Inside the mind of a SA film director and how to break into the industry

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Talia Smith, Wendy Langarmore, Connie Chiume on the set of Umama
Talia Smith, Wendy Langarmore, Connie Chiume on the set of Umama
Photo: Supplied by Umama Film

  • South African director Talia Smith's film Umama won a gold Student Academy Award.
  • The 24-year-old filmmaker born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. 
  • Throughout her filmmaking career, she has made South African and female-focused pieces. 


Channel24 spoke to Talia Smith, a South Africa filmmaker, whose latest film Umama was shortlisted for a student BAFTA, and won gold at the recent 2020 Student Academy Awards. 

Umama is inspired by Talia's childhood recollection of Susan's (called Sibongile in the film) son's death. Sibongile, a domestic worker in South Africa, wakes to find her son missing. This story is about that day and the real relationships that inspired the film. The film stars Connie Chiume (Black Panther, Rhythm City) as Sibongile.

About the recognition, the film has received, Talia tells Channel24: "When you dream of going to the Oscars as an 8-year-old child, it seems like such a distant reality, but then when you receive an honour like this from the Academy, it's truly surreal."

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She adds: "I was so overcome with emotion and gratitude for everyone and everything that aided me in getting there. It also validated all the hard work of our cast and crew who volunteered their talents to this film; furthermore, it showed us that South African stories are relevant and have a place on the global stage."

South Africa's rich heritage inspired her storytelling aspirations from a young age and at age eight she decided she would one day move to New York to share these stories with the world through film - a dream she made a reality after relocating to the Big Apple after matriculating in 2015.
"What is important for me as a filmmaker is exposing people to new perspectives whether that is through a South African lens, through the eyes of a female lead or any other character from around the world. I am inspired by resilience in the face of adversity and the extraordinary stories of ordinary people," Talia tells Channel24.

"I think the female perspective is an important one to portray on screen. To show young girls their voices matter and that there are more to female characters than damsels in distress," she says. 

When asked who she looks up to in the industry, Talia says: "Ava Duvernay is my filmmaking hero."

For aspiring filmmakers, Talia shares a look inside the mind of director and ways to break into the industry. 

First things first. What does a film director do?

"The director is the guardian of the film's execution. They spend a lot of time collaborating with their producers and heads of departments -  each presenting their own ideas back to the director for the final say," she says.

This includes locations, wardrobe, camera angles, music, cast and production design. 

"The director then works with the actors on the portrayal of their characters. The great thing about being a director is that you start off with a single idea and the HODs and actors elevate and multiply your vision with their own creative interpretation of it. A director's job is not to know better' but to know exactly how all the elements of the process are going to come together for the end product," she explains further.

What qualities make a good director? 

"I think a good director has to be an excellent listener but above all else a very clear communicator. A collaborator who values their team's opinions and ideas but understands the vision well enough to steer them in the right direction," she says. 

Talia says that a good director does not have an ego and if you can do without sleep for a few weeks, even better! 

How do you find your voice as a director?

According to Talia, finding your voice is "trial and error."  

"Even though I may have a good idea of the stories I want to tell, I think it is important to explore different genres. I think through experience, you start to understand what gets you excited and what stimulates your creative thinking," she says. 

What training does a director need? 

"A director not only has to learn how to tell a good story but also has to learn about the elements of film making and how they come together to create an engaging, thought-provoking piece of content," she says.  

"A director has to learn about breaking down a script into the ways they want it to be seen through cinematography, wardrobe, production design, characterisation and editing. The best training a director can get is to direct, direct, direct even if it is directing home movies or short stories using family as cast and crew," she adds. 

To learn more about exciting careers in the entertainment industry, Channel24 spoke to a scriptwriter, social media influencer and a music video director - click to learn more about how they turned their passion into a day-job.

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