Volume 15 Number 5
Filming From the South Side of Life
01 October 2002

Jan Horn's passions include film-making, mountaineering and the preservation of South Africa's cultures. He talks to Anastasia Stepanova.

Words cannot describe the powerful atmosphere when Jan Horn, a documentary film producer from South Africa, presented his work at a workshop during the Renewal Arts conference this August in Caux, Switzerland.

He struck me as a man of strong will and firm convictions. He joins expeditions to Kilimanjaro and Everest, and makes films that question the ethics and social consequences of the nuclear energy programme in his country or tell the world about its indigenous cultures.

Jan Horn studied nuclear physics. He started his television career when, as a physics lecturer, he was asked to help train TV staff in how to work with lenses and lights. It was in the early 70s, the time when TV was launched in South Africa by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). 'Everyone tried their hand at everything, experimenting a lot,' says Horn. 'It was a beautiful experience of freedom in creativity.' He found his niche and settled on documentaries.

One of his first documentary series Aanpassings (Afrikaans for 'adaptings'), filmed in 1984, conveyed the strong message, 'If we as South Africans are to survive we have to adapt'. 'Many things that we said then happened afterwards,' he says.

In 1989 he joined 50/50, a weekly environmental programme in both Afrikaans and English, which is still running. Jan grew up near Taung where the famous Taung skull was found in 1924 - the earliest known homo sapiens. He decided to produce and present a programme on the discovery of the skull. This launched him into a TV career in archaeology and palaeontology.

'I didn't know anything about archaeology,' confesses Horn. 'I first had to learn how to spell it.' In 1989 he produced a series of documentaries, Origins - the Southern Evidence which firmly established the view that humankind evolved in Africa. Today the 'out of Africa' theory is generally accepted by most palaeo-anthropologists.

After 23 years with the SABC Horn left and set up Southside Productions. The name came when on Christmas Eve at the local grocery shop he saw a black Father Christmas, who was fully clothed in a proper Santa Claus outfit with a white cotton-wool beard, sweating it out in the scorching December sun of the South African summer. Dancing to an African beat he was trying to entice customers to come and shop. 'That's the south side of Christmas,' I thought to myself. Since then I've decided to look at the south side of things.'

One of his films, Conspiracy of Silence, 1993, on what happened at Chernobyl and Hiroshima, had a profound effect on public thinking. Since then the Nuclear Fuels Enrichment Programme in South Africa has been terminated. This film won an Artes Award for the best documentary of the year, the South African Oscar.

His work on ancient cultures and archaeology brought him in contact with the San people, or Bushmen, of Southern Africa. During the last ten years Horn has been involved in producing six documentaries about the Bushmen and their quest to regain their aboriginal hunting grounds.

'You become known as an expert in their culture, which is good for your ego, but it can be misleading,' he remarks. After the films were shown on TV, they provoked harmful interest in the Bushmen, exploiting them for commercial purposes. 'I realized then what a powerful tool I operate with, what the camera lens can do to people.'

Not satisfied with the effect his films had on the San he approached the satellite station, kykNET, to produce a documentary series on the music of Southern Africa. His aim was not to put across a message, but to make people aware of the rich variety of indigenous cultures of the land they lived in. 'I thought if I make a programme with a moral I will be exploiting these people,' he explained. The 12 programmes produced over two years made a huge difference. A sudden genuine interest in tribal cultures appeared. 'In a country driven by apartheid people wanted to know more about each other,' says Horn.

Two programmes in the series were made about the music of the people of the Great Karoo, the semi-desert plains that span half of South Africa. Participants in these programmes later performed at the annual Karoo cultural festival - the biggest of its kind in South Africa. The Karoo Guitar Blues, taken from the TV series, took most of the prizes at the festival. 'That's what people wanted,' says Horn. 'Ordinary people doing great music. Remembering my experience with the Bushmen, we set up a strong protection system without any hint of advertisement or commercial interest.'

After one show one of the musicians, 'a fine old lady of 70 years old who grew up in extreme poverty' thanked Horn for 'giving us our self-respect back'. Horn confesses, 'To me that was the greatest compliment I ever received in my career as a film producer.'

As a film producer his main purpose is 'to give a sense of meaning in his programmes, not messages - if you want to send a message, use the Internet'. 'It must have meaning for me and if it means something to me then I'll do it. If your motivation is purely the making of money you will always feel poor and depressed as the money will never be enough.'

Besides producing films he enjoys mountain climbing. In 1995 as presenter and director, he joined an expedition to climb Kilimanjaro. Its purpose was to select the first South African team to attempt Everest.

The 1996 expedition to Everest was successful but had a tragic end. 'It was beautiful weather when, totally out of nowhere, a big storm struck. Eight people from other teams died that day on the mountain,' remembers Horn. When the South Africans summited two weeks later the British photographer on the team, Bruce Herrod, was killed. He was a professional climber.

In 1997 Horn joined an expedition back to Everest to set up a memorial stone for Herrod. From these two expeditions Horn produced a documentary Free to Decide. With acrimonious controversy surrounding the death of Herrod, Horn decided to use the tape recordings of the radio traffic between base camp and the climbers to home in on what had actually happened in those terrible hours. 'It was my truth factor,' he said. The tapes were used as the backbone of his film.

His passion for mountains made him return to the north side of Everest in 1998, with Cathy O'Dowd and Ian Woodall, the two South Africans who summitted in 1996. If they reached the summit, this time from Tibet, Cathy would be the first woman to climb Everest from both sides.

On the final day of their climb the team came across a body lying in the snow at the 'first step', a rock massif four hours climb from the summit. As they approached, the body moved. It was Frances Arsentiev, frozen from the neck down, semi-comatose. She could only say three things: 'Please, don't leave me. Why are you here? I am an American.' She and her husband Sergey had summited without oxygen, and without Sherpas. On their way down Frances had got into trouble. Sergey had had to leave his wife to collect some oxygen. He was never seen again.

O'Dowd, Woodall and the Sherpas tried in vain to revive Frances. After an hour, with their own oxygen supply running low and hypothermia setting in, O'Dowd and Woodall decided to return to camp. 'I simply could not climb past a dying climber,' O'Dowd said. They had to leave Frances behind. The Sherpas went on to the summit and flew the South African flag proudly radioing down, 'South Africa on top of Mount Everest'.

This experience was captured by Horn in a programme Death on a mountain, which raised many ethical questions. 'People asked me, 'How could you leave Frances there?', but they had no idea of the conditions on the mountain,' says Horn. 'If you stay too long you run the risk of becoming a casualty yourself, endangering the lives of your own team and the rescuers who in turn try to rescue you.' O'Dowd and Woodall went on to climb Everest from the north side in 1999.

Recently the Horn family have gone through a tragedy themselves when their oldest son was killed in a car accident. Only after his sudden death did they find out how many people loved and valued him because of his readiness to help them with his IT skills. They are still receiving many messages of condolence in different languages.

Jan says his strength comes from his family. 'It is a rule to back each other up,' he says. 'It is very important to live your life to the full and share experiences. But sharing doesn't mean controlling.' His wife, Jeanette Horn, a painter, travels with him while he is doing his research for upcoming TV programmes. 'Then when I am filming the production she spends all her time painting in the studio.'

As for future projects, he is currently researching a major series on archaeology and palaeontology. Some well-known international companies have also approached him to use his footage shot on Everest for the 50th anniversary of Hilary's ascent of Everest in 1953.

And then there is always his love for music. 'I have some great ideas I would like to follow up to promote the music of Africa,' he says.
Anastasia Stepanova

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