Frames Per Second: Using Video to Tell a Controversial Story

June 26, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Ilvy Njiokiktjien

A still from the multimedia piece shows the Kommandokorps campers practicing drills, which they started each day early in the morning.

With their first foray into multimedia, photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien and writer and radio journalist Elles van Gelder won first place in both the 2012 World Press Photo Multimedia Contest and the Pictures of the Year International Issue Reporting Multimedia Story category. Their multimedia piece, “Afrikaner Blood,” mixes video and still photos to show how a group of teenaged Afrikaners, young South Africans of Dutch and German descent, are transformed over the course of a nine-day boot camp organized by the white supremacist group Kommandokorps.

Van Gelder, who lives in Johannesburg, and Njiokiktjien, who is based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, first learned about Kommandokorps in April 2010 while covering the memorial service for an extreme-right leader. They were surprised to see several men at the ceremony wearing the old army uniforms of the former apartheid regime. Njiokiktjien approached one of the men, Franz Jooste, who explained he is a “colonel” in the Kommandokorps and conducts camps for a new generation of Afrikaners. “He said it was to teach them self-defense and to teach them to be proud to be white. He got my interest,” she recalls. After months of e-mail exchanges and Skype calls, Jooste agreed to let Njiokiktjien and van Gelder attend a nine-day camp.

The pair had previously collaborated on stories from Africa, with van Gelder writing text and Njiokiktjien shooting photos. But with the Kommandokorps camp, they felt they had a subject well suited to multimedia. In an early conversation with Jooste, Njiokiktjien explains, “He said something like, ‘Black people are like monkeys,’ and, ‘They have smaller brains than white people.’ I thought: Shit, I need sound. Pictures won’t be enough.”

Both journalists used Canon 5D Mark II cameras, with Njiokiktjien shooting stills and van Gelder responsible for the video. When they began, “We didn’t have a storyboard because we didn’t know what the camp would be like,” Njiokiktjien says. On the spot, they would decide if something they wanted to cover should be shot on video or photographed by Njiokiktjien while van Gelder simultaneously recorded sound. “We really worked side by side,” van Gelder says.

From the beginning, they wanted to experiment with mixing moving and still images. “If you combine video and stills, you can explore the boundaries between the two,” says van Gelder. “For example, you can look at an image and think it’s a still, and then something moves.” In a rare moment of quiet when the boys collapsed in exhaustion, van Gelder shot a long, steady take—what she calls a “video still”—of a boy lying on the grass; only when he shifts the spoon he stuck in his mouth does the viewer realize it’s shot on video.

They also used stills to portray movement. For example, to show the campers trampling the multicolored flag of South Africa that represents the diverse “rainbow nation,” Njiokiktjien shot multiple stills that are shown over van Gelder’s audio recording of their boots stomping on the flag.

Jooste had informed the boys’ parents that the journalists would be at the camp, and he signed the releases. “He said he was their guardian for the nine days. He signed an agreement with us that we can ask them whatever we wanted,” Njiokiktjien says.

They interviewed the boys on the first day of the camp and at the end of the last day. “We wanted to get their opinions on the first day before they were indoctrinated,” Njiokiktjien says. In an early interview, one boy says, “I don’t like racism.” Nine days later, however, one of the boys says he’s Afrikaner, not South African. “I don’t want to be associated with the rainbow nation,” says another.

For the interviews, they used lavaliere microphones, but relied primarily on a handheld mic to record ambient noises: the boys singing Afrikaner songs, the wind in the grass, bird sounds, chirping crickets. “I think it helps that I’m a radio journalist. I know how important these things are, even if you hardly hear them,” says van Gelder.

When they finished shooting, they had all of the voice recordings transcribed. Van Gelder and Njiokiktjien reviewed copies of the transcript separately, highlighting the quotes they felt were most important. When they compared notes, they discovered they had selected almost identical passages. “It was a sign of how well we worked together,” Njiokiktjien says.

Metropolisfilm, a production company in Utrecht, donated two weeks with a staff editor, but first van Gelder and Njiokiktjien needed to decide how they would tell the story. “A lot of multimedia [projects] we saw were built around one central character,” van Gelder observes. They had five hours of interviews with Jooste alone, talking about his army career and his racist views, she says. “But then we thought about the story, and realized it’s really about the kids and how they change.”

They also decided not to use a voiceover by a narrator. “Because it’s quite controversial, we really wanted the story to be told by the voices of the characters,” van Gelder notes. Two text slides near the beginning briefly describe the camp, without breaking the flow of the soundtrack.

To begin, their editor, Thomas Knijff, suggested they select their favorite clips and images and put them on a timeline. “But some of them just didn’t look right,” van Gelder recalls. Though the narrative follows a basic chronological structure, they reedited some segments several times.  

One section that changed little, however, was the opening sequence. “We knew we wanted to start with a surprise,” van Gelder says. The piece begins with a long shot of a windmill in a grassy field, and Jooste’s voice describing the beauty of the South African countryside. Then, there’s an ominous shift: a truck drives down a country road in darkness and stops. A voice yells, “Move! Move!” as boys jump out of the truck and begin unpacking the truck by flashlight. As van Gelder explains, “We wanted to set a nice vibe and then add a bit of confusion.” Still images show boys trying on old apartheid regime uniforms, some of which, Jooste explains, still have bullet holes and bloodstains. After the pastoral opening, van Gelder notes, “You‘re quite shocked by what he says and then you continue watching.”

To make the video and stills look similar, both had to be color corrected. Njiokiktjien’s 35mm stills also had to be cropped to fit the video format. “There were sometimes painful choices,” she notes.

The two journalists also struggled with pacing the subtitles. In an early version, the subtitles were too long for the viewer to digest, and stretched over several images. They cut them back so that each image or piece of footage had its own subtitle.

Publications such as The Telegraph Magazine in Britain, Vrij Nederland in the Netherlands, l’Espresso in Italy and Mail & Guardian in South Africa published their article in print and also showed “Afrikaner Blood” on their Web sites or iPad editions. Photographer Vincent Laforet, chair of the World Press Photo multimedia jury, called the award-winning work “an incredibly well-crafted and nuanced piece with a very cohesive structure and refined execution.”

Njiokiktjien and van Gelder have now formed their own production company in order to produce more multimedia stories.

Gear List

Cameras: Three Canon 5D Mark II
24-105mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4
Accessories: Zacuto optical viewfinder, two Manfrotto tripods, Flowlight
Audio: Sennheiser shotgun microphone, Shure SM58 handheld microphone, Sennheiser ew 100 ENG G2 wireless lavalier set, Marantz PMD620 handheld audio recorder, Zoom H2n audio recorder

Watch “Afrikaner Blood” below: