African Minority Languages in Film: A Dialogue With Sihle Hlophe
Sihle Hlophe, award-winning South African writer and director has been in the TV and film industry for 10 years. She holds a MA in Communication Studies, a Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing and a BA in the Dramatic Arts. She is currently a Hot Docs Blue Ice Docs fellowship recipient and the recipient of a National Fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Institute For Creative Arts. Hlophe is the founder of Passion Seed Communications, a film and TV production company that has been commissioned by organisations such the SABC, the Mindset Channel on DSTV, SABMiller and the Foundation For Human Rights. Hlophe is the writer and director of Nomfundo, a 12-minute SiSwati film. Hlophe wrote and directed “As I Am”, one of the first SiSwati films of cinematic quality. “As I Am” has been screened at prestigious festivals such as the Pan African Film Festival in the USA, the Fribourg International Film Festival in Switzerland, the Zanzibar International Film Festival in Tanzania and the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa. “As I Am” won the Best SiSwati Film Award at the Mpumalanga Provincial Sports and Arts Awards in 2015. Her experimental documentary “The Aftermath” was screened at the Mzansi Women’s Film Festival (RSA) and the “African Women Narratives on Xenophobia” initiative. Hlophe has worked as a scriptwriter on popular TV shows such as Scandal on eTV, Broken Vows on eTV, Dreamworld on SABC 1, Mutual Friends on SABC 1 and Vuka Mawulele on Mzansi Magic. Hlophe has also worked as a scriptwriter, content director, production manager and post-production supervisor for various production companies. Hlophe has also worked as a Writing and Directing Lecturer at AFDA. Her work has been screened on SABC, DSTV, eTV and YLE in Finland. Hlophe’s major achievements include being one of the winners of the NFVF Short Film Scriptwriting Competition in 2012 and being an exchange student in Finland during her final year at the University of the Witwatersrand. With her unique skill set and natural talent for storytelling, Hlophe looks set to leave an indelible mark on the South African TV and film industry.
This dialogue happened between a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the city of Johannesburg, South Africa via Skype.
Gaamangwe: Sihle, your mission as a filmmaker is to create and promote minority languages in your filmworks. This is important and powerful work. What is your conscious drive for this mission? And why is working with minority languages important to you?
Sihle: It’s important to me because I’ve always been in love with film but growing up, I never saw myself on television. I never saw any Siswati speaking characters on any of the soapies and magazine shows. That was something that irked me. So, when I went to film school, I knew that this was something I needed to address. When I started working in various writing rooms, I always tried to suggest having a minority language on the show, and it would always be said that because we don’t have enough numbers, it is not commercially viable. There was no real commitment from anyone to promote them besides the work being done by SABC 2 with the soap opera, “Muvhango” and I commend Duma Ka Ndlovu for that.
When I went to pursue my Masters degree, for my dissertation, I knew I wanted to do something that would make an impact and give a platform to minorities. My dissertation was on the underrepresentation of SiSwati in SABC. I was also looking at how the public broadcaster has a constitutional mandate to represent all the official languages and the unofficial languages on television and how that was not happening. When I started making films, I made sure that I made them in my home language, SiSwati because that was the least I could do to contribute to the conversation.
Gaamangwe: I wonder if having a small populations could be the reason for the under-representation? What were your findings?
Sihle: The TV and film industry of South Africa is centralized in Capetown and Johannesburg so you find that on the peripheries, in places like where I come from, Nelspruit, there is no television and film industry to speak of. So you don’t get that many producers who feel it’s imperative to give us a platform because they might not necessarily come from that area. You also find that a producer or a writer or a director, who speaks a minority language might not have enough muscle to sway anyone’s decision and convince them that it can be commercially viable. But we have a long-running soapie on SABC2 called Muvhango and that is one of the most watched shows of South African television in a minority language Tshivenda. So, I don’t understand why the same can’t happen for other minority languages.
Gaamangwe: What kind of difficulties do you face being a filmmaker who focuses on creating films in minority languages? Is it easy for you to write in Siswati since you are Mswati?
Sihle: I’ve been fortunate to receive finance from National Film and Video Foundation so you find that the difficulties would be finding professional actors. Because once again most of the developments are happening in centralized areas and actors on the peripheries don’t get the adequate training and that affects the performance on screen and so forth. The creative part of it is not a hindrance at all because I could write in any language well as long the essence of the story remains the same.
Gaamangwe: How many languages do you speak and which language do you think and dream in and how does that transfer into your art?
Sihle: Well, I speak mainly Swati and English but I do understand a bit of Tswana and Zulu. The language I think in and dream in, unfortunately due to the colonial history is English. You have to catch yourself sometime and say, “Yoh! Has it become so bad?”. Growing up, I was fortunate that my grandparents were authors, especially my grandfather who wrote a lot of SiSwati books, they taught us the importance of the language, the need to speak it and know it well. So, I think it was kind of a fifty-fifty. A bit of Swati and a bit of English but I am very aware of the dominance of English.
Gaamangwe: It’s the same for me. You know how a city can be a character in a story without necessarily being there as a character. Does that also happen with your films? Like language is what drives your stories?
Sihle: To me it doesn’t apply when it comes to languages because I write a lot for television. I’ve written soapies and dramas which have all been in different languages. What moves me is emotion. Language is secondary to that because I think it would be misguided of me to write write solely for the purpose of promoting my language. I want the story to be a universal story but my secondary objective is definitely to ensure that if it’s possible, that story plays in Swati or that a character at least speaks a minority language. But this is a beautiful thought and someone should consider exploring this someday.
Gaamangwe: Yes. That makes sense but it would be complex to have language as character. So, lets pivot to your first directorial project, a Siswati short film titled As I Am. How was the process of creating your short film?
Sihle: Well it wasn’t exactly my first directorial film. That was in terms of fiction, because I come from a documentary background. I had directed short and long documentaries before and I made the transition to fiction with As I Am as my first narrative short film.
In so far as how As I Am came about, I had written a short story for Drum Magazine and a couple of months later, I saw a call from the National Film and Video Foundation. They were looking to train people to become film directors and they had a process where they would choose 9 writers and from there 4 writers who would win prize money to make a film. So, I underwent that process and it was a 5-month training process working undisturbed, developing the script, having script mentors, 2 directing mentor and eventually shooting the film itself. Part of it was going through the NFVF Sediba course which was a scriptwriting course. It was a very enriching experience for me.
Gaamangwe: That sounds wonderful. How was working with fiction like for you?
Sihle: When I was in film school, I studied both documentary and fiction but documentary just came naturally to me and it was something that I organically moved into. I always wanted to make movies since I was a little girl, so I gained some experiences in the documentary field, but I made sure I found my way to fiction. So, I moved from working in wildlife to Scandal as a fiction writer. That’s where I started to take my career in fiction really seriously.
Gaamangwe: Do you find it easy or difficult to exist as a documentary film maker or fiction film maker? Or they overlap in some way?
Sihle: Initially, I was very conflicted because yes I need to choose, I need to be a purist, but I got to a point where I decide it’s not even about the medium, it’s about how a certain story presents itself to me. Certain stories come and I know it’ll be a documentary, others come and I know that it’ll be much more beautiful cinematically as a narrative piece. So, I look at some of my idols like Spike Lee, and he does both, so I’ve realized that I can move between the two quite easily. At the heart of it is storytelling and moving people, and both require that.
Gaamangwe: True. How does a story come to you?
S: I have two hats. I’m self-employed, so most of the stories come as part of a project development process. So, when I’m hired as a writer for hire I don’t have a choice, I can’t wait for stories to come to me, I have to work in a disciplined manner. How the stories will come will be what we’re brainstorming in the story meeting, interacting with other writers and creatives. But it’s stories that have been in the recesses of my psyche because I’ve always wanted to tell them, things that I’ve experienced, things that have touched me. Then my other hat, it’s just being spontaneously creative as an independent filmmaker. Those stories can come to me when I’m bathing, reading, watching something else or dreaming. Also in nature: when I go out, when I sit on a mountain or in the embrace of nature to meditate, I can get to the heart of the story, quiet the noise to get to the essence of the story.
Gaamangwe: What themes do you find yourself gravitating towards?
Sihle: I find that I’ve dealt with issues that represent the underdog. For example, with As I Am, I was dealing with sexuality. I’ve done a documentary for legalization of same sex marriages. So, sexual identity is an area of interest for me. I find that the nature of human relationships and rites of passage stories such as death, weddings, marriage fascinate me. I am excited by stories where females have agency and are fully rounded characters who make their own decisions and determine their own destinies.
Gaamangwe: I feel it also comes naturally as a female to create wholesome female characters because in film making there’s underrepresentation of three dimensional women characters and women driven stories. Do you find the industry as a female director conducive for your creativity or creative process?
Sihle: I would be lying if I said it is, it’s not always the case and we still have a long way to go for it to be the case. We’re still in an environment where people are not receptive at times to get instructions and directions from a woman which impedes the vision of the production. I always take comfort in Ava DuVernay where she says when she directed Selma, she knew that she’d be working with men, some of whom had never taken instruction from a woman in their lives. So, it’s behavioral changes that need to take place in the formative years from an early age to understand that the roles women and men play can overlap. We are not there but things are changing slowly.
Gaamangwe: I definitely understand that. I once had a situation where I was working as a screenwriter and director in a project where every other main person was male. I found that my vision wasn’t interpreted the way I wanted it to be interpreted and everyone seemed to be gravitated towards the producer and his vision, which undermined my vision as the creator of the project. Does this ever happen where you find that in the end what was done was not completely your vision?
Sihle: No, I don’t allow that to happen. I have to pull thing to order, if that means putting a stop to moving or explaining to someone how things need to be done on what is my stage at the time, so be it. I don’t mind if that can result in tension or conflict as long as the issue is resolved and the person understands what need to happen because then otherwise my vision will get lost. I’d rather fight it out and be the rebellious or bad woman for that part in order to see my vision come through, otherwise as women we’ll just shrink and our work won’t be out there like it needs to be.
Gaamangwe: That’s true. One of your recent projects is a documentary where you turn the camera on yourself as a person, Lobola: A Bride’s True Price. Here, you interrogate the bride price and what it means. I’m assuming you’re the main character and director in this project? How is that process of being in something you’re directing?
Sihle: Yes, I am the main character. It is a challenging process. A process where I constantly have to do a lot of introspection and ask myself: Is this what I want on screen? how do I look on screen? Am I performing? Am I sincere? So, it’s a learning curve for me but it’s exciting at the same time.
Gaamangwe: What was the inciting drive to interrogate the notion of bride price? What did you want to find out and explore?
Sihle: It started when I was still working in the Wildlife sector. I was working on a youth show and going to Mapungubwe World Heritage Site and learning more about the history of the Bantu people who lived there during the Iron Age. From there I developed I developed an interest in the Bantu migration and the history of my ancestors, the Iron Age Mapungubweans. I tried to raise funds for that documentary but I didn’t have much luck there. I was told it’s academic and so forth. So, I thought since at the heart of lobola is cattle as a social currency, an integral part of Bantu identity is also cattle. So, by paralleling these two things will give it a layer. Having myself in the film, lots of people resonate with me, and in that layer I began to teach about the history of Bantu people, my people. What I want people to take away from it is that bride price is a beautiful, complex nuance practice for our people. Just what I find a problem about it, specifically the transactional element, how do you determine the worth of a woman? And also the patriarchal nature of it where women are present but how much of a voice do they really have?
Gaamangwe: And how that influences the couples life afterwards. I don’t know if it affects people on a conscious level but on an unconscious level it could be something to interrogate as well. What does it mean for them? And how does that affects the dynamic of their relationship? Is that something you’re also discovering?
Sihle: Absolutely, because when I was doing my research about lobola, what I found was disheartening especially on YouTube, videos especially from Uganda. We’re talking about how women are abused because bride price was paid for them, so the implication is that you’re now a commodity because there was a worth placed on you. I find this problematic. But not everyone interprets it like that. But yes, there are questions like how is a man who hasn’t paid lobola treated by his in laws? Is he a “real man” or are you a “real bride” if you haven’t been “paid for”?
Gaamangwe: Yes. That’s interesting. Are you also interrogating the opinion of men?
Sihle: There will be the male point of view but the focus will be on the female point of view, because I really believe men have enough of a platform.
Gaamangwe: That’s great, it genuinely sounds like an interesting project. I look forward to finding out what you discovered because it’s not something we discuss but we actually need to talk about it.
Sihle: When you find out about its origins, something I’m in the process of doing, it’s a very humbling experience because you think we are globalized, educated people, but there’s also a lot we don’t know because we lost our history and right now what we know is fractured. So, I’m understanding and learning about the practice rather than just challenging it.
Gaamangwe: That is so important because I think what happened is the lack of an explanation as to why a culture exists the way it does. It’s always just there and we pick it up. Later, when we interrogate it from our point of view, the origin of it and what it represented on a collective and individual scale of the people of the culture, we usually discover that our ancestors were smart, they always had a reason for creating a culture but we lose it’s meaning along the line.
Sihle: Yes, it does unite families and help on so many ways. I hope to have the hour and a half long film by end of the year or 2019.
Gaamangwe: Exciting. Is the process of a documentary significantly more demanding than a creative feature film?
Sihle: I think they’re both equally demanding in different ways because with a documentary you shoot and stop over a long period of time, whereas with a fictional film you develop it over a long period of time but the shooting period is one block of time and it’s done. With a documentary, anything can happen and you need to pick up a camera and go and you need to decide when it’s time to stop.
Gaamangwe: How do you determine that it’s time to stop shooting in terms of this specific one?
Sihle: For mine, it’s mostly determined by events that are happening in my life that are related to the subject matter.
Gaamangwe: That’s an interesting process. Film-making definitely demands that one stays patient and aware of life and know when to tap into it and how to put it into creative work. Besides the lobola project, what else are you doing in terms of film work?
Sihle: Well, we were also shooting a shorter version of the lobola documentary for the New York Times and also developing other projects that I can’t disclose the details right now. I’m also writing a fictional feature film for cinematic release that I’m really excited about.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. As an entrepreneur, how do you find the balance between the business and film-making in Africa?
Sihle: I don’t balance, I just do it. There is no balance, you just have time management skills and finding ways to separate fundraising and actually doing the creative work because you don’t want to lose touch with your creative self. It’s a constant thing of forcing myself to honor my creative work and not getting sucked into fundraising. I just juggle and try make it work.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. I feel like if we have people like you who produce African-oriented and tailored content, we’ll have more people inspired to keep going and making more of these films. Keep it up and thank you for joining me in this dialogue.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and the Founding Editor of Africa in Dialogue.