The following on-line interview took place between the author and South African film director Ntshavheni Wa Luruli in early 2012. The interview covers aspects of the director’s career as it has developed between the United States and South Africa and touches upon his experience at international film festivals and most recent productions – both film and book. The film in question, Elelwani has been invited to open the Durban Internatiuonal Film Festival, of July 2012.
1. You 1are amongst the few South African film directors with a renowned international reputation. Yet trained in New York. It takes us back to the 1980s, so there must .be a few stories there? Why New York and how does that get us to 2012 in South Africa?
“After passing matric my father (now late) bought me a pocket size camera, Canon. I still have it. I went around taking fotos. Then I realized I could make pocket money with this thing by taking pictures in parties, weddings, etc. On Saturdays I would take my father’s monthly train ticket and go to Ben Suzan Museum on Empire Road in Johannesburg to read fascinating books about photography. I learnt how to develop a negative and make prints in a dark room. Some of my photographs were exhibited at the Market Theater. I was admitted at the School of Dramatic Art, at Wits University on the strength of these photos were I studied film, theater and radio. After graduating I won a Fulbright Scholarship to study filmmaking in one of the big five film schools in the U.S. When I got to New York I decided to go to Columbia University where Milos Forman was the head of the film division. I learnt a lot from him and other filmmakers such as, Vojtech Jasny, Michael Hausman, Sidney Lumet and others. It is during that time that I was introduced to Spike Lee. He invited me to work for his company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. I worked in several Hollywood film productions but it is at 40 Acres that I cut my teeth as a film director. It started when Spike asked me to direct a music video for a Senegalese music superstar, Youssour Ndour. After Nelson Mandela was released he came to New York. David Dinkins, the then mayor of New York, organized a big parade in his honor. I was one of the lucky South Africans who met him. He asked me what I was studying. He wanted us to come back to South Africa to help develop the new South Africa. I was working for Michael Hausman in Paul Newman’s film, Nobody’s Fool. I decided to come back to South Africa. Sometimes when the going is tough, I pause and wonder whether it was a wise decision.”
2. You have been a front row witness to post-Apartheid developments in the South African film and television industry. What have been the challenges, the successes? What of the future?
“There is no film industry to talk about in South Africa really. Just a few independent filmmakers struggling to make films. Now and then there would be a spark which will raise some hopes and excitement but nothing more. One makes a film once after five to seven years. There’ve been a few initiatives from the government side but it is half hearted. The government would rather spend its time and resources in the development of sport, but not the arts. How ironic, because it is the arts that were in the forefront of the liberation struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa while sports did everything it could to detract the struggle. The business sector has shown no interest as well. Like the government they are more interested in mainstream sport like rugby, cricket and soccer. Having said that, we have seen more black filmmakers since 1994 working in all facets of filmmaking, such as directing, writing, producing, etc. Television has been the life line with constant production of local stories. I wish though that we could stop corruption, incompetency; stop producing mediocrity, and celebrating it. Every year the best among the worst are awarded. South African people are the losers. Cheated. As we speak the television industry is in deep trouble. It sounds gloomy, but that’s the reality. Commercial industry is still a closed sector for black filmmakers. Only the token few are invited. Production companies will tell you that their clients, big business corporations, have no confidence in black filmmakers. I have experienced that first hand.”
3. Your film The Wooden Camera was well received internationally (2004 Berlinale winner). Any views on how films from Africa are maybe, let’s say, positioned in the film festival circuit? Do you feel there are certain tacit expectations (styles, subject matter) that you as a South African director/screenwriter are expected to adopt if your films are to be considered/accepted? Are you cast in a particular way?
“Sometimes we as South African filmmakers find ourselves caught between the deep blue sea and the fire. Some international audiences expect our films to be political, shot in squatter camps, with characters who cannot speak English. And if they are not political, they are “tacitly” considered not real. It is as if they don’t expect South Africans to love and to laugh; to be human. I remember in Berlin I was once invited by a certain group who in my view considered themselves as custodians and high priests of African culture and tradition, they accused me of not portraying the “real” South Africa. They pointed out certain scenes in the Wooden Camera that they “knew” were not possible. When I asked if anyone of them has been in South Africa, as a starting point of debate, I was confronted with stone silence, people were staring at me like Egyptian mummies. On the other hand, the South African audiences accuse South African films as being too political; and therefore that is the reason why they don’t watch local films. Yet there’s been very few films since 1994 with political themes of the past. But every local film made is painted with the same brush.”
4. As well as film director and now producer you are a lecturer at two South African Higher Education institutions (University of Johannesburg and TUT, Pretoria). i. What of the advances, the obstacles since 1994? ii. And perhaps you can single out those teaching and learning challenges that are specific to the training of the current generation of film students?
“There are lots of new film institutions today than they were before 1994. There used to be very few, and racially exclusive. The most respected film institute (for whites only) was the Academy of Motion Picture Production in Pretoria Technikon. Due to the restructuring policies of the present government this institution is now the current TUT. It is interesting to note that when I came back from the U.S., this is the first film institution that I offered my teaching services. I was parked in the office by the secretary for hours until it dawned on me that the attitude of the racial past are very hard, if not impossible to overcome. I left. I went to Wits University where I lectured for six years. Ten years later I’m now at TUT. Even then, some of my teaching colleagues including the white students were very suspicious and unhappy. Some of the senior students left their studies in disgust. But all they had to do was to Google and find out who I am. But things have changed considerably now. I guess I have proven to them that I’m not what they thought I was, that I probably have more film experience than them.”
ii. “My personal opinion is that film institutions here are teaching one and the same thing in different ways. And that is, there is only one form of telling a story, the Hollywood American way. Not surprising because most teachers in these institutions, in one way or the other, have written their Masters and doctoral theses based on American film from literature and theory. Some of course have studied European cinema, and that’s all. They do not pay attention to other film forms from say, Asia, East Asia, Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. The majority don’t even have screen credits. Now, the running mantra in these institutions is to teach film students to tell the story in three acts, the Aristotelian model, or The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s model; implying that there is no other form, and if there is, it is either inferior or not worth it. Not to mention the fact that some of us do not even know anything about the history of South African cinema, which is as old as Hollywood. Students that we teach are ignorant of their own film history. They go out in the world aping Hollywood films, and end up producing apes. Scary stuff.”
5. Your recent film Elelwani – production started in January first time you2011 – is the first imke you have taken on
the hybrid ‘director/producer’. What have been the advantages and disadvantages?
“Elelwani is what I consider to be my really first film in that I have total artistic control over it. I was free to tell the story in the way I saw fit. There are no dolly shots in the movie. I only used a static tripod. In terms of the narrative form, I did not use any model as a reference, my only concern was whether the narrative holds or not. I have never considered producing a film. Real producing is hardwork. Besides, I don’t like people. I prefer editing where I’m alone with the editor. Principal photography is just a necessary evil to me. You see, the relationship between the producer and the director is very important. It goes beyond just dollars and cents – the budget. It’s like a… “love” relationship. There is so much in common between the two; they complement each other well; trust each other; know each other; respect each other. There are no hidden agendas or power struggle. That is why some directors work with the same producer for years. I have never been lucky in this regard in local productions. No one, without exception has ever shown me the budget. I’ve been told about the budget, but not shown one. Producers have been very kind and generous in shielding me from it. The budget has been used as power to control me, “manage” me, rein me in. I’ve decided to do producing out of necessity until I find the right person.”
6. As well as a new film for 2012 you are embarking upon a book. What is the subject and what has motivated you to write it at this stage in your career?
“I’m writing a comprehensive history of the Black South African cinema, since 1886 to date. Hopefully those filmmakers who want to find our own way of telling stories through film and television will find something here as a backdrop. The French consciously went out to find their own way, and so did the Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, East Asian, etc. In South Africa, we have done it in music, dance, theater, literature and painting. I see no reason why film should be an exception. I believe that we are talented and creative enough to do it. I do not like young filmmakers to go out there ignorant about the achievements, including the failures of the past. They should feel free to enhance or abandon as they see fit. But knowledge should be passed on.”
7. Finally, and drawing on your work as a lecturer, what three compass points should an aspiring filmmaker have in contemplating a career in the film industry – specifically one in the new South Africa?
“I subscribe to the old clichés: Passion, resilience, etc, and I would add, bravery, as well. I would also say that the world has told its own stories, and it is ready to hear your own South African story, in your own way. After all every river and tributary from every corner of the world leads towards the ocean, why don’t we contribute from our beautiful part of the world to this wonderful tapestry?”
Appendix. The Wooden Camera (2004): Best South African Film (shared with ‘Forgiveness’) Durban, Audience Award Emden, Grand Prix Montreal, Henri Alekan Award for Best Photography Festival de Paris, Winner Best Film (Bronze Horse) Stockholm International Film Festival Junior, Winner Best Feature (Crystal Bear) Young Generation Jury Competition Berlin.