South African filmmaker and producer, Kutlwano Ditsele, takes pride in re-telling the African narrative in a way that empowers and represents the continent as progressive. There’s also always a twist in the plot.
“A Japanese man on holiday with his wife in South Africa falls in love with a…”
An incomplete idea is stored and filed away in the digital pages of a smart phone.
The author is not only a creative director but also the co-founder of South African production company, Seriti Films.
By merging his passion for celebrating African stories through film and television with entrepreneurship, Kutlwano Ditsele’s story is on its way to a happy ending.
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He debuted his career as a filmmaker with a music video for South African mega-star AKA in 2010, shot in the heart of Johannesburg’s Central Business District.
The initial production cost was a humble R20,000 ($1,360).
A serendipitous bicycle race on a Sunday afternoon saved them from paying heavily to close off certain main roads and public areas downtown, during the filming of the music video.
Ditsele recalls the silence and how the emptiness edified the aesthetics of AKA’s song, Victory Lap.
An artist owning the streets of the country’s economic and financial hub for a day, even if it is by chance, opened a world of opportunities for Ditsele, who was propeled into the limelight after the video.
Today, ideas constantly fall on his lap, even when he is on the move.
As he scrolls through his phone, he stumbles upon a never-ending list of ideas he forgot existed (such as the one at the beginning of this story). With surprise, he recites various plot lines.
“Crime family show, three sisters and a kid brother with a grandmother… Whenever I am on a train, plane, car or even a jog, a small idea will come into my head,” he says.
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Kutlwano’s relationship with film goes back to when he was eight years old; setting up a make-shift cinema for his cousins at their family home in the mountainous parts of Rustenburg, in the North West province.
Despite limited resources (television and electricity), what little exposure they had to the enchanting effect of those screens would inspire the young Ditsele and his cousins to re-enact those scenes, with him assuming the role of the director.
“Your responsibility is for that single mother who wakes up at 4 o’clock in the morning, who has to get water outside, boil that water, get the kids’ food ready, get on a train for an hour or two to be the first to get into the office and having to leave at three or four o’clock, to sit in front of the television at eight in the evening, to forget about her problems for the hour,” he says.
Intellectual property is a commodity in the local film industry that leaves filmmakers like Ditsele working twice as hard to build a name and fix the misrepresentations that were previously normalized before African filmmakers had the means of production. Globally, the industry has created more opportunities for black filmmakers.
In 2005, Ditsele was awarded the opportunity to study at the New York Film Academy.
The cultural exchanges he shared with students from Singapore, Indonesia, China and Brazil taught him that filmmaking is not only about learning in class but exploring one’s environment.
Learning in Hollywood placed him in a privileged position when he returned to South Africa in 2008.
“Your responsibility is for that single mother who wakes up at 4 o’clock…to forget about her problems for the hour.”
He took it upon himself to re-tell the African narrative by documenting positive representations of the continent. However, this becomes a tightrope walk for local film producers who need to ensure their work has commercial appeal.
A contemporary challenge is that story-tellers, like Ditsele, have to compete for a seat in the mainstream industry.
“It is more about the African narrative other than just the South African narrative. I think that it is hard for us to ignore that the biggest propaganda machine, America, is in the films. How we view America is from everything they have done.
“Aliens are coming, and America will save them (humans). They have told this incredible narrative about themselves and it has gone out into the world. The narrative around Africa has been quite the opposite. A narrative of poverty, jungle, primitive and they keep telling that narrative and they shy away from progressive stories,” he says.
The filmmaker highlights that although the local industry developed over the last 25 years, the number of those waiting in line remains high, and those who fortuitously manage to float to the top and become brands are few and far between.
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Despite being behind the camera, Distele says there are industry inhibitors that prevent creatives from owning their intellectual property.
In a bitter twist of irony, many local stars who are celebrated far and wide will die without a cent to their name to the extent that their families are forced to crowdfund for burial costs.
“What you create is owned by someone else and they can make as much money as they want. I think it is wrong because Picasso should decide how much his painting is worth, not somebody else,” he says.
A simple idea, like the 2018 South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA)-nominated production, The Herd, achieved immense commercial success as the story lines are often merged with the topical issues of the day.
For Distele, South African productions about love, power and wealth are an example of how the production company keeps the African narrative relatable to all viewers. For instance, the plot twist of a young girl thrust into power in a modern world; cultural ceremonies are portrayed in a way that the millennial audience can immerse themselves in.
The proliferation of social media and digitalization has given the audience agency to comment in real time and engage and be critical of the content given to them and directors like Ditsele are paying close attention.