Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood’s story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
The series continues today with Johannesburg, South Africa-based filmmaker Zamo Mkhwanazi. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your feature project.
I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but there were no film schools in South Africa when I finished school. So after university, I studied advertising. I eventually found my way to film and have since written over 200 hours of aired television, including working as a series head writer (showrunner). My short films have screened at TIFF, Cannes and Clermont-Ferrand. I am developing my first feature which was shortlisted for Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and selected for the Torino Script Lab.
The English title for my feature is Laundry. It’s a period drama, and a fictionalized story based on my mother’s family having their laundry taken away by the apartheid government.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I’m on the fifth draft of the script, and about 30 percent funded.
When did this specific journey begin?
Around 2015, when there were the xenophobic attacks against immigrants from other African countries. I am completely ashamed of the way many South Africans treat other Africans and have confronted the issue in various works, including my first short film. This time, I took a step back and started trying to understand why black South Africans will burn down a Somali owned shop instead of opening up a competing business. Where is our entrepreneurial spirit? The story of my mother’s family started to take on a different resonance. What I had always thought of as a private family tragedy, is, in fact, something that happened to so very many black people. It occurred to me that this was an example of how the spirit of enterprise was systemically, from one unjust law to another, destroyed in the people of South Africa, and how so many South Africans continue to be prisoners to this manufactured psyche. This is a type of insanity that continues generation after generation.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
Writer and co-producer. For me, writing and directing really go hand-in-hand. In terms of co-producing, it’s about focus. I cannot write all the time. I need distance from my work, and only time can do that. So when I am not writing, I am working on other elements, such as finding international co-producers and distributors.
As you work on your first feature, what would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?
Finding an international distributor. The greatest challenge is that, from an African perspective, our films rarely get international exposure, thus rarely getting to break even.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
That I will “over-direct.” I am working so hard to educate and better my visual language, and I fear I may make a film that’s a bit over-stylized in the wrong ways.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Choosing to reject an offer by potential co-producers because they have links with Israel. As someone who grew up under apartheid, I simply cannot ignore the plight of Palestine.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Getting the film into International Labs linked to grade A festivals. This usually gets distributors interested in the film and increases its chances of being selected by other A-list festivals. Most of these festivals have a preference for African stories from a European perspective, so they tend only to select films about the continent that are mostly directed by white filmmakers. La Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde has consistently selected only white filmmakers to make South African films. Berlinale Talents has never had a black South African filmmaker on any of their script stations. The Cannes Cinefondation only selects male directors from South Africa. The white male director selected a few years ago has a single film credit for a short that barely screened outside South Africa. Meanwhile, the black male directors were on their third and fourth feature films; a clear case of having to be ten times as good as the white male. The Sundance Lab has only ever selected one South African film, directed by a Greek man. No one selects black women. To give credit where credit is due, the Torino Script Lab has, for two years in a row, selected black female participants from South Africa: myself and the other being my script editor who will be a trainee on their program this year. This is progress, from the racist South African project by a white man, which was previously selected for their Film Lab. So with commitment, even European institutions can advance.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I agree, and I do not worry myself about this factor. I hate films that rely on gimmicky topics instead of solid storytelling. There have been so many films about World War II, most of which are boring, in my opinion. My greatest admiration is for filmmakers who can take a seemingly non-unique subject matter and still tell a strong story. The film Ida, as well as Life Is Beautiful were strong stories, about an old topic, yet remain memorable. I think it’s a harder task and a wonderful challenge. I really hope to have the kind of career where I can tell many different types of stories. I do not believe that I am doing something hugely different, but of the films set in the era of apartheid, nearly all have been directed by white men, i.e., the chief beneficiaries of the system, and certainly none by a black woman. That, alone, makes it unique enough. In addition, getting films made is so difficult for black women that I know that me getting this far means that I am twenty times more talented than just about every male and or white person currently working in South African film.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it’s made?
The hope is that it travels to festivals. I vacillate between hoping to get it into A-list festivals and focusing on my primary audience, which is the African diaspora who are distinctly unwelcome at these festivals.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
When I first wanted to learn to direct, I asked a friend to let me learn how to use their Sony PD150. He told me that I was just a child who wanted to play with every toy I see. When I chose to produce my first short film, I was told that I would fail and that I should allow a white man to produce for me and another white man to direct for me. I would be the “creative producer” — basically a bullshit title. This year, I received five rejections before the end of February. I am continually actively discouraged. I keep my head up because I know my talent and how hard working I can be. I keep my head up because I don’t have a choice. Other black women in my country are watching me. If I let myself fail, I tell them that the mountain is indeed insurmountable. I can’t be part of that, so I have to keep going.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers… alcohol (#Jokes… kind of)? What does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever “greatness” is to you)?
My family does not know the challenges of my career. But my husband really supports me. There are very few black women in my country working in the space that I work in, so it’s tough. However, I do have connections in the local TV industry, and our ambitions have taken us in different directions; but there is a sisterhood there. I can be a hedonist, but I prefer work over just about anything, so even my substance reliance is quite limited. Apart from my husband, I know that I have to do much of this on my own, which is okay. I have always been quite a loner.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a “black film renaissance” (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther, or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
The examples of black female success in film stop at Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay for me. The TV space also has Issa Rae and Shonda Rhimes. There is also Amma Assante in the UK. It is discouraging to be able to count these influences on one hand. It saddens me that someone like Cheryl Dunye is not a household name. I do not believe that the “renaissance” will last. As we say, it’s 1992; Denzel, Halle and Sidney’s wins were not a revolution, just a blip for white people to tell themselves they are progressive. On IMDb, every week, white men release 10 to 20 films; yet, last year, only six black women in the entire world had films with a theatrical release. The numbers tell me how slim my chances are.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion (I know that similar initiatives have been announced in other parts of the world; in the UK notably). Do you think all of this (the few successes we’ve seen thus far, the various initiatives announced to diversify the industry behind and in front of the camera, etc.) will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
Not really. It’s not real change; it’s just a fashion trend that will last until social media loses interest. Without public pressure, the studios will revert to type.
If you’re not in the USA, describe what the film and TV environment is like in the city/country where you live and work. How do the trials (and triumphs) of black women filmmakers where you are differ from those in the USA, if at all? Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
I do have the intention to move to the States in a few years. The current landscape in South Africa is that directing commercials is most lucrative, but black women are consistently excluded from those opportunities. Black women make up the biggest bulk of the country’s population. There are literally only two black female directors in the commercials space who have directed about five commercials between them. The TV space is only just beginning to open up for black female directors, but the gap between jobs can yawn into years, unlike male directors who regularly direct between ten and twenty episodes per year. The place where black women dominate in numbers is in the writers rooms because that’s the hardest and worst-paid work. TV writing rooms are run like factories where incredibly talented black women are stuck and refused professional progression. Black women wishing to show run under their own companies are not commissioned by channels but made to work for male and white-owned companies. And, as I mentioned, the opportunities for TV directing are tiny for black women.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these “new media” platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
All these platforms are owned and dominated by white men, so they are pretty much the same as studios. Time and time again, they prove that they will pay men more than women and marginalize female voices while churning out projects by mediocre men. When they do make an effort toward inclusion, they seem to expect a lot of praise, which tells me that this is not the new normal. I have to engage my efforts toward making the films I want to make, instead of spending my efforts focused on what people who have no interest in my voice want. If these factors intersect at some point, great, but I am not holding my breath.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I would tell my younger self not to do it. Black women are marginalized in every field except domestic work; but in some of these fields, marginalized as they are, they make a decent living.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Story is king. A visual feast will make it memorable.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Hany Abu-Assad has made amazing films about Palestine. His films are not gimmicks relying on exoticizing his people, but tough, unflinching political dramas. Qiu Jiongjiong made an amazing film that is such a visual feast; the astounding narrative sneaks up on the audience. Of the old masters, I admire Fritz Lang, who found ways to make personal the political and has a slyly sharp style of critiquing society. Ousmane Sembène is the master of silence. I will forever strive to capture his sense of subtext. Lorenzo Vigas’ Desde Alla (From Afar) follows on the tradition of moving the focus to the unsaid. Similarly, a 2015 Indian film called Court by Chaitanya Tamhane has a strength that comes from quiet observation, not messaging, that I sometimes struggle with. South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk has perfected that silence. Right now, Asia (from the Middle to the Far East) and Latin America are making real films, in my opinion. This is where I look when I attend festivals.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you “give back,” or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
I do not feel the need to tell a particular story because my ideas are really all over the place; political to mystery, to thriller, to sci-fi. But I feel the need to impart my knowledge to other black women and hold doors open so that more of us have a chance to ensure that our stories are not ignored.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Artistic, yet commercially successful films. The choice to make the films that I feel are important. A strong presence in the international episodic space.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be reached?
I can be reached via my Twitter handle: @zamobleach.
My work is on Vimeo, but you have to ask me for my passwords to watch them. My very first film, Philia, has been put on YouTube without my consent, but yes, it’s out there.
Also, you can watch my showreel below: