Andrew Worsdale has a chat with Dumisane Phakathi Soweto’s most prolific, award-winning filmmaker about how he got started, what he thinks about making movies and why he’s recently decided to change direction and move into creating fine art albeit with its origins in digital video.

 

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Dumisane Phakathi
Dumisane Phakathi has been making movies since the age of sixteen; that’s exactly half his life. After matriculating in 1993 at Phafogang High School in Soweto, he went to work at Die Beeld, Gauteng’s leading Afrikaans newspaper. He proved too gregarious for a newsroom so he joined TV Production Company – Urban Brew – as a trainee director. A year later he conceptualised The Electric Workshop, the funky youth actuality programme that went on to run for five successful years.

 

But Phakathi is too sociable to get tied down, after a year in TV he moved into theatre and he enrolled for a training programme at the Market Theatre Laboratory, deciding to try his hand at acting. Whilst there he worked on numerous plays including the controversial

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“Ghost Dinner” by Dumisane Phakathi
“Gomorrah”, a huge critical and commercial hit that examined rape and violence with candid acerbic humour and went on to tour throughout Europe.

 

But he decided his first love was making films. In 1998 he made his first documentary, “Rough Ride” about the history and evolution of minibus taxis told through the eyes of four pioneers in the industry. Then Phakathi moved onto drama directing two shorts for M-Net. The comedy “An Old Wives Tale” about an Afrikaner farmer who decides to enter into a polygamous marriage like his farmhand was followed by the poignant “Christmas With Granny” about a young boy, Madlozi, on a train trip to be baptized into his grandmother's faith.

His other short drama “Waiting For Valdez” is a textured, poignant tale of a young boy, in 1970s Johannesburg, torn between his love for his dying grandmother and the desire to sneak out for nightly street recitals, around a drum fire, of movies his friends have seen at the local cinema.

But Phakathi’s most travelled and acclaimed work is his documentaries, especially those about his neighbourhood or his family. In the 2001 “Wa ’N Wina” (Sincerely Yours) he returned to his old neighbourhood in Soweto. With a camera on his shoulder, he engaged with friends to discuss relationships, sex and love. Phakathi calls the film a love letter from himself to his street and the citizens of Soweto, “When I made it I thought it would be easy but the street swallowed me and the camera, but after a few weeks I learnt not to fight with the street, it had a life of it's own far greater and important than my idea of it.”

More recently Phakathi directed episodes of the gritty Gauteng hospital series “Jozi-H” as well as episodes of the Zulu murder-mystery series “Mtunzini.com”. He has also made several commercials for clients such as Vodacom, the Department of Labour, and Spoornet’s Shosholoza Meyl.

Over the years as both director and producer, Phakathi has worked with major international broadcasters like BBC, ARTE, YLE, SABC, M-NET, TV 2 Denmark and he’s won several awards including the Manie van Rensburg Award for Excellence, a Best Director Avanti Award and the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Film in 2003.

His most famous documentary is a cleverly juggled mixture of comedy and seriousness called “Don’t F**k With Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters”. In it he travelled South Africa in search of his many siblings, filming a portrait of his family, as well as his country. Phakathi’s father was, for most of his life, a talent scout for a soccer team. Throughout the country he was known as a minor celebrity. But at his funeral his son discovered another important piece of information – his father had enjoyed the company of 11 wives, with a total of 52 children. The director journeyed through the country visiting his siblings and they are as charming and as funny as he is, but there is a sombre side to this story of paternal goings-on that proves immensely moving.

Phakathi soon realised that his family and his neighbourhood were central to his filmmaking, but after sixteen years of making movies the producer/director started getting jaded. Particularly about the bureaucracy of broadcasters, the dogmatism of commissioning editors and the total ‘schlep’ of raising money to make his own film, “I’ve found over the years that in film and TV production there always will be people you have to answer to, you always have to sell your ideas. I like to work with instinct and chance and I think the storytelling that commissioning editors go for or insist on has far too many definite constructs for me, and to me that’s what’s missing in local filmmaker’s thought processes - independent ideas.”

Phakathi lives in Phiri, a dusty area in sprawling Soweto with narrow streets and subdivided concrete houses packed tightly together. It was built in the 1960s as part of the government's attempts to divide people along ethnic lines. It was originally intended as a township for Sotho and Tswana speakers but due to the massive numbers of people living in Soweto, ethnic boundaries quickly disappeared and today only the street signs give any indication of this history. “Being a Sowetan for me is this idea of being in a place of history, a place which is significant in a real historical sense,” he says, “Sowetan is like a tribe. You know what I say? I'm not Zulu, I'm Sowetan first and Zulu second.”

Late last year Phakathi found he couldn’t sleep, he awoke at about 2.30 in the morning and then suddenly got inspired, “I realised it had been one of those typical blisteringly hot Joburg days and it had just rained very softly so the streets would look amazing – they’d be clean with steam lifting off of them.”

With that he decided to just go out with his digital video camera and film the neighbourhood around his home. “At night the township develops this whole other tone and emotion, there’s none of the major bustle.  It was strange though – I remember some cops stopping me and asking me what I was doing – I told them ‘I’m making art’ – they were like flabbergasted but eventually helped me out. At the time I was just doing it for myself – like an arty ‘wank’ I guess, thinking I’d just edit the stuff for myself. I liked the chance to just express myself.”

Phakathi casually showed the video footage to a friend Ricardo Fornini, a Chilean-born art curator, expecting nothing. Fornini who prefers to call himself a collaborator saw the potential and teamed Phakathi with veteran painter Pat Mautloa. The celebrated 55-year old, like the young filmmaker, draws his inspiration from Johannesburg’s street culture, the dynamics of the changing city, and the images and people he encounters there.

The result is “Nocturnal Fragments” an exhibition at Johannesburg’s new Resolution Gallery of Digital Art, which runs until March 14th. The collaboration between Mautloa and Phakathi consists of digital stills taken from those 3am forays that Phakathi made with his video camera turned into fine art prints, some of which have additional pastel work by Mautloa. Many of the images are stunningly ethereal, there’s a ghostly otherworld that Phakathi discovers in the empty streets, the deserted garages, lone motorcars and deserted benches around his neighbourhood during his pre-dawn filming jaunts. All the images prompt the viewer to make their own narrative – the fine art prints act like movie stills, triggering off plots and background stories that may or may not exist.

Phakathi says that whether working as a filmmaker or conceptual artist, “As stories go, there is no experience that I am more familiar with than that of Jozi and Soweto. The histories of the people that have occupied this frontier city inspire me. Very few places in the world have such a diverse heritage like Jozi and Msawawa have. It’s a very complex setting which makes for dynamic narratives and textures, it’s our very own modern wild west.”

He’s happy to be doing his own thing and not feeling tied down by a broadcaster’s red tape or a producer’s pre-conceived notions of what a movie should contain, “I like jumping out of the box, first of all I’m an expressionist – I’m expressionist by always making or enjoying jokes, by making movies, even in having a relationship.”

Phakathi is a fabulous guy to just hang out with, always mixing a healthy amount of bright and breezy cheer with a good dose of careful thought and non-pretentious penetrating insight. The exhibition is once again proof of how he enjoys playing the odds in art and life, “In acting, in making films and now in doing this I always believe that one should take a chance and let it be a good chance. So by doing this exhibition I was gambling aesthetically and otherwise and just making sure that I personally felt that the stakes were good.”

For the moment he’s decided to stop making films himself, directing them that is. Part of the reasons is his frustrations with the national broadcaster, “It doesn’t help anyone that frankly they’re messed up. Many filmmakers like me need the SABC as a platform.” But he’s not leaving the movie business altogether, at present he’s producing and collaborating on the script “Wagter” by Tymon Smith a darkly comic drama about an ex-security policeman which they hope to get into production later this year. “I still want to make movies. But for right now I’m going to concentrate on helping others to get them made, but I’m only going to do stuff that I really like.” Expect lots of chances, and here’s hoping they’re all good.

“Nocturnal Fragments” is on at Resolution Gallery, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood until March 14th – For more info call 011-880 4054 or view samples at www.resolutiongallery.com