Godisamang Khunou is an award-winning filmmaker and the owner of Mogale Pictures, a production company driven by the Pan-African movement and African feminism to validate the experiences and emotions of African women. A documentary series that she wrote and is producing and directing, titled The Sharp End of a Knife, has won at the 2022 Durban FilmMart in the Best Nonfiction category.
She is in production for a documentary feature on POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse), the oldest Non-Profit Organisation in South Africa, founded to support survivors of gender-based violence in South Africa.
Her documentary feature, titled Black Women and Sex, was selected for the 2022 Encounters Rough Cut Lab and is expected to premiere in 2023. The project has won the Most Promising Film Award at The Durban Film Mart in 2019, The Development Prize for the Best Female Director by The Saxon State Minister, and the Zonta Club Leipzig Elster Female Talent Development Prize at the DOK Leipzig international Co-Production Market (2019). It is one of the most highly-anticipated films coming out of South Africa.
BY ELELWANI NETSHIFHIRE
This conversation, incorporating the busy schedules of two formidable South African women filmmakers, began virtually between Egypt and Italy and concluded in Johannesburg, South Africa, via Zoom.
Elelwani: I believe that every creator births work that matters to them. Thus when I approach someone for a conversation, it is often because their creation speaks to me, and I feel that it should be highlighted to others who may resonate. With that said, I’d like us to dive in, and speak about what led you to filmmaking, and your process thereof.
Godisamang: I fell in love with stories very young in my life. So I think that is what brought me to filmmaking: my mother was an English teacher, she used to buy me a lot of books. And what I know about books is that they kind of open the creative part of your brain. So I just fell in love with reading very early on. After my mother passed away when I was very young, at eight years old, I moved in with my wonderful grandparents who created a very loving environment at home. However, they did not buy me books for leisure but for school instead. As someone who had already developed love for stories, I missed what my mother offered. I started writing my own stories; nothing significant, but a mere expression of self. It has been my way of relating to the world and the things that I wonder about, the things that are important to me to this day. I have carried this throughout my life and it’s something that I hold very dear, because it makes me feel like my mom is still a part of my life. We remained strongly connected because of our shared love for stories.
Elelwani: I am sorry about your mother, I don’t even know if that’s an acceptable thing to say. I had to come in, because what you have just shared is so important, that you feel like when you are writing, you feel like you have carried your mother all these years through that form, for she introduced you to reading, which then birthed your love for storytelling and writing thereof. So do you feel that if she was here today, you might have followed her path and become a teacher? Or you would have just continued with the reading and become, you know, a storyteller in your own way? Do you ever think about that, or do you think the heartbreak and missing her just solidified your place as a storyteller then?
“I have a big fear of missing out on my life. . . I don’t want to miss out on the life I have imagined for myself.“
Godisamang: The loss, the reading, all of it, did birth the storyteller in me. The wanting of stories, the missing of stories, I don’t think that would have been the case if she was still alive. That’s the truth. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, I thought I’d be a teacher. And as life would have it, I actually do a lot of workshops in my film career. I teach young people about the creative business and entrepreneurship. Simply sharing knowledge to young people who want to be in the sector. I have been invited many times to host master classes. I always get excited when I do that, because it makes me feel like I’m feeding my love for teaching, it makes me feel like my mother, too. So much that I imagine myself to be her. I remember, she used to take me on little school trips,, I’d go to her class. So I just remember that time of watching her as a teacher, and thinking, Oh, my gosh, she’s so cool. So when I’m teaching, I feel like I carry a little bit of that. It reinforces my love, and all this, the career itself, connects me to her because I also get to do the thing that she did, which is teach, you know.
Elelwani: It makes so much sense, so much that it feels that you also can’t separate the two. Even this conversation that we are having now, at the heart of it all, It’s to teach too, educate.
Well, I’m so glad that you get to do both, practice your craft and also pass it on. I think I’ve caught a glimpse of you in action, but it is always better to sit and hear it all from the horse’s mouth. It’s so important that you do the work that you do. And you also get to teach sharing the knowledge to the younger people who want to be in the industry, and entrepreneurship thereof. I believe that for anyone to also be successful as a creative, as a filmmaker, they really have to also be so business minded, especially in South Africa, and in Africa at large. It’s such a sector that is still growing and there’s room for people to do various works. It’s also a tough, long journey. You need support, you need to be relentless about what you’re doing.
Godisamang: You really need a community.
Elelwani: That is true. There are so many people who didn’t get such opportunities in the past, but I feel like the people who are coming after us or people within our generation shouldn’t have to struggle as if no work has been done. I think the aim is to pave the way for it to somehow get better, but still not easy. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you know, have systems and policies that can make someone feel like oh, if I went to school for this or have training, then I can really make a lucrative career path out of it.
I also like the idea of you feeling like, even when you’re on stage you are still connected to your mother. I’m emotional because I didn’t know this aspect. I don’t think I’ve picked it up in any previous interviews you have had. So when you were speaking, I was just like, oh, full cycle for her, you know, in some ways, I feel like you have come full circle that the love she instilled and what you saw and thought you could be, it’s all happening. And girl, I love it for you!
Godisamang: Don’t be emotional; we are here now, it is all good. And yes, I definitely see it, especially the kind of work that I do. And the work that I focus on as a filmmaker. It is educational for me, and I hope that it becomes educational for others, you know, because I always, somehow, deal with hard issues that I also worry about, or I was thinking about. And I believe that a documentary is such an excellent vehicle to preserve history. You know, people’s perspectives and things. So I don’t take it for granted.
I remember early on in my career, there were a lot of people that were in freelance, and you know what, I don’t hate on anyone, I respect everyone who is always on the ball doing things and working on this show, and that movie. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be working on things that don’t speak to me.
I’ve done it, I worked in corporate, and I worked for many years in corporate, but I worked in corporate for money, so that I can keep my art sacred. The work that comes out of me is not based on wanting quick money. You know, I want to have money, so that I’m able to make work that matters to me, and I’m sure that others might be doing it in a different way. They don’t have to be working for corporate. I simply didn’t want to be making content, because I can make anything because I have the skill. But I Have always wanted to create something that I’m really proud to say was made by me, something that has a level of significance.
Elelwani: I feel like I’ve been in the same shoes for some time. Working on shows that you feel like actually, this does not resonate with me, I’m doing it for money. What’s important is to never lose your grit, and focus on your bigger picture. Instead of being caught up crewing up and no longer creating or doing any work that speaks to you or work that you initially thought you wanted to do. I’m not saying anyone must go through the corporate route, but you have to work to sustain the dream, for some time.
Godisamang: Corporate, I mean TV corporate, it is very exciting. So I think it’s the same thing; it’s about who you are as a person, and some people don’t even have stories. Some people really just want to be in the industry, you know, and that is perfectly fine. It’s just that I didn’t want to feel like I betrayed myself, I have a big fear of missing out on my life. I’ve always kind of had it. I don’t. I don’t want to miss out on the life I have imagined for myself.
Elelwani: A fear of missing out on your own life and the things you have always wanted to do? I think there’s a quote along those lines, that I have read and you perhaps know it too. I can’t find the reference but it’s along the lines of ‘honouring the promises that you make to yourself’. I feel like, even when it comes to storytelling, you honour your visions.
What appeals to me with your work, which made this conversation possible, is your body of work, your standpoint in filmmaking and the recent piece, titled Black Women and Sex, how did that come about?
Godisamang: I’m a Black woman, and in my mid-20s, when I started Black Women and Sex I was 25. And I think it was that part of my life where I was really exploring sex, exploring myself as a sexual being. I had had sex way before 25. But I didn’t feel like I owned sex. When I was in high school, in my late teens, I felt like sex is something that you give to a boy as a reward. Like, why are you such a good boyfriend? I’m giving you sex! I kind of started to like sex in university, wanting to try new things. I’ve never really had a problem with slut-shaming. I remember I used to say I have had sex way before I had. I was still a virgin when I started saying I had sex, yeah!
Elelwani: So bold! I think I’ve lied about my age, that’s just about it.
Godisamang: Funny enough, I never lied about my age, because I hung around people who were the same age as me. But I used to lie about sex, only my best friend knew the truth. But I remember going to this house party… High school kids don’t think deeply about things. That’s an excuse but a friend got gang raped, drugged and gang-raped. When we got to school that Monday, this group of guys in my class were like, Oh my gosh, this girl had sex with seven guys. And for some reason I was quick to intervene, I said it wasn’t her, it was me.
So yes, throughout the whole of high school, from grade 10 to grade 12, they called me Seven. As a joke, like, ‘oh, Seven’. And it was a joke for them. And, you know, obviously, I did it to protect my friend because it didn’t really happen to me. But it deflected the conversation from the person who was already wounded. I just, I didn’t mind, I guess because it had not happened to me, but I knew she needed a shield.
So I have kind of always had a healthy perception of sex. When I got into this topic, it wasn’t something that I battled focusing on. For some odd reason, I’ve always just kind of been that way.
And few years ago, a filmmaker from Ghana introduced me to genital mutilation, which is something I had never heard of before, I was 23 at the time.
He spoke about it. And then I couldn’t get it out of my head. A year later, I was still wondering about it. Why would a clitoris bother someone so much that you would have to cut it out. It was such a big political thing for me. I grew up in a very political, active family, like my grandmother was very political. And we talked about politics a lot at home, but I didn’t want to, I wanted to stay away from politics. However, I started to see the politics of things, you know, and how people tried to control others through sex, and how people try to make you feel like you are less of a person through sex, or more way through sex. So that is something that really spoke to me, speaks to me to this day, I wanted something to watch. I wanted something to have, I wanted something to reference with all my rambling thoughts, and I realised I couldn’t find it. And that’s why I made Black Women and Sex.
Elelwani: I love that. I just want to touch back on what you said about a filmmaker from Ghana, who spoke to you about genital mutilation. There’s a late filmmaker you may know; Ousmane Sembène, from Senegal, who made a film called Moolaadé in 2004 and it really was just about that, highlighting the gruesome act and calling out for change. He used to make films about women, Black women, and their place in the world. Moolaadé was specifically about a woman who was fighting for genital mutilation to end in in in Senegal. I was shocked to learn that genital mutilation is still practiced in Burkina Faso today. There are women filmmakers using documentaries to amplify women’s rights and attempting to cease this completely.
I also like how your Ghanaian filmmaker friend brought you to politics of sex because I think there is politics of sex in just everything.
Lastly, I have to comment on what you said about the friend, it’s quite a harrowing story. Where is she now, do you know, we don’t have to talk about her, but I love the protection you offered then.
Godisamang: She kind of let it go back then. We also disconnected as we grew up and went to lead separate lives, varsity and so forth. We got rekindled some years later and she has been dealing with the matter the best way she knows how and that is her story to tell someday, you know.
Elelwani: Fair enough, anything that will help her heal and own her narrative, goes a long way.
Well, let’s talk more about your standpoint in film. What is the current style and topical works being made by Black women filmmakers? What’s the future looking like?
Godisamang: I really love and admire women who are filmmakers, and not only Black women filmmakers. And there’s an incredible pool of women filmmakers that I know, that I love. There is a wave of personal body of work, I like too, most filmmakers are focusing on processing life and healing. And it’s incredible how we’ve been made to feel like we have been given that space to do that now. Especially the care for Black women; for a long time, we haven’t been seen as good enough to just be Black women. You need to be a specific type of Black woman; you need to be close to whiteness. There’s another type of ‘acceptable Black’, like, if you don’t wear makeup, or if you don’t wear wigs, you’re more of a serious person.
So for me, it’s the beauty politics too. I say, come as you are, make the stories that you want to make.
Elelwani: You have made such an important point, that we need to come as we are when we create, and we must also focus on creating a body of work that speaks to our hearts. This has been an insightful conversation for me. Thank you for your time.
Let’s continue to tell our stories the best way we know how.