Film crew captures a professor’s life abroad

Philosopher, professor, activist, author, father, Prof Pedro Tabensky of the Rhodes Philosophy Department, is accustomed to playing a myriad of roles. But acting another part – primetime star of Chilean television – has added a more conspicuous role to his repertoire.

Recently, Chilean-based documentary production company, Surreal Peliculas, followed Prof Tabensky for six days as a part of a television series chronicling Chileans living abroad.

“We want to make a map of Chileans in the world. To show the world through their eyes,” says Christian Leighton, director for the company. The series entitled, “Voy a Vuelvo” ( a Chilean colloquialism meaning, ‘I am going, but I will be right back’) intends to capture a broad cross-section of the one million Chilean diaspora with the hope of enlightening what Leighton describes as a very conservative, intellectually isolated population. It will air in 11 episodes and feature Chileans living in environments as dissimilar as Ireland and rural Malawi.

“We need a mix of context, work, story, personality – we want interesting Chileans,” says Leighton, “In this case Pedro was interesting for us. [We are able] to show his work as a writer, professor, researcher, the mix between philosophy, reality and politics – the story of his life because he’s been living abroad for 20 years.”

Prof Tabensky speculates that his engagement with realities outside his own socio-economic strata were potentially what drew the crew to him. “I’m a professor of philosophy who is involved in township politics,” says Prof Tabensky, who has supported the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) for a year and a half. The crew’s desire to show how expat Chileans flesh out their individual values in the different spheres of work, family and community, made Prof Tabensky a particularly worthy candidate.

Prof Tabensky’s interest in Stephen Biko and other philosophers who worked in the area of African emancipation, has informed his present political activities. Another compelling aspect of Prof Tabensky’s life was he and his wife’s decision to adopt a black baby girl. This will perhaps challenge some close-minded Chileans, suggests cameraman, Eduardo Cruz Coke.

To capture the breadth of Prof Tabensky’s activities at home, at Rhodes and with the UPM in the township, the crew needed six days. While here, they attended his daughter’s second birthday party, took a trip to Grahamstown East with representatives from UPM, went to a party at his son’s pre-primary school and visited Stephen Biko’s grave with the Prof and his family. Going to Biko’s grave was meaningful for Prof Tabensky on many levels, he says – it was here that his son first understood the moral distinction between good and evil. 

After leaving Chile in 1991, Prof Tabensky lived in America, Australia, Israel and England, among other countries. “I am one of those human beings [with] a diffuse sense of home, since I have been travelling so much since my earliest memories,” he says, “But Chile is more of a home than of any other country.”

By exposing Chileans to diversity found within their own culture, the series intends to challenge narrow, isolated mindsets at home, while drawing on the unique experience of being a Chilean outside of Chile. “People living outside really miss our country, its experiences, its culture,” says Cruz Coke. The series will offer a glimpse of the new world each subject now inhabits, rather like a kaleidoscope of individual stories. “When you see a programme about Pedro and Sally you will see a little picture – we’re not trying to show South Africa,” says Leighton.

Story by Hailey Gaunt
Photo: Courtesy of Christian Leighton – director: Surreal Peliculas


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