Talavera – A Champion of Art for Social Change

ONE of the most rewarding aspects of director Philippe Talavera’s sprawling career in film and physical theatre is to run into someone who remembers him from when they were a child.

Twenty years ago, as Namibia grappled with its growing HIV-AIDS crisis, Talavera founded Ombetja Yehinga Organisation (OYO) as an educational tool employing theatre, cartoons, murals and magazines to teach communities in the Kunene region and beyond about the disease.

Though French-born Talavera, who has a PhD in veterinary science and a minor in theatre, first came to Namibia to support a France-Namibia veterinary project in the north, his life quickly took a different path.

“At the time there was a lot of talk about HIV in Namibia. There were all sorts of education directives going left, right and centre, but nobody really knew what to do and how to do it, especially with the Ovahimba,” says Talavera.

“How do you talk about HIV to a polygamous society that may not really understand about a virus that will not make you sick now but will in the future. It was tricky and that’s when I suggested a one-year project (OYO) that uses art,” Talavera says.

“I thought maybe this is an opportunity to go back to what I love, which is theatre and role play, see if those communities bite and we can try and reveal these complex issues of HIV.”

Over two decades later, the teens Talavera taught about contraceptives, prevention, testing and the delayed effects of the virus are adults who have experienced Talavera grow into a champion of art for social change.

“What is interesting now is that I sometimes bump into people who are 35 to 40 and they’ll say: “I remember you! Back in the day, when I was a kid, I read this magazine and you have no idea how much it helped me understand this or that,” says Talavera.

“And I think: Wow! That’s nice. So I only discover the effect OYO has had on someone many years later and that keeps on reinforcing the idea that art can really impact people.”

Evolving from his initial HIV-AIDS awareness work to a prolific film and physical theatre writer, producer and director working across the regions to draw attention to social issues as urgent as sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage and human rights, Talavera recently premiered ‘Lukas’ (2024) as a glimpse into the life of local street children.

The depiction of the specific realities of often marginalised Namibians in order to bring their stories into the mainstream and ignite discussion that may ultimately spark significant intervention is Talavera and OYO’s hallmark.

“I think I’ve always believed in the power of art because art appeals to your emotions and not your intellect. It’s very visceral. The right movie at the right time can really make a difference,” says Talavera, who often connects his film and theatre projects to issues heating up or in need of awareness and clarification in Namibian society.

“The importance of Talavera’s films lies not only in the stories OYO tells but in the conversations sparked thereafter,” says ‘Lukas’ (2024) screenwriter Mikiros Garoes.

“By focusing on all the social issues that Talavera has addressed in his films, it creates awareness, fosters a sense of community and an overall collective social responsibility among the audience.”

Concerned with the lack of condoms and the rampant spread of HIV-AIDs in correctional facilities in ‘Salute!’ (2017), illuminating the reality of child marriages in the Kavango and Zambezi regions in ‘Kukuri’ (2018), advocating for the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis and directing Namibia’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and other (LGBTQI+) love story in ‘Kapana’ (2020), as well as using physical theatre to consider sexual and gender-based violence and corrective rape in ‘Magda’ (2012), Talavera employs art as mirror and authenticity as methodology.

“We never embark on a topic without asking the people who have had direct experiences to share their stories with us. ‘Lukas’ is based on 21 interviews with street kids, plus adults who we knew were street kids before,” says Talavera.

“For ‘Salute’, we had hundreds of interviews in correctional facilities. We build on testimonies.”

The same is true for OYO’s physical theatre and dance projects, which make up much of their output and are showcased primarily in schools. In addition and occasionally, stage productions such as last year’s ‘A Picassiana Dance’ and ‘Remembering Johnny’ are presented as showcases for OYO Dance Troupe’s remarkable raw dance talent.

Providing multiple award-winning platforms to showcase such immense dramatic talent as Adriano Visagie in ‘Salute!’ and ‘Kapana’ and currently riding high on the first festival selection of ‘Lukas’ at Nigeria’s Coal City Film Festival, Talavera’s focus on the youth is intentional.

“Young people still have so many choices to make and through these films we effectively give them the tools to think about what choices are in front of them and what some of the consequences could be,” says Talavera. “It’s quite fascinating to be able to help young people be informed.”

The information currently at hand is the plight of street children in ‘Lukas’, which will be on show at Ster-Kinekor from 8 March.

“If we manage to change a couple of people’s perspectives and if we can prevent a few Lukases from dropping into the street then I will be happy,” says Talavera.

“The film does not depict the best image of Namibia but it depicts a certain reality for enough people that we should ask ourselves: Can’t we do better as a society?”

– martha@namibian.com.na; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram; marthamukaiwa.com

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