Joburg film 'Milisuthando' creates a stir at Sundance
South African documentary Milisuthando received a standing ovation during its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in the US on Saturday.
The two-hour film, one of 12 finalists in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, is a personal essay based on the life of award-winning writer, film director, and Adobe Women of Sundance winner Milisuthando Bongela.
Born into a middle-class Xhosa community in the Transkei, and not fully realising the existence of apartheid until after it ended — Bongela takes a deep and soul-searching look into the intricacies of race, family and relationships through her multilayered life journey.
At Sundance, Bongela expressed gratitude for her team and for the generous funding that enabled her to complete the documentary.
“This film has been eight years in the making and creating a film so deeply personal during the pandemic was extremely challenging,” she said.
“Fundraising has also been quite a process, but also telling the story of South Africa’s history of apartheid from a perspective that I feel many people haven’t really touched on, plus from a feminine perspective, was the other difficult component.”
“Pictures, videos, and archives of apartheid in other documentaries often depict black and white footage with people being shot and running from the police, and I was like, ‘but that did not happen to me’, and yet I hold the trauma in my body,” she continued.
“And to tell my story from a psychological perspective — engaging all races with as much care, sensitivity and ubuntu, while also looking at the difficulty of facing our very painful history and digging deep — was the challenge in finding that indigenous spirituality reflected in the film.”
Milisuthando producer Marion Isaacs also appears in the documentary, where the two women engage in deep conversations around race.
“Mili and I have been friends for years, and I initially said ‘no’ when she first asked me to work on this project because I wanted to preserve our friendship that meant so much to me,” explained Isaacs.
“But eventually there came a time when it just felt right to step in, and because we had always spoken about the kinds of things that the film is contending with as friends, so our work on the film together was a natural extension as our friendship has been the canvas upon which we’ve built this project.”
Editor and cinematographer Hankyeol Lee shot parts of the documentary in South Africa and worked on additional colour grading and post-production in Colombia.
“It’s fascinating because this project was so different because you couldn’t just come in with preconceived ideas of what the film was going to look like or sound like. A lot of footage had already existed by Milisuthando shooting with her cellphone and cameras she had access to. As someone who didn’t have cinematography training, she had this incredible eye and skill at finding a way for the footage that I shot, to be complementary to her unique style.”
So what is on the horizon for the 37-year-old Joburg filmmaker?
“My next year will be full of travel — but flying 15-16 hours in economy all the time is very hard on my body. My heart is deeply connected to South Africa, but there is a lot of support for documentary filmmaking overseas — so perhaps I could work out spending part of the time overseas making films depending on where projects take me.”
Her advice for aspiring South African female filmmakers is rooted in dedication and seizing the moment.
“Now is our time,” Bongela said with tears in her eyes. “It’s crazy that up until 30 years ago, it was illegal for me and any other black woman to hold a camera and point it at anyone. Yes, there are amazing black women cinematographers in our country, but I feel like we’re on the precipice of a new renaissance where people are being allowed to share their diverse stories and find their authentic voice on multiple platforms.
We currently live in such a visually aggressive era with social media — and yet cinema, is still one of the most powerful and precious forms of conveying your message.”
Support independent journalism by subscribing to the Sunday Times. Just R20 for the first month.