Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings trilogy director, once said: “The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself.” If so, then the South Africa has plenty of stories to look forward to as the country is a cornucopia of joy, sorrow, spirituality, violence, sex, rebirth, corruption, beauty, ugliness, mysticism and many other things, as people continue to work towards some kind an equilibrium.
No doubt, many of those stories have previously fallen into the deepest and darkest crevasses, never to be told or seen by anyone because the local film industry of yesteryear severely lacked diversity. However, this is no longer the case. Owners of Pixel Perfect Productions, sisters Nompumelelo and Khayakazi Ngqula, who are 18 months apart, are truly the ones to watch as they reclaim their own stories.
Filled with the existential dread of working in an environment that completely depleted her, Nompumelelo quit her advertising job with no certainty that she would get another one.
“I hated advertising. It was a soul-destroying space for me. It’s like a labour mill for young black creatives. You end up giving the best of yourself and the best of your creative years and you don’t get much back,” she says.
“Yes, they may get awards and that’s great. But they aren’t reaping the rewards for themselves, which are the financial rewards. And isn’t that why I’m working? It felt like a dead-end.
“Young black creatives are there to make things seem authentic. To make things resonate with the black audience, but at the end of the day, they are not the face of that world,” Nompumelelo says.
While recuperating from the corporate rat-race, she was invited by Khayakazi to join her in her production company and the sisters have since been writing their own destinies, with a few rough drafts along the way.
“Kazi (Khayakazi) takes care of the logistics and the business. I take care of the creative side. I do stories with her and other people we work with. We’ve really focused on creating a space for young female creatives. Whether you are a director or a DOP (director of photography), you are a part of this tribe. It’s a tribe that’s changing the face of storytelling in South Africa.
“The stories mean more, when you watch a show that has been conceived, originated and though out by young black people — there are certain textures and nuances you won’t get elsewhere,” Nompumelelo says.
Their production company is responsible for bringing hit series iThemba to TV screens, in a primetime slot — starring industry behemoths like Vatiswa Ndara and Brenda Ngxoli.
“Our thoughts are about making our shows a more global product. Obviously, you have to work within the boundaries of what your broadcaster wants and who their audience is and what they want to say. We always aim to make shows that resonate with people and they can feel yes like, ‘yes, this was made for me. Not made by John, for me but made by someone like me, for me’.”
However, along the way there have been moments where Nompumelelo has felt completely defeated. She offers an anecdote about a period in her life where Murphy’s Law was the order of every single day. The unfortunate events on their sets and to cast members kept escalating until she was ready to end the scene on her career. Somehow, she managed to push herself harder and pick up the pieces.
Yes, things can be terrible and they’re allowed to be, because it’s the only way we’re going to learn. If it’s easy, then it’s not worth doing.
“Yes, things can be terrible and they’re allowed to be, because it’s the only way we’re going to learn. If it’s easy, then it’s not worth doing. But that doesn’t apply to relationships: bekezela (persevere) at work, do not do it in a relationship,” she laughs.
More is brewing behind the scenes, however, as the South African film industry comes to a head around the fair compensation of actors.
“The way that the South African TV industry is structured, there’s not much that producers can do to make those kinds of changes. We want to work in a way that people don’t feel exploited, don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of. And, of course, there are people in the industry who do [ill-treat actors].”
“We also need to remember the limitation of our industry. It is the way it is because it’s designed that way. The apartheid government created monopolies in each sector. So, for electricity, Eskom was it. For TV, there was SABC and that was it. For airlines, it was SAA and that was it. They created markets that were incredibly difficult to penetrate, and they did so by using anti-competition structures.”
All is not lost though, because the consumption of TV has changed dramatically in the last decade and it is already disrupting the local market.
“The more other players, like Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services come into this market and use our producers and actors, the more we’ll see people getting their money’s worth. Then local competitors will be forced to conform.”
If you don’t crave to be on set every day, and don‘t have stories you’re dying to tell, this is not the space for you. It’s only going to get tough.
Is it possible to tell, without a shred of doubt, if someone is innately born with a certain characteristic? In Khayakazi’s case it would be safe to say she’s always loved the television industry. How do I know this? While she was grade two and Mpumi (Nompumelelo) was in grade three, Pedro The Music Man was running auditions at their school. The excited girls ran to their parents with consent forms in hand, to ask for permission to audition. Despite doing their best to plead that they be allowed, the final answer was a “no.”
A very disappointed but determined Khayakazi signed both forms and the school was none the wiser. Khayakazi went first and the panel loved her, she then coached Mpumi and they loved her too. The girls were in very big trouble when the congratulatory calls came in, but eventually their parents allowed them to be part of the cast.
Having grown up in Johannesburg, they moved to KwaZulu- Natal for high school and post matric she worked as a producer for various TV shows, including one that profiled iconic South Africans, where she met the likes of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Richard Maponya and Wendy Luhabe. She remembers her interview with “mam’ uWinnie” vividly, and how it would change the course of her life.
During filming, while Mam’ Winnie was being interviewed by one of the show’s producers, Mam’ Winnie stopped one of the producers from asking her a question and said, referring to Khayakazi: “‘Why can’t my grandchild ask it? Why can’t we tell our own stories?’”
“She gave me a different kind of confidence, because after that I didn’t have to have anybody (senior producers) else during the interviews. That opened by career in such a big way. That’s when realised that the space I worked in was amazing. It was remarkable to speak to people who love this country so much,” Khayakazi says.
However, she resigned from the job because of pressure to get a qualification. She went to the New York Film Academy and during her time there, she observed that actors and producers owned rights to their work — something she had not previously witnessed locally. This was a gap in the market and she sought fill it with her company Pixel Perfect Productions, where she handles operations and Nompumelelo does the creative work.
The beginning was gruelling but they were eventually given an opportunity by popular local channel Mzansi Magic and would go on to shoot 15 films for them.
“Our biggest thing was that we wanted to shoot film at the quality of a series. We didn’t make any money from [the films], but it was enough to make Mzansi confident that, ‘we can give them a series’.”
“We spent a lot of money making sure we shot with the best cameras, best crews and a lot of the cast that we use now on our series iThemba, we worked with before, on our movies.”
She couldn’t but feel that she was being prejudiced against when her career plateaued despite her best efforts.
“It was in year three of the company. I was like, ‘Are we always going to do bioscopes or inserts?’ We had an international format, which is a favourite on air. It was so hard to get people to support the show. It didn’t matter what we did, or how hard we tried. We had the biggest producers in the continent, but no support at all. I felt like my age was working against me. We also pitched for a drama for two-and-a-half years. There are many noes and a few yeses.”
Some of those rejections were so difficult that she didn’t want to get out of bed.
“If you don’t crave to be on set every day, and don‘t have stories you’re dying to tell, this is not the space for you. It’s only going to get tough,” Khayakazi advises.
iThemba has made an undeniable mark on the local industry. “We wanted to create something where women save themselves and empower each other… most of our households are headed by women. We wanted to give people hope, because we are in such tough situations, no matter the income. The reality is a lot of women survive because other woman are looking out for them.”
However, challenges seem to be reverberating throughout the local film industry as some are seen to be benefiting far more than others.
“No budgets have moved in the last four years, which is very scary. Actors are remembering a time where, if you shot a 13-episode series, you would shoot for 13 weeks. It has changed. Now we shoot 13 episodes in five weeks. And the thing is that, everybody knows that these shows are sold all over the world, but producers don’t benefit from that. We are starting to have open and honest conversations. Actors are frustrated. You want to see where your work is going and you want to be a part of that.”
“The industry is designed to benefit broadcasters only. Producers are also employed to do a certain job, and are given certain parameters and certain budgets and we have to work around that. I support protesting — we’re not going to see changes until more people start standing up.”