Damian Weilers is a photographer and director. He directed the new music video for Basement Jaxx - "What A Difference Your Love Makes."
The Manifesto has been fortunate enough to work with Damian on both our Warner Music Group and Mike Smith shoots; we can testify that he's quite brilliant in both his method and his madness.
Interview (via skype): Michelle Sullivan
Hi Damian. Can you hear me?
Hi Michelle! Yep all good. Lovely to speak to you, it's been ages!
I don't think we've spoken since our LA trip when we did the Mike Caren feature. How are you?
I'm good I'm good. You know the day we arrived back to London from that trip, I got an email in the cab to do this video. That's literally when it started.
The video has great energy to it. There is something about how the music locks in with the dancing that makes me feel happy watching it. How did you arrive at the concept?
The only thing Basement Jaxx specified was that they wanted choreography, but for the rest they gave me free reign. I've always known about a dance in South Africa called Pantsula; It started in the late 80s and it's an expression for the youth who felt suppressed by the apartheid. It's a great toe tapping movement and works with all types of music, but what I liked the most was that a lot of the characters in the townships have very little but they are very happy with life. That's the idea that I wanted to introduce, because most music videos today are so materialistic. This was a chance to explore a different idea.
How did you decide on the location?
The Alexandra township is the oldest township in South Africa; you know there are eight languages spoken there; in about a 4 mile radius. I directed the "She" video for Laura Mvula in a township too. The Alexandra township has a lot more grit, and for a long time it was a very dangerous place to go into, but It's started to improve. It's still got the grit of the location, but the warmth is coming through.
Where are you from in South Africa?
I was born in Durban, but my parents lives in Johannesburg and I've always known about Alexandra. I went to school in Johannesburg for a while, but during the earlier years of my life - even though Alexandra is close to the upper end locations - it was still a very dark and dangerous place. If you had to drive past you just kept on driving.
So - A friend of a friend of mine who lives there (and has filmed there) helped me produce it. I was so excited to film there, specially since it is a place that I have always been nervous about. I was so welcomed, which was great. What I always like to do when going on location is to involve the community, because If you don't it's just difficult. Through that trust and word of mouth, it builds great energy. We got on the radio to build a bit of hype and people were genuinely excited to come out and be part of this film.
The casting is great. How did it come together for you?
I went through a lot of You Tube videos of Pantsula dancers and I cast the two main guys that way. I was connected to them through Street Corner Films. They don't come from Alexandra, but from another township about three hours outside of Johannesburg. They don't have mobile phones; They don't have anything. We lost contact for about two weeks, but two days before we started shooting, we managed to find them again, and I drove the three hours to met them for the first time. I played them the song and they brought it to life. I thought - "Right these guys have to come with me." So I said - through a translator with me because they don't speak a word of english - "we can't do the journeys back and forth.. you will need to come with me, go and pack an overnight bag and we can head out." They said "we don't need to we can go now, this is all we own, what we are wearing." We took them with us for 4 days. It was very exciting for them and very eye opening for me.
The more that the community got involved, the more that we were able to cast more dancers. These are people who don't have anything, they have the dance.
Everyone radiates warmth in the video. They smile and I smile.
Yeah! There was just a great energy and the guys were just so happy to be recognised. I took them to a couple of restaurants and they had never seen anything like it before. We would be walking by and a song would start playing from somewhere - say a shop or something - and they would just start dancing.
I think the football scene is fantastic.
It's a bit of a hairy story. At that stage it was just down to me shooting without a crew - just with the help of my producers. They went and organised for us to be allowed to film at half time. We got the song put over the PA and the guys just started dancing.
How did it get hairy?
(laughs) Aagh Michelle. I don't know how to say this. No one's allowed on the field. They have a very strict field security policy. Some people were a bit drunk and un-sure as to what was going on with the filming, and they might have gone to some effort to make us feel a little edgy while we were there. But It all worked out. Once I finished filming that piece, I ran with the camera into the crowd and filmed again, and then everyone was happy and the mood shifted and it was amazing.
Talk to me about a moment from the trip that has stayed with you?
Alexandra is a very poor and gritty place, but something that I keep remembering is seeing all the children running around. They just play and carry on in this filth. If the world was to have an armageddon, these kids would be the ones who survive. We are so soft about so much, but these kids live in such harsh conditions but they are just so happy about life. We forget how well we live.
Does house music have a underground place in South Africa on a cultural level?
This dance came out in a house music phase. It's called Quito, and It's now slightly phased out with the influence of the west. It's starting to come back a little, but as you can imagine the local youth are influenced through radio and what comes in from the west. So what they are fed is what they start changing it to. All the original Quito music is now seen as an "older generation."
What's the new generation?
A lot more Hip Hop and RnB. Western influences. Definitely not the pop side of things.
I want to go back to an idea you touched on earlier - to do with budgets. I'm a romantic when it comes to music videos. I feel that they should be memorable and have a lasting impact. How do you approach videos with budget constraints and how do you stay true to the idea?
DW: Budgets are a huge struggle now. Things are great on one hand because technology is much more accessible. For example the Canon 5D will give you a solid result, but then if you can do things cheaper on one end, you still have all the expenses of crew and building the idea and delivering it. Music videos are not a money earner for me. I do them for the love of music and to help make that connection for an artist. You have to take the song, what the artist is trying to express, and then give it a visual that is entertaining. The most boring thing you can see is when a love song has a standard "romantic video" situation. That's why I try and express another perspective; In this one we looked at the relationship between a mother and her boys. It's a different interpretation. The girl and a guy love relationship path is over-done and dull. Sure - If the track has a great beat and strong lyrics then you don't really care perhaps what the visual is. I like to create work that has taken the time to really think about the perspective and illustrate the song in that way, while still being entertaining.
What do you think of the music videos we are seeing lately?
I feel that there is a lot of materialism. There is a lot of showing off and a lot of soullessness. What I try to create is a video that makes people feel something. I don't make music videos that drive you to want something. "I want that car" or "I want that phone" - leave that to advertising. I make music videos that make you feel something and hopefully inspire you; That provoke a reaction, which is what art and entertainment is meant to do. Not sell you something. Everything's become so formulated. With this Basement Jaxx video I was very lucky. The label were really supportive. Working with great guys like Basement Jaxx, and then an encouraging label meant that it was a process that pushed me to create something special to give back.
What do you think creates a timeless video?
Simplicity. Don't make it too complicated. Stick to the key idea of what you are trying to create. We all talk about how the attention span of people has reduced because of how fast everything happens online, so directors are pushed to create a big impact in as little time as possible, but If you come from that place you are just going to dilute the idea. You have to keep it at basics, capture the emotion and take people on a journey.
So where are you off to today?
I'm flying to Majorca.
Ok then, I'll see you soon…
Yes absolutely. Can't wait to see you.