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UJ’s Dr Shelley Barry wins SAFTA for innovative film

The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Dr Shelley Barry has yet another award to add to her accolades. This time, the multi-award winning filmmaker bagged a South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA) for her film, A camera on my Lap. Hosted by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF), the SAFTAs honour creative excellence in the local film and television industry. Dr Barry’s film won in the category Best Documentary Short Film.

Dr Shelley Barry and Dr Aimee Viljoen-Stroebel
Dr Shelley Barry and Dr Aimee Viljoen-Stroebel

The inspiration behind A camera on my Lap

A camera on my Lap was shot during lockdown in Gqeberha, South Africa, around Dr Barry’s home. Dr Barry filmed the documentary using only her mobile phone while confined to a wheelchair. The house, she says, has a special story. After she became a person with a disability during a turf war in Cape Town in 1996, Dr Barry was inspired by Frida Khalo’s work.

The UJ senior lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media was also inspired by Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas who felt it was important to document everyday life. “I used his methodology as an inspiration. I filmed every single day, even when there was nothing much going on. I used the creative practice of filming and finding the story afterwards.” A camera on my Lap ponders questions concerning representation on the cinematic screen and responds to the challenge of creative practice during a pandemic. “Personal storytelling is a very powerful place, space and starting point. The film is an ode to my earlier work, to preserve it and acknowledge it.”

Hard work pays off 

The film was written, directed, filmed and produced by Dr Barry and edited by Dr Aimee Viljoen-Stroebel who is also from the Department of Communication and Media. This national award for the film follows an international award from the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany in 2022. Her dedication to disability rights activism earned her the Zonta Prize for Female Filmmaker in the international competition.

A camera on my Lap was made possible with grant funding from UJ’s URC research grant for equipment and a grant from the Ford Foundation. This is the second SAFTA win for Dr Barry after previously winning in 2018. While she is honoured that her work gets nominated, Dr Barry says it’s never about winning. “I’ve never worked so hard on a film my entire life. We paid attention to every single second. When you make anything, know that you have done your best and put it out into the world. Whether people will like it or not, you know you’ve done your best.”

Creativity is key

Dr Barry highlights the importance of using what you have to create. “Making use of what you have and creating a story with what is available. There is no shortage of stories to tell, just be open and receptive to what is coming through you.” The response she has received from students has been heartwarming and inspiring. The students have the opportunity to learn from someone who is both making (films) and teaching and is also in the industry. This means that Dr Barry is always learning and discovering with her students.

Her advice to students in filmmaking is to continue to create. “Make, make and make some more to evolve as an artist. Make work that means something to you and honour your craft. I am 20 years in the game next year and I feel like I’m just getting warmed up.” Dr Barry and Dr Viljoen-Stroebel are already working hard on their next film. A special screening of A camera on my Lap is planned in early 2024 for UJ staff and students.

Watch the full UJTV interview with the award-winning filmmaker here:

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