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2012-10-16 00:00

“I THINK of film-making as a calling,” says Omelga Mthiyane. The determined pursuit of her vocation has seen Mthiyane’s documentaries broadcast on national television and showcased at film festivals worldwide.

Mthiyane grew up in Inanda, where she still lives with her mother and her own two daughters. Initially, Mthiyane wanted to be a journalist, but while in her last years at school — she was educated at Mzomusha Primary school and Ziphembeleni High School in Inanda New Town — she did a short course courtesy of the President’s Award programme for Youth Empowerment. “They taught us how to do interviews for radio, and how to shoot an interview for television. I became fascinated with the camera.”

In 1997, after passing matric, Mthiyane applied to the Natal Technikon (now the Durban University of Technology) to do a journalism diploma, with video technology as her second option. Fate played a hand and, rejected for the journalism course, Mthiyane did a three-year diploma course covering every aspect of film and video production.

Following an internship with a Johannesburg post-production company, Mthiyane was snapped up by film-maker Ingrid Gavshon. She was then selected for training by Big World Cinema at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival in Cape Town as one of several wannabe first-time film-makers, but her breakthrough came in 2003 when she successfully pitched an idea to the SABC, who were looking for young film-makers with interesting concepts for films reflecting on the first 10 years of democracy. The result was Ikhaya (Home). “It was the story of my aunt going back to the home in Bhambayi in Inanda that she was forced to leave 10 years previously. She had to leave everything and flee for her life.

“Returning was an emotional journey for her. When we got there, she found people were occupying her home. They were impoverished. They had children and nowhere else to go. My aunt told them they could have her home. Although she didn’t get her home back — and by then she was settled in kwaMashu — the return gave her closure.”

A rough cut of the film shown at the Sithengi film and television market was snapped up by the famous Sundance Film Festival in Utah in the United States. “So my film premiered at Sundance in January 2004,” says Mthiyane, still awed at such a coup. “At the time, I didn’t realise how big Sundance was.”

Ikhaya was subsequently selected for showing at eight other film festivals, including the Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival.

Mthiyane makes, on average, a film a year. “I take a long time to develop an idea and to build up a relationship with my characters”, and, as with Ikhaya, Mthiyane often draws on her own source of personal and family narratives for subject matter.

For Ikhaya Malawi, which featured in the SABC series Going Home, Mthiyane went to Malawi with her mother, Obie Margaret Mthiyane. “For years, my mother had told me we had relatives in Malawi and that her father had come from there, leaving behind a wife and children. It was the old story — he had come south looking for greener pastures. My mother said she had half-sisters there. So I went with my mother to meet her father’s family.”

“My grandfather had died in 1981 and his sons — my uncles — had lost all the letters from Malawi. We decided to go anyway and depend on word of mouth.”

Despite a warm welcome — “the Malawians are so helpful” — finding her relatives proved difficult. “We were just about to give up when we met this guy and he said ‘I knew your grandfather’, and he took us and we met the family. We found my mother’s half-sister, my aunt. They were living in a village on the shores of Lake Malawi.”

Inanda and its environs is a place Mthiyane frequently returns to for inspiration and ideas. Her film Different Pigment in the 2006 SABC Black on White series in which black film-makers took on white subjects — “it’s usually the other way round” — featured 25-year-old Alex “Mjy” Botha, a fluent Zulu speaker living in Lindelani township. “He had fallen in love with a Zulu girl and they were about to be married. The film focused on their relationship.”

Inanda itself was the focus of Inanda, My Heritage. “It’s an amazing place. There is talk of calling it Freedom Valley. It was the home of Gandhi’s settlement, the Shembes, the Dubes, there’s the Ohlange Institute, Inanda Seminary — and don’t forget Pixley Seme. For me to be born in that area — I was so privileged. Even though parts of it were poor when I grew up and there were squatter camps, there was something special about that place.”

Mthiyane’s mother made a return to the screen in Siyabonga Mama. “They were talking about closing down Warwick Market for the 2010 World Cup,” says Mthiyane. “My mother goes to that market. She buys fruit and vegetables, then goes to the suburbs and sells them in exchange for second-hand clothes. That’s how she brought us all up. There are 10 of us — my dad died in 1985. I wanted to show how people were going to be affected if that market closed.”

Siyabonga Mama was shown at the Rotterdam Film Festival, which led to Mthiyane’s next film being developed and supported by the film festival for its programme Raiding Africa, that saw Mthiyane going to Songzhuang in China, a reversal of the current China-coming-to-Africa trend. “It was a really crazy project. No one there spoke English — let alone Zulu!

“I decided I would try to connect with Chinese women and compare their struggle with ours. I had this big Afro at the time, so I went to this hair salon to do my hair and struck up a relationship with the owner. She turned out to be a struggling artist.” The resulting film — Li-Xia’s Salon — sees their relationship transcend cultural differences.

Earlier this year, e-tv screened Mthiyane’s Gogo’s Beautiful Game about Vakhegula Vakhegula football club — the oldest player is 85 — who play in a women’s soccer league.

Currently, Mthiyane is developing another project and also investigating making a fiction-based feature film. “I am working on scripts and would also love to meet people with good scripts.”

When she is not creating her own films, Mthiyane is also a camera for hire and frequently shoots footage for Chérif Keita, well-known in South Africa for his ground-breaking documentaries on John Dube. “I got to know the Dube family when making Inanda, My Heritage and they told me about Chérif. I met him when he came to the Durban Film Festival. He is one of the very few directors who trusts me as a black woman film-maker to shoot for him.”

Mthiyane has recently returned from London, where her short film The Meal was screened at Tate Modern as part of the Little Sun project. The project featured 16 films made by film-makers from around the world, in response to an invitation from Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who created sun-shaped solar-powered lamps for people with limited access to energy.

“I found this family living without electricity near a sports ground in Inanda. The municipality was not fixing the problem and they just lived in darkness. I thought, ‘let me do something around that’.”

After several visits overseas, Mthiyane is impressed by the level of interest in film there. “The cinemas are packed,” she says. “People are fascinated by film and its possibilities in a way South Africans aren’t. South Africa is still developing a film culture after the years of apartheid. Film-makers have a duty to develop audiences here.”

Asked about films and film-makers she admires, Mthiyane cites Filipino director Brillante Mendoza and his film Foster Child about a poor family who provide a temporary home for abandoned babies prior to their adoption. “It’s shot more like a documentary,” she says. “It reminded me of what another director I like, Walter Salles, who made Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, said, that a good documentary should be like fiction and a good fictional film should look like a documentary.”

She also enthuses about the 1939 classic epic Gone with the Wind directed by Victor Fleming. “Yes, Fleming is the director, but it was the producer David O. Selznick’s determination to make the film that saw it get to the screen. He really wanted to make that film. He gave his all to it. I love people who are obsessed with what they do.”

She adds Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane to her list of must-sees — a film recently knocked off its pedestal as the best film ever made in the Sight and Sound critics’ poll to be replaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. “What a great film!” says Mthiyane.

“I look up to all these directors. I say to young film-makers that they must watch as many films as possible. Yes, you also have to be hands on, but if you really want to learn, you need to watch films.”

[INANDA IS] AN AMAZING PLACE. THERE IS TALK OF CALLING IT FREEDOM VALLEY. IT WAS THE HOME OF GANDHI’S SETTLEMENT, THE SHEMBES, THE DUBES, THERE’S THE OHLANGE INSTITUTE, INANDA SEMINARY — AND DON’T FORGET PIXLEY SEME. FOR ME TO BE BORN IN THAT AREA — I WAS SO PRIVILEGED. EVEN THOUGH PARTS OF IT WERE POOR WHEN I GREW UP AND THERE WERE SQUATTER CAMPS, THERE WAS SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT THAT PLACE.

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