Last month one of Hollywood’s top film schools at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) held its annual screenings as part of the Directors Spotlight competition. Gauteng was showcased in Thabo Wolfaardt’s Joburg, a gripping 22-minute crime drama, which earned rave reviews. Andrew Worsdale spoke to the up-and-coming filmmaker.

This unmissable event, held at the Directors Guild of America Theater, has a reputation for identifying student filmmakers with big league potential. These have included directors like Alexander Payne (Sideways), Gil Kenan (Monster House) and Todd Holland (Malcolm in the Middle). This year a panel of judges, moderated by Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore, chose the winners.

Wolfaardt’s Joburg is a redemptive drama about Tshepo, a young man from Hillbrow who doesn’t make enough money selling newspapers to care for his brother, who is HIV-positive. In the suburbs the young and pregnant Renee is getting married soon, but her life falls apart when she finds her fiancé cheating on her. Tshepo attempts to take her car but being a woman on the edge she insists on being driven home. Eventually she lets him take the car and finds the freedom to leave the life she was living and start anew. Tshepo finds momentary relief with the money he gets from selling the car, but the viewer is all too aware that his struggle will continue.

The 29-year-old Wolfaardt, whose activist parents moved to the US in 1993, studied history and English literature at New York University before being accepted into UCLA’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programme. Gavin Hood is a graduate of this prestigious programme. For those commenting on similarities between Joburg and Hood’s Tsotsi Wolfaardt says, “If I was inspired by Tsotsi it was only in the sense that a South African filmmaker’s voice was being heard and that we were put on the map as a force to be reckoned with. Because there is a carjacking scene in my story, I knew that people would possibly draw comparisons. But the circumstances are totally different. Tshepo is not a tsotsi. He's legitimately trying to make ends meet but the pressures around him are dictating that he take a very radical detour in his thinking. His character was inspired by a young man I met at a funeral for his sister who died of AIDS in Soweto. He told me about being a carjacker because there simply was no other way for him to make money. Despite all his efforts he still couldn't get a legitimate job.”

Last year Wolfaardt’s script for Joburg won the UCLA Colin Higgins Film Director's Screenplay Award. Higgins is perhaps best known for penning the cult movie Harold and Maude and as the writer/director of comedy hit Foul Play. Wolfaardt says winning the prize opened many other doors for him. “We also received a large portion of our film from Kodak as well as financing and post services from various South African companies.”

He adds: “My writing partner and producer, Mpho Osei-Tutu, was instrumental in putting the film together, as was my Los Angeles-based producer Melanie Blair and production manager Bryce Hepburn, based in Cape Town. They called in many favours and negotiated for weeks on end to reduce our budget. Every single member of the crew, from top to bottom, as well as all our actors did this shoot for free. Everyone understood that this was a student endeavour and that if we get the chance to make the feature film our relationships will already be in place. Our biggest costs were definitely film and camera equipment.” He reserves his biggest praise for Eyethu Events, who provided security and helped with logistics in Johannesburg.

Wolfaardt and producer Mpho Osei-Tutu are now rewriting the feature script on which the short film was loosely based. While they do that Joburg will be doing the festival circuit, starting out at the Los Angeles International Film Festival in the first week of July.

After the Directors’ Guild of America screening Wolfaardt received a message from director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II, Time After Time, The Seven-Percent Solution) who said he thought the film was “wonderful, amazingly accomplished and self-assured, moving and memorable. I do hope you follow through on your original plan for the interlocking stories as I think it would make for a wonderful feature. I congratulate you; you are a real filmmaker.”

He plans to develop his career on both sides of the Atlantic, but South Africa and Johannesburg are firmly placed on his cinematic agenda. “Even though I love America and living here, South Africa is and always will be my home. It is the country that shaped me and it is the country I love. South African stories are always in my consciousness and I think that the West can stand to see and hear many more of them. There's a huge void in regards to understanding South Africa in the American mainstream media. Mexican filmmakers have recently put Mexico on the map as a viable industry and are exporting their culture with great success. I look at their example and believe that we can do the same in South Africa – we have so much untapped talent and an incredibly rich culture of storytelling to share with the world.”