Q&A with Milisuthando Bongela on April 6 and 7

In her poetic and galvanizing essay film, Johannesburg-based artist, writer, and first-time filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela has constructed a multilayered and thought-provoking inquiry into history and identity that through five distinct chapters evokes the experience and after-effects of growing up amidst apartheid. Born in 1985, Bongela lived her first, inchoately remembered years with her family in the Transkei, a segregated zone in southeastern South Africa established in the 1970s under a false sense of cultural and geographical independence for Black people. A part of the country’s Xhosa community, the filmmaker delves into personal memories, gradual historical change, the legacies of racism on both Black and white citizens, and her continued search for belonging and identity. Milisuthando is a reminder that none of us exist outside of history.

What made you first want to be a director?
Milisuthando BongelaIt was actually accidental. The story of this film pulled me by the nose for about a year until I realized one day that wait a minute, there’s a film that’s taking shape here. Hold on, there are people interested in helping me make it. There’s some money to help me develop these ideas – I guess I’m a director. Before that I had worked across the arts, having studied Journalism and History. I had worked at a fashion magazine as the Anne Hathaway to two fashion editors and had my own clothing store of South African designer ready-to-wear clothing. I was a newspaper columnist and a blogger. I worked in music as a PR Manager for rappers at a record label. I worked for a public art consultancy in Johannesburg and I was an Arts Editor for a political weekly newspaper in South Africa. In many ways, I feel like my 15 years doing everything adjacent to film was preparing me for a career in film. Had I known I could study film when I went to university in 2003, I probably would have. But deep in the making of this documentary, I tried hard to get a definition of what a director is and does but couldn’t find one that matched what was happening inside our process. All I knew is that I was very clear about the world I wanted to create and trusted my team in their ability to interpret my vision, which has become a shared vision. It’s only now that this film is done that I feel like I can say, yes I’m a film director. So my ideas are now more streamlined and I have a very clear sense of the many worlds I want to free from my imagination through this medium.

Was there a film or director you were inspired by or continue to be inspired by?
Djibril Diop Mambèty – Hyenas
Cheryl Dunye – The Watermelon Woman
Patrizio Guzmán – Nostalgia for the Light
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy
RaMell Ross – Hale County, This Morning, This Evening
Juzo Itami –  Tampopo, The Funeral
Agnes Varda – The Beaches of Agnes, One sings, the Other Doesn’t, The Gleaners
Ousemane Sembene – Black Girl, Xala
Diane Kurys – Peppermint Soda
Miranda July – The Future, Me, You and Everyone We Know
Celine Sciamma – Tomboy
Mouffida Tlatli – The Silences of the Palace
Andrei Tarkovsky – Ivan’s Childhood
Ingmar Bergman – Scenes from a Marriage, Persona
Jane Campion’s early work – Peel, Sweetie
Shirin Neshat – Women Without Men
Pier Paolo Pasolini – Arabian Nights

I could go on.

In your own words, tell us about your film. What should audiences know?
Milisuthando is an invitation into a poetic exploration of me and South Africa growing up together in the aftermath of apartheid, told from the perspective of someone who grew up inside apartheid, but who had no idea it was happening until it was over. I grew up in an unrecognized guinea pig state created by the apartheid regime in the 1970s, in collaboration with black leaders who wanted to take the philosophy of apartheid / apartness to its full expression. Merging the political with the personal, the film explores what this meant to live in the “country” of my birth, The Republic of Transkei, where the daily violence of classic apartheid laws didn’t apply in the conventional way. The film explores what it means to be born and then to lose one’s self later in life. What it means to put the pieces of a life back together from a source as unreliable and poetic as memory. It’s a portrait of the anatomy of race in South Africa. A portrait of my family. Their beliefs. Faith. Fears. Ancestry. Intimacy. Power. Friendship. Song. And love. It’s a pointed compass for where the discourse about race can go from here, from a place that really understands it.

What does it mean to you to show your film at New Directors/New Films?
It means getting recognition for what it means to put your best foot forward in life. My team and I couldn’t be happier at the fact that this work that we sweated over for so long is slowly going where it belongs, carrying with it all of our hopes and intentions.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during the making of your film?
That I’m not working alone. Firstly filmmaking is collaborative and I have an incredible core team of myself, producer Marion Isaacs and editor and cinematographer Hankyeol Lee. Whatever credit I get, I take what’s appropriately mine but share it with them and all the labour they did alongside me, feeling the various pains of their roles just as much. And of course our Co-Producers in Colombia and Executive Producers in the U.S. In a deeper sense though, I’ve come to understand that making this work meant that I’m helping to resurrect the unrealized (because they were prevented) ideas of my ancestors. Both personal and collective. And that this is not only about busting career moves, but about making work that has an effect on the state of things, work that transforms something in the past, present and future universe, no matter how piecemeal. The career is an enticing and welcome red herring but the spirit behind the art and its intentions is the true calling. As long as I remember that, the work will play its role in the world. And that’s what this is all about.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Can a mirror tell you who you are? No. A mirror can tell you how you look. You fathom and find different aspects of yourself in and through other people. Whatever you say about another, tells you something about yourself. Engineering human relations is more important than engineering political and economic systems.  The success of the latter is built on the success of the former. This is the true meaning of ubuntu. When a septuagenarian healer and friend of mine first broke this down to me, it recalibrated the way I saw everything.

What else do you enjoy doing outside of filmmaking?
I’m pretty boring actually and I count this as one of my achievements. I used to be a busy body / girl about town but these days I love to cook. Right now I’m mixing up some spices and trying new bread recipes. I enjoy taking hikes in fecund forests and mountainous areas. I love anything to do with the sea. I like recording and documenting family lore and the voices of my friends. I write as second nature. And swim when I’m sad or lonely or confused about something. I’m a slow reader because I’m always reading for style, story, giving faces to the characters, adding timbers to their voices – it’s a mess. But mostly, my favourite thing to do is dive deep into unbridled conversations about the philosophy of things with my salon of friends who are mostly an array of very smart, very passionate and very funny people all over the world. Naps and Champagne is something I can never say no to. South Africa has very good sparkling wines. I really want a dog and yearn to live in a place where I can walk it after midnight.

What’s a film you saw recently that you enjoyed?
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt  by Raven Jackson.

  Closed captions and audio descriptions are available with our capti-view devices for screening on April 7 at MoMA.