Q-and-A with Professor Daniel Yon on his film ‘Mining Memory’

Lionel Peters and Dan Yon
Lionel Peters and Dan Yon

York University Professor Daniel Yon, Faculty of Education, discusses his most recent film Mining Memory with Faculty of Education New Media Communications Specialist Anderson Coward.

The film is the third in what has become a trilogy. The titles of the previous two films are One Hundred Men and Sathima’s Windsong. These works bring together Yon’s scholarly interests in human migrations, displacements, memory, diaspora studies, race-making and identity formations. The works are ethnographic films that add to the field of visual anthropology. Mining Memory also continues the project of ‘thinking with the sea’ and a humanities of the sea.

AC: Where did the idea for this film come from? Or what inspired the making of this film?

Daniel Yon
Daniel Yon

DY: While undertaking research in the provisional archives of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, a few years ago, I came across correspondence from the Governor of St. Helena to the Governor of the Cape referencing the departure of 100 men from the island and bound for the Namaqualand, in the Northern Cape, to work in the mines in and around the copper mining town of Concordia, in 1907. It was a very exciting find that led to further research on the story but, for a long time, the ‘documentary evidence’ was not the impetus for the film. Years after this archival discovery, I made a visit to Namaqualand, specifically to the town around which the copper mines were located, and two things happened: first I was completely balled-over by the spectacular landscape, and its alternating beauty, and I was also struck by the intrusions and scars on the landscape, resulting from the copper extraction. This gave the landscape a double-edge beauty: the horrible toxic waste and holes, ironically, held its own double-edge beauty, and I am interested in this aesthetic and I am interested in the ecological and environmental questions that arise from this history of copper extraction.

Second, on this trip, I also met people who were able to trace their heritage to the men of 1907 and who were keen and willing to offer fragments of this ancestral memory. So the film Mining Memory emerged from the question of what to do with the fragments of memory that I listened to and the ghostly presence of mining debris and ruins on the landscape; how might I put these ‘fragments,’ the debris and scars and the spectacular landscape into some sort of visual essay.

AC: How is the film related to your ongoing and future research?

DY: Part of the answer to your question is implied in my reference to aesthetics of place and belonging and also to landscape and memory in my reply to your first question. But, the film is a continuation of an interest in migrations, travel, displacements, race, place, identity-making, memory-making. These are the research themes that also inform my previous two films, One Hundred Men and Sathima’s Windsong, and my ongoing research more generally.

Also common to these films is an attempt to think about an anthropology of the sea and/or a maritime humanities. Remember, in the 19th century, more than 100 million people travelled across seas and oceans, many were forced to do so, many were in search of better lives and the sea was, and is, the depository for unimaginable numbers of lives lost at sea. The sea is central to the making of what we call modernity and in my efforts in these films the liquid metaphors it offers helps to resist the kinds of closures and certainties that our memory project often aspire to. But, that’s about the conceptual work. To get to the practical aspect of your question: there has to be a book about the making of these three films as a sort of trilogy that fleshes out in greater detail the themes and conceptual work to which I have referred. And then there is also more follow-up work on Mining Memory.

AC: So what is the next step? Where do you go from here?

DY: I am also finding that Mining Memory is beginning to feel like the start of a project rather than a culmination. Two things have happened since starting this film. First, when I screened it in Namaqualand this last June, there was great interest and people turned up in unexpected numbers wanting to contribute to the stories that unfold in the film and to tell their own histories, prompted by the film. I really liked the enthusiasm that the film has provoked, and there’s an obvious opportunity to collect more stories.

Second, and very importantly, there have been new discoveries of copper and diamonds in Namaqualand and people are now talking about a new mining rush. So I feel I have to go back (and back!) to trace more stories against the backdrop of this revival of mining.  That’s likely the next step. There is reference in the film to ‘a longing for the return of the mines’ in the face of unemployment. Well, now they are witnessing that ‘return’ and it will be interesting to see how this is being played out because a ‘return’ is never identical to what it was before.

AC: What do you wish to communicate to viewers through your film?

DY: Not sure that I have a particular ‘take-away’ for the film. I hope my audience finds the stories interesting and will think about some of the themes that are both specific and universal that are taken up in the storytelling in Mining Memory – to do with the ideas I’ve indicated in this conversation and also ecological issues and questions. I think the film might have its own poetic and aesthetic qualities as I am seduced by the landscape therein.

I hope viewers might also find interesting and might also enjoy the aesthetics that I aspire to in the film. So many people helped in so many ways with this work but, and in that context, I would want to give a a special ‘shout-out’ to Antonin Lhotsky who did most of the camera work and Douglas Campbell who not only undertook the editing with such care and love but also arranged the music score in such a beautiful manner.