South African director Ntshavheni Wa Luruli has worked as production assistant and assistant director with Spike Lee on films Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Crooklyn. Wa Luruli directed TV dramas in South Africa before making feature films Chikin Biznis (1999) and The Wooden Camera (2003), which both won international awards. His latest film Elelwani was the opening night film at the 33rd edition of the Durban International Film Festival.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GET INTO THE MOVIE BUSINESS?
I don’t think that there was a moment I decided to become a filmmaker. I remember that my father bought me a stills camera, pocket size 110, after passing matric. I still have it. I took pictures at parties, in the township. I think that sparked curiosity and passion to learn more about the art of photography. So every Saturday and school holiday I spent time at Ben Suzan Museum, on Empire Road, studying depth of field, composition, etc… looking at amazing photographs by photographic legends and masters. I met an old man from Israel, Natan Lavie, a great professional photographer whose photographs have been exhibited all over the world.
He saw some of my township snaps, I guess he realised some kind of talent and began to teach me how to process negatives and print photos. Later he bought me one of the best stills cameras with different lenses and a tripod. Some of my photographs were exhibited at the Market Theatre. I was accepted to the School of Dramatic Art at Wits University. Subsequently I went to a film school at Columbia University in the US.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH SPIKE LEE?
It was great. He is the hardest working filmmaker I have ever seen. Great passion for film. Master craftsman. Visionary. I lived a block away from his apartment at Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The lights in his apartment were always on throughout the night, working. I was introduced to him when I was at film school. He invited me to his film company, Forty Acres and Mule Filmworks. That is where I learnt professional film production at the highest level. He let me direct a music video for Senegalese music superstar Youssou N’Dour, which was my very first professional directorial debut.
WHO WERE YOUR MENTORS IN THE LOCAL INDUSTRY?
Two people who really instilled passion for filmmaking in me were John Hookham and Liza Key. John was my film teacher at Wits University. I had never met anybody with such passion for film before. On a 13-inch monitor, we watched classic films day and night in their house in Melville. The neighbours hated seeing me there. I think they thought I was a terrorist hanging out with communists. It was during the Group Areas Act days when black people were not allowed to sleep in the so-called white areas, unless they were domestic workers.
WHAT ARE YOUR THREE FAVOURITE SOUTH AFRICAN FILMS AND WHY?
Mapantsula – Oliver Schmitz
Place of Weeping – Darrell Roodt
Shot Down – Andrew Worsdale
These films were based on stories with meaning; they pushed the boundaries. The majority of contemporary films are meaningless; bad imitations of Hollywood genres, at best suited for television. A point and shoot brigade.
WHO IN THE INDUSTRY WOULD YOU LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH?
I wish I could make a film in which I could cast all those talented black actors I see being wasted on local soapies. It’s heart-breaking to see them rattling off lines and just walking through the motions like that. They desperately need some challenges. Unfortunately without a robust, lively film industry, they remain relegated to the gutter; it’s just a shame.
IF YOU COULD CHOSE TO MEET ANY CHARACTER FROM A FILM, WHO WOULD IT BE?
It’s a toss-up between Count Dracula (Bram Stoker) and Darth Vader (Star Wars). These two, in my view, are among the greatest characters ever created.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE THE FILM ELELWANI?
I realised that novels written in African languages were no longer published. I thought it was important that we preserve some of the legacies that embody our cultures and traditions that are fast disappearing — other nations have been doing it for ages. I put a proposal to the SABC to adapt four books for television by the same author, Dr Titus Maumela. The project was tossed around from one commissioning editor to the other over the years; eventually I was told no channel was interested.
I met Florian Schattauer at a film conference in Cape Town about five years ago. He showed interest in helping make a feature film. He struggled to raise funds but finally managed to raise half the budget needed. We decided to make the film with that. When we heard that Elelwani had been chosen to open the Durban International Film Festival, boy, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH STRESS ON SET?
Drink tea, light and sweet. I make it myself.
WHAT IS THE STRANGEST THING THAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU ON SET?
We were shooting a Spike Lee film in Manhattan and I was walking around the honey wagon checking whether the six banger was properly labelled for each talent. I opened one of the doors and found a handsome six foot man sitting in the place reserved for a famous lady who had a cameo role in the film. I stepped outside and angrily berated my assistant for not doing a proper job putting talent in the right places. He was adamant that he did the right thing. Moments later a beautiful, six foot lady in a big Afro stepped out of the same place. I was aghast. It was RuPaul, the world’s most famous drag queen. He gave me a purple Afro comb for my ignorance. I still have it.
WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR INSPIRATION?
Watching classic films, plays, novels, dance… I take a leaf from the grandmasters of cinema who were well read and were able to draw from such disciplines. I have also lived a life, so that also helps a bit as a source.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
A family drama – a modern day tragedy.
Screen Africa magazine – August 2012