Neo M Matsunyane

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Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana
 By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |                                                     

When I finally pin down Neo M Matsunyane to schedule a shoot date for our director’s corner feature, the voice receiving me on the other end of the line is quick on its’ tongue, I have the receiver in my hand and I’m desperately trying to play catch to the straight talker who is already penciling dates and ready for the shoot. It’s all systems go! Upon inquiring about a suitable shoot location that would complement Neo’s journey, I finally found something close to what he had imagined and even better: an old ruffled cinema clinging to its undying love for film in the less desirable parts of Jozi, on 194 Albertina Street.

Thari cinema is divided into two parts, the one half serves as a shelter for the homeless while the other hangs onto the remaining legacy of the cinema, founded by Charles in 1983, when he bought the Boiketlong cinema from Ster-Kinekor, opened six more branches in total but was forced to abandon all his ships. “Due to the unrest in the 80’s” he says “people were too afraid to go to the cinema so the business collapsed.”  While Thari Cinema was caving in Soweto, somewhere in a village in Transkei, a film-maker was on the rise.

Neo M Matsunyane was born in Meadowlands, Soweto Zone 9. At the age of ten his parents divorced and while his sister Kgomotso Matsunyane went to live with his mother, he weighed his options and chose to live with his father. “It was painful in those apartheid years that a system could ask a five year old girl and a ten year old boy, which of your parents do you love the most and which one do you want to live with? Well I chose my dad.” Chuffed with his decision he says “because he never gave me a hiding, he would just yell my name and I’d cry immediately because I was that afraid of him! My mom was the one who was quick with her hand.”

Towards the end of 1977, to shield Neo from the escalating turmoil in Soweto, his father shipped him off to Sterkspruit in the Transkei. He describes the secluded village as ‘No man’s land’  “you’re only surrounded by mountains!” 

But those mountains and the secluded village became his home for three full years. Phone calls and telegrams kept him connected to his father where possible. He takes me out of the deserted village and into his childhood in Soweto, the scene changes and his mother falls into the frame with memories of a life lived through art.

My mother was a nurse, she was also part of the ‘Soweto House-Wives-League’ that raised funds for the community, so we used to sing Christmas carols on the streets. She wrote sketches and I acted in one of the first sketch she wrote. I started out acting in our garage at home, in Soweto where we were surrounded by many artist and one of which was my first mentor: Collins Mashego, Vinolia’s father.

As a result of the limited access to recreational facilities in Sterkspruit, Neo spent his weekends screening films at the community hall: a makeshift cinema with blankets hanging from the windows to shield the light from pouring in.
Like an early bird he woke at the break of dawn to finish his chores on time, to begin his 2km walk into town, where he waited for the 14:00pm bus, and upon its arrival he was handed a film to screen for the day. This became his weekend routine for all three years.

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Back in Sterkspruit, inside the house with a green roof, Neo maps out the stairs and remembers the house just as it was from the first time he lived there in 1969, at the age of two, he doesn’t pass on the chance to gloat about his photographic memory. He attended school at Tapoleng higher primary, when his school principal, the late Mr Siphamla proposed that they should raise funds for the school, Neo picked from his mother’s formula and reproduced the sketch that he once featured in called ‘A Stranded Son’. All the while unaware of the little pieces coming together preparing him for the uncompromising director that he has become.

He started school at the tender age of four and was popular for being the small boy in his class, he relays the story of how he memorized the book of Julius Caesar when it was read in class because he was the only one without a copy.
‘I memorized the book back to front!” He exclaims with pride,”i enjoyed Shakespeare so much and in an attempt to convince my friends that he was a fun read, i taught and performed his work to them.”

Neo is a die-hard Shakespeare fanatic. “I love Shakespeare, he is very literal and his work resonates with Setswana to me. For example, in Setswana we have an idiomatic expression that says ‘Mollo wa tladi o tima omong’, and Shakespeare says: One fire burns out another fires burning.” To emphasize his point he even translates the line in isiZulu.

A little puzzled as to how someone who is so devoted to Drama, Shakespeare and language, would enroll for a BSC in education, i ask about his sudden change of heart and he says: “Because my mother was a nurse, she was an academic, she had six diplomas and one degree.”

I suppose after the National School of The Arts rejected his application because it didn’t cater to black students, following in his mother’s footsteps seemed like the only plan forward. He matriculated in Mafikeng and enrolled for a BSC in education but was forced to quit three months later due to his father’s dwindling finances.
A green light flashed when his mother advised him to register with an agency in town, after he saw his sister Kgomotso on T.V in a Nestle Condense Milk advert.

“I registered with Clive Koeri, who gave birth to the now GAPA Agency. They called me again for my fifth job as an extra. The irony was that the movie was shot inside a movie house, in the scene people are watching a movie and the movie cuts off right in the middle, while we’re glued to the screen. We had to raise our hands to protest, so all you saw of me and the others that were in that movie was a shadow of our hands on screen. That was my first claim to television. I got pad R30 three months later.”

Talk about humble beginnings and working your way up through the mud. When Neo got tired of working as an extra, he asked his agent to send him for more serious auditions. In 1986 he scored his first big gig in the first season of Malonya, where he played a lead role and for the first time in his life he had dialogue, but acting was not enough.
While he was shooting on the one side he began helping around on set.

When the late John Rogers; director of the Malonya: asked him “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” His response was “directing my own T.V drama series.” Neo’s intention was to study Speech and Drama at The University of Pretoria but John told him that he could teach him more drama than that Technikon ever could; and true to his word, he did.
“John taught me everything I know about taking decisions I can stand by. In the second season of ‘Malonya’, If I couldn’t work as his assistant, I worked as a runner instead, while playing a lead dual role, that was my twin.”

Under John, Neo completed a director’s course at the SABC where only four assistant directors were selected for the program and he made the cut. He explains how the assistant director, in his role is married to the director on set.

“When you’ve worked as an assistant director, you have the experience of being a director but you don’t know what it means. When you’re an A.D you must also have a director’s eye, if a scene unfolds in a restaurant, the A.D’s responsibility is to ensure that the background isn’t staged and that the director never has to worry about the background. You must understand how your director works, that’s something John Rogers taught me. As a director, i plot the scenes, i convert the words into pictures and i explain my vision to my actors.”

And if any scene needs to be reworked, Neo M prefers to communicate directly with his actors on set.
“I understand that actors can be insecure, so if anything goes wrong, I don’t want to tell the floor manager, I speak
to my actors directly without embarrassing them.”

Matsunyane cannot speak about his director’s eye without quoting his mentor John Roger, who always probed him for intention, asking “Why are you cutting to a wide shot as opposed to a close-up shot? If you can’t tell me why then don’t do it because you’re not telling the story properly, you’re doing it just because you can!”

Since Neo has grown giant wings of his own, he doesn’t leave his critical eye behind when watching television.
He checks to see if the shots taken in the scenes complement the dialogue spoken, this is how he defines successful story-telling. “If that’s the criteria that people use internationally; that the quality; the shots and the lighting should be of good standard, then why do mediocre stories keep winning awards?” he asks with bold, agitated and more serious tone. When he delves into the subject of mediocrity, he is a raging unapologetic ball of fire and continues to probe at why mediocre shows get to win awards. He notes this as the reason he became unpopular at the SAFTAS last year.

“In that year the series that I’m working on: Skeem Saam had won every major accolade in its category, but the SAFTAS refused to recognize it, until the viewers; the people who support the show wanted to know why we weren’t nominated and only during the last week of the nominations did the SAFTA’s put in an extra category, so the people could vote, and Skeem Saam Won.
I was also nominated in the category for best director; one man up against directing teams from other Soapies, of course the other guys won but I’m not against them winning, I’m against them winning when the odds were against them, when their Soapies had to move a timeslot and when their ratings dropped more than 3 Million viewers to us.”

What makes Skeem Saam ‘the people’s favourite’? i probe.
Looking back, at the previous shows, Neo highlights that the Soapie for one, Is an educational program and as much as it is fictional, it addresses real issues. “You don’t just get famous people on Skeem Saam, but you also encounter ordinary people that the masses can relate to.” We look forward to watching the plot thicken.

Neo M Matsunyane has directed shows like Soul City; Takalani Sesame; Muvhango; Backstage; Skeem Saam and Emzini Wezinsizwa. The list is long and stretches wide. The biker says he is a film-maker first and biking is a tool he uses to access people when he wants to start conversations; if there is one perception he would like to change about acting, it is the belief that “acting is easy”, and if there’s one thing that rubs him sideways, it has to be open auditions. He sees them as a sign of disrespects to the actor’s that have spent years investing in their craft. His hope for S.A television is that it can someday learn to produce content that can rehabilitate the society and learn to do away with images that are damaging.

PORTRAITS | NEO M MATSUNYANE

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