You really need to go and meet my friend,” someone has spent a day or 2 with you, they kind of get it, they almost become mini ambassadors. But often it’s a wild goose chase, where we travel for miles… We had a lucky ran now. For example where we did a film with Cathy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGOXNXXa8A0&ab_channel=GreenRenaissance), who said, “You must come and meet this guy; he bought a duck from me. Ignore that he looks like your average of Afrikaans in his two-tones. He’s incredibly empathetic and deep.” Not to say that Africaans farmers aren’t… I’m putting my foot in my mouth. So, I jumped in my car, went to Swellendam, did a film with Beneke, who talked about living in the now. (Editor’s Note: The same video I’d mentioned in the beginning of the article) At the end of his film, he said, “I met this guy in Swellendam in the streets, you must go meet him.” I found him on Facebook and then jumped in the car and drove 8 hours to Grahamstown. He was Theo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRF1GUZHDIo&ab_channel=GreenRenaissance). So, we made 3 films in a row from a chance meeting. I never met any of these people, but because someone I’d spent time with really kind of got it, they trusted their gut, and it led to a story that led to a story, but often I will jump in my car and go to Cedarburg and go to a community and spend 5 days in that community and it doesn’t quite work even though it looks amazingly beautiful, cinematically beautiful, but I can’t find the story. Then you arrive in the next place, and on that very day, the 1st day, within half an hour, you’ll meet you’ll meet the character.