Perseverance and Collaboration in African Filmmaking: A Dialogue with Mutaleni Nadimi
Mutaleni Nadimi is a Namibian writer, filmmaker, and publishing professional. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Leiden University (The Netherlands), a BA in Film from Bennington College (USA) and filmmaking diploma from the European Film College (Denmark). She is a former Editorial and Production Manager at the University of Namibia Press and currently works at Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Netherlands.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation took place between The Netherlands and a very cold Venda, South Africa.
Elelwani: Mutaleni, I am happy to finally be sitting down in conversation with a black woman filmmaker from Namibia whose journey is molded by a diverse world cinema experience.
Take me through the journey of how you became a storyteller with filmmaking as one of the mediums you focus on. What made you consider this field as a career path?
Mutaleni: We all have a different journey, and sometimes we are influenced by those around us, and our life experiences. I remember being a quiet child, an observer, always being teased for my big eyes and I used them. I also recall an early love for reading, which is something my parents really nurtured and saw as advantageous for my future schooling. However, I loved it for the simple idea of being told a story, for being in one place physically and my mind being able to experience a different reality. As I grew up, I developed a love to capture my stories and once I realized that it was something one could do as a storyteller I thought, I definitely have to be one of those.
Elelwani: You mentioned that your parents nurtured your love for reading from a young age, but for most people I have had conversations with around Africa, they are expected to follow traditional roles that supposedly come with financial security; lawyers, doctors, etc. Was your chosen path accepted from the beginning?
Mutaleni: Certainly not; the way they saw the value of reading was separate from my perspective of seeing it as an escape for the imagination. Learning requires a lot of reading, at least in the traditional sense, right? So they saw the value of that. So, I was given literature books to read and trips to the library, that kind of thing. Which is something I also do with my children.
When I was teenager and I said I wanted to be a filmmaker, it was a definite no from my parents, probably the same as you, especially if you are school smart. The general expectation is to follow the so-called “serious careers”, the ones that come with guaranteed financial stability but also the ones that are respected.
Elelwani: Just picking from what you mentioned right now, indeed you don’t realize how tough the industry is when you are studying and being eager for a creative adventure any other day. When you get to enter the real world, it is all just another story, you meet so many other talented people who are trying to make it. Even when we have certain funding bodies here in South Africa for example, it is not easy to get funds especially when there are people who have been in the industry for long yet they continue to complain about the same issue.
“You do find people who are able to write, direct and do cinematography. There are people who are multi-talented, but collaboration is what makes this field work, something I truly appreciate.“
Mutaleni: Let me give you this context, when I finished high school and I wanted to study film, my parents were very disappointed. They really thought I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I wanted. Then they said go and get a degree, if film does not work out, you will need something to fall back on, study history or literature. They wanted me to have some content. So I did my first year at the University of Namibia, yet I really wanted to go to America. You know America was a big deal to us as children, and as far as I knew, all the best films came from the US & UK. So I ended up transferring to a liberal arts college in Vermont. I had hoped for New York City but that did not pan out, as it was expensive. I learnt a lot and got a sense of other subjects within that one degree. When I was in America, I discovered European cinema, then I said wow, this is cinema. Which led me to applying and getting into a 10-month digital filmmaking program in Denmark, which worked out perfectly as the tuition was very reasonable compared to the US.
I ended up transferring as I realized that studying film history and theory did not teach me filmmaking; I had the information but not the practice. What the European Film College offered were short practical courses in directing, producing, screenwriting, editing, etc. It introduced me to so many positions involved in filmmaking and it is not until you start making a movie that you realize what it takes! So that was good for me. Although I was from a lesser-known Namibia, it was great to be among so many filmmakers with unique experiences.
Elelwani: And can you now say you have had to weave these multiple skill sets to thrive in your home industry?
Mutaleni: Sometimes it is necessary for you to hold multiple roles in a small industry as many of us experience in Namibia, but for the major part it takes away from the process itself. It is not fair to be in this process, writing, directing or creating, being a publicity person and so forth. You go from being a location scout, to applying for international funds, to being a lawyer, and then to promoting your films. To organizing screenings, being in charge of festivals. In Namibia there was a time where we took turns, some year you produce the films, the next you are assisting someone to make their own or organizing the film and theatre awards. That is simply how it went down… It is very demanding.
Elelwani: That just shows how far we still need to go in terms of building a viable industry. Until people can position themselves in a specific space, this cannot be a field where you sustain yourself financially and keep creating with ease.
It is the same in South Africa. You can be so inspired to bring your story to life, and when funding does not come through you get discouraged. Yes, I can simply go out and shoot with my camera yet that is not what you have in mind when you go to film school; the idea is to make something that shows your full potential, and that itself requires money.
Mutaleni: That is how independent filmmaking goes, but what I have realized is that I am not technical, so I do not do camera and lights, etc. This has taught me the power of collaboration earlier on. However, you do find people who are able to write, direct and do cinematography. There are people who are multi-talented, but collaboration is what makes this field work, something I truly appreciate.
I feel that time and time again, I get called back. It is hard to say no to something you love…I worked with a wonderful filmmaker named Oshosheni Hiveluah. Sadly she passed away at such a young age, but she’s the one who, after I moved back to Namibia, came to me and said we should make a film together. She had written a script, which was funded by the Namibia Film Commission and the Focus Features Africa First initiative. The short film is called 100 Bucks, which she also directed. I saw her and many other filmmakers, some established veterans as well as some young ones, doing everything to build the industry.
But I branched out into publishing, as much as focusing on passion is ideal, I also had to think about security and not putting everything on pause, that is taking care of my family. I made a choice to have a lifestyle that was at least comfortable.
Elelwani: To be comfortable financially is not asking for too much, it is very important. I for one cannot create hungry as my energy ends up being on what is next, how am I going to sort out that bill, I interrupted you there, please continue…
Mutaleni: Well, I also got to work on a film called Katutura. When I told my father that the film I was working on is a bit of a gangster movie, he said well, some of the best films are gangster movies, you want to make movies right? He was kind of teasing. That was a very testing experience because I put my career aside. I was happy for getting to make the film but there were some misunderstandings that I feel could have been avoided with mutual respect for the collaborative work. Issues such as having agreed on a certain role on paper then you find that the screen credit is different on the day the film is screened is just some of the things you learn as you go about the industry. However, in the end, when a film is done, screened and distributed, the feeling of having accomplished that is unmatched, a euphoria of sorts.
Elelwani: That is another thing, it is so difficult to find people you can truly rely on and trust. You really need lawyers even for small projects and those don’t come cheap.
Any new works or adventures in the Netherlands?
Mutaleni: Here is the story, I was in Namibia from 2010 to 2019, and, to be honest with you, I would not have made the two films I did had I not returned.
However, my husband and I decided to return to The Netherlands where he is from, since if we were ever going to return it had to happen now so that our eldest child could settle into the schooling system in time for high school.
Recently I started a new job at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. It is a very new position. One I didn’t see coming given the global pandemic.
Elelwani: Let me interrupt there for a bit. Congratulations! I feel like that is something I had to hear today, I mean, who else is getting new appointments at a time like this?
Mutaleni: Thank you for your kind words.
As we continue, here is how storytelling works with me: when I have an idea or see something that gets me so excited, I find that I have to ask myself “why am I so excited?”
It had been a while since I was in that state. Then recently I found myself sitting in a tram in Rottterdam going to work; there was a question posed in a blog I love to read where they asked, “What is your dream movie house?” which is kind of a fun thing to think about.
Then there is our family friend in Rotterdam with a family home, a house full of so much family history, the furniture has probably not been moved for years! When that question was posed, it hit me like a brick; I have to make a film about the house… There I was, on my way to work and tipping my toes into filmmaking.
Elelwani: That is crazy, you see stories come to you; I say go on and make a film about that house. And you are in Rotterdam where there’s a huge annual market and you can thrive there.
Mutaleni: Indeed, Rotterdam has a huge international film festival and market but I still have to write it, right? That is the thing, this is something I have to spend my free time doing.
Speaking of writing, when I was in Namibia I was a member of a collective with a group of writers who spent time writing short stories, sharing, critiquing and improving them. A couple of our members got published in reputable publications such as The Johannesburg Review of Books and two had book deals. Which is great, but I found that the ones sending out their stories out every day end up being successful while, speaking for myself, I had my hands full with a full-time job, raising a growing family, and then managing my passions on the side, and I just felt like phew, I am not able to spread myself so thin.
Elelwani: Right? And it is not fair that the industry remains this way; it is unsustainable. Also, we cannot all give up on it and let it die when it is such a powerful vehicle for shaping our society.
Mutaleni: I wish I could spend more time writing and creating stories as much as I do reading and watching them. I do not come any close to producing as much content as I spend consuming.
So I was very excited when we thought, okay, let’s create a platform, so we started a free online literary magazine called Doek!
Elelwani: That is just the way to go. We create platforms for our stories ourselves, I did check the website, it is great. I read your short story too. I think it is an amazing platform as you can reach a wider audience. Also, it can be the hub to discover more talent, it is a platform with so much potential.
Mutaleni: I am so happy to hear you say that and I really just want to say two things:
Some of the people I worked with, like Florian Schott, the director of Katutura. He directed Baxu and the Giants, a film that is screening on Netflix… I am so excited, because my kids can get to see characters that are so relatable. Where they get to see a black child from Namibia as a lead.
And, also my co-founder of Doek! Rémy Ngamije. His short story, published by the Johannesburg Review of Books, was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
Elelwani: Thank you so much for your time. Let’s continue creating, doing the work!
Featured image of Mutaleni Nadimi by Vtoriia Photography.
Elelwani Netshifhire is a filmmaker, writer & director armed with technical skill sets. She is the founder of Thase Media and believes in utilizing any medium possible. Her latest available short film, Story Of A Baked Brownie, won various awards and was later featured on CNN Inside Africa.