Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Make-up by Glenda Mhlongo | dressed and styled by Ernest Mahomane
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |
Mmabatho Montsho has slid of our screens and soared into a more dynamic role, requiring bigger wings, broader shoulders and an even broader perspective as a film-maker and a director. Our conversation takes off at the Potatoe Sheds in New Town Junction where Mmabatho shares more than just her bird’s view of the industry. Her afro is sectioned into four ¼’s and thread down fashionably with red wool. She is casual yet stylish, cool and gathered in a knee length black and white check shirt. Her maroon sneakers strategically match her velvet back pack, she is down to earth making our conversations easy. She is a talker, mellow yet gets straight to the core of whatever issue we lay at hand. We order our drinks and I sink into her gentle and permeable spirit.
“I grew up everywhere” she says. Mmabatho was born in Soweto, she can’t really single out one place as ‘home’ because her family moved around a lot so she concludes by saying “I’m a South African” and we laugh. Well that settles it then!
She started school in Carltonville, her education was a portal into the world of art. “I think every child interacts with art because you’re introduced to education either through drawing; singing or recitations” she says. Letsatsing Primary school prioritized art as much as it did academics, the school had awards for both academic and art excellence and at the end of the year Mmabatho excelled in both fields. “I think that school laid the foundation that art is a respectable discipline.” Unlike many, Mmabatho was fortunate to have parents who were open minded and encouraged her to pursue the arts. Her mother pushed her to take up fine arts as a career “My parents were cool. If I said I wanted to be a clown and I had a plan, they would support it.” –hahahah
I ask her if she still draws and without a doubt she says “yes!”
Mmabatho’s life revolved around different art disciplines.
At first she dreamt of becoming a musician “I was in the school choir, in fact when I got my 1st television job I was on my way to a music learnership.” Her high school ran a work experience program and as part of the program she chose to work at a recording stable where she took an interest in the business side of music. She went back on her decision when she came across Usher’s music video (Nice and Slow) and she leaped towards directing. She recalls the elements in the video that intrigued her the most “It was a low angle shot and Usher’s shirt was blowing in the wind. There were so many things happening in that one moment.” –The video still excites her.
When her brother told her that Hype Williams produced the music video.
They stayed up watching more Hype Williams music videos on the ‘Zero Hour Zone’ music show. When a feature film directed by Williams debuted years later, Mmabatho was blown to dust by how he managed to push those boundaries and this served as confirmation that by whatever means possible directing is what she would pursue but the acting bug bit and Generations kick started her television career.
Mmabatho thinks of herself not only as an actress but as a screen artist which means juggling between acting, writing and directing. Acting was a mere vessel for her to get into directing, it gave her access and enabled her to interact with a world she had always dreamt of but couldn’t afford the funds to study. She learned what she could with every role she got. In 2007 she played Lerato in the M-Net drama series Jacobs Cross; she is also known for her role as Thembi Phakati in Rhythm City. In 2010 she took a hiatus from the jo’burg jungle and went on a vacation to Los Angeles. To refrain from feeling idle and useless while on holiday, she enrolled for a film-making course. Her greatest frustration however was having to readjust to being in a classroom with students who were excited over bunking class while she was set on completing her course. She loosened up eventually; you know what they say, ‘If you can’t beat them join them’. This after all was part of the journey to confirming for herself that directing was truly what she wanted to pursue.
“I had worked with directors who were initially actors and from my experience, it seemed like they were forced into directing. I didn’t enjoy the energy they carried because it almost felt like they wished they were still acting but now they’re directing. Directing was a conscious decision but I wanted to ensure that my heart was in the right place.”
When Mmabatho returned to South Africa she had an outstanding contract for her role in Jacobs Cross which she needed to fulfill“so I had to go and act quickly” she says while giggling. Upon fulfilling her contractual duties, she had a conversation with Moky Makura who played Folake Abayomi on Jacobs Cross, and mentioned in passing that she’d like to get into directing. At that time Moky was producing a program and their director had pulled out a week before the shoot and Mmabatho was called in to fill the directors shoes. “It was a series of short films for ETV love stories and each film had its own director.” Mmabatho chuckles when thinking back to the quality of the show reel she used as a reference to secure the director’s job. She received exactly what she asked from the universe and went on to direct ‘Your Move’ which was an adaptation of Alison Fraser’s ‘A Man Worth Knowing’
Mmabatho read the book first before walking the set as a director and when she felt like there were gaps in the script she knew exactly when and how to fill them.
“When a writer writes a book, there’s a beginning and an end but with a script there is no end.”
Montsho breaks down the work behind translating a script into visual art saying
“In literature: she sighed, on screen I have to show why she is sighing. If she thought about it, visually I have to show what she thought about without using a voice-over?” Mmabatho’s role is to lend breath and imagery to the script. By respecting the medium and understanding that the page and the screen are two different forms of expressions, she found her own way forward. When I ask Mmontsho which director inspires her, she doesn’t hesitate to mention ‘Palesa Shongwe’, who directed her in ‘Nomalanga and the Witch’.
“I loved how gentle she was with her story. She is one of the reasons why the industry has to embrace women and not from a place of pity but because she is excellent.” Of all the roles she has played I ask Montsho to single out one that has left an indelible mark on her but she gives me a philosophical directors response.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a best role, every story has a gem in it. Its collaborative work, you get given a script, wardrobe and direction. You’re in a vulnerable position and you have to give of yourself, physically, mentally and emotionally. What makes a character special is when all of the collaborative work comes together. You can create a beautiful character but when you get on set and all those elements don’t come together pleasantly, the work will not be great.”
Irrespective of all the collaborative work required, Montsho highlights how sometimes being women means you always have to work harder when breathing life into the character because sometimes there isn’t a clear description of the character on the page. She recalls her own experience “I once read a treatment for a directing job I was offered and every single female character was described according to their looks. I kept having to ask, but who is she? I know what her job is and that she is this one’s mother and that one’s sister, she is voluptuous and has a small waist. Ok! But who is she? When I read this I knew the actress would be sitting at home working harder to fill this blank character with meat because it’s just not there.”
Montsho remembers reading the script for ‘Nomalanga and the Witch’ and how clear she was about the character she was portraying, all she had to do was learn to inhabit it.
She also reminisces about Lumka Dlomo, the first character she played on Generations and she still marvels at how well developed the character was for its time. “Lumka was a head-strong feminist at a time when I didn’t even understand what feminism meant. She had a voice, she was an individual.”
Our insightful conversation is disrupted by a red beef burger ordered by my colleague, who has just been sitting, listening attentively to Montsho and I, chipping in here and there then receding back into her silence. When the waiter placed the astonishingly red beef burger on the table, the conversation shifted from developed characters to developed burgers. What happened to plain ol’ brown burger rolls? I ask, but that’s a story for another day.
Today, all eyes and ears are on Mmabatho!
In 2015 Montsho produced a short film titled ‘The Grooms Price’ which was funded by the NFVF Female Film-Makers Slate. The NFVF Female Film-Makers Slate is meant to create opportunities for women who can’t access the industry to produce short-films. She breaks down what short-Film is.“A short film is a calling card. A short-film is for the film-maker not the producer and I think sometimes we misunderstand that. It is meant to showcase your skills and the kind of work that you do as a story-teller. It serves as a reference to your work.”
Montsho dreams of a day when the film industry will transform to such an extent, that there’ll be a wide variety of female film-makers where some are terrible and some are great and there will be enough room for all and it will be seen as normal, so the industry can do away with the expectation that “If you make a film you have to be good because you’re representing all the women”
Though Mmabatho doesn’t claim to represent all the women out there, her web series ‘Women and Sex’ seeks to open up dialogue around issues perceived as taboo in a way that privileges women.
“If you google opinions of black women around sex, where are you going to find an audio visual reference because there aren’t many. I wanted to add to that voice and to explore a subject matter that I’m interested in as a film-maker.”
Mmabatho used her web series as a reference to get her directing job on MTV Sugar Down South: a long-running drama series and multimedia campaign that follows the sexual lives of young people on the African continent, based on real life stories. Working on MTV sugar was the official stamp of approval for Mmabatho, “it did affirm me as someone who’s in the game, LEGIT!” Her heart opens like a flower during bloom when speaking about her interaction with the female actors on Sugar. As soon as she met with the cast for a script reading she says “All of the female actors were delighted to be working with a female director.” They were all anchored to each other by the spirit of womanhood and collective struggle, as women working in the industry. Sugar deals with delicate issues like Rape, HIV and Aids, Abortion and Abuse, issues that people encounter directly and indirectly; Montsho admits that she felt good knowing she could have those conversations in a way that enabled the actors to feel safe. “It was good to have a relationship with each other where they could ask, did my bum show? Because they know I have their backs”
Mmabatho shows a great deal of sensitivity, understanding and care when speaking about actors in general. “I don’t believe in pushing actors over the edge just so you can get a great performance, then you’ve destroyed something within them past that moment. I don’t think that makes you a good director I think it make you abusive!”
I pause a little, to meditate on the weight of her words and I wonder if even for a second, directors ever take this into consideration, or if the saying is true ‘time is money’ and maybe the budget isn’t big enough to consider the inhumanity of their actions. But actors are people too.
To be a good director Montsho says one must be a very good listener. I realize here that she means ‘hearing with more than just your ears’.
“Sometimes people say actors are very difficult but you have to be discerning because sometimes when they say they don’t understand, what they mean is they don’t believe you. If they don’t believe you where must they draw their emotions from?” and what do you do to make the story believable so the messenger can carry it through?
Montsho advises that as the director you have to workshop the story, alternatively you can find a useful way of changing it so the actor believes it. When there isn’t enough time to workshop the story ‘preparation is key’ “If an actor is passionate about their work then they’ll prepare before the table read so they can ask you questions and you can iron things out before you get to set.” But script readings also rely on a budget, so if there is no budget then everyone meets on set and it’s all systems go.
Now that I have a glimpse of what a director’s role is, I can’t conclude our conversation without discussing the success story behind: ‘Happiness Is A four Letter Word’
I pick Montsho’s brain by asking her why she thinks the film did so well. And of course her answer is
“Happiness Is a Four Letter Word was written by a black woman: Nozizwe Cynthia Jele and she knew who she was talking to. It was adapted for screen by yet another black woman: Busisiwe Ntuli, the film was relatable”
I’ve touched a delicate nerve and Montsho doesn’t shy away from expressing her disgruntlement over the exclusion of black women in the film industry. “Our Industry is missing black women! I don’t know how they plan to grow an entire industry when an entire perspective is missing. How will it grow? Why must it grow? We can do something that can spin it on its head!”
In over a decade Montsho says she has only worked with two black female cinematographers and has only seen one black female sound engineer. She doesn’t mince her words nor her fury in her analysis of the ‘Type’ of person who is accepted by the film industry to make films.
“First you have to be acceptable to a certain type of people; speak a certain type of English; be interested in a certain subject matter. Be a coconut and sit at the table with people who speak like this! It’s Bullsh*t!”
What about the films that could come out of the rural areas? She asks. Sadly I don’t have the answer, only a listening ear. “We don’t know what kind of films could come out of these areas. We are the blacks that got our foot in the door, now we want to tell every single black story there is. No we can’t! We gotta open up the gates!”
I hear her loud and clear and one day I hope the marginalized communities will be able to tell their stories without having to fight for the platform first. We still have a long way to go, non-the-less we shouldn’t forget how far we’ve come.