by michel’le donnelly
I’m taking ya’ll back to 2016, when I had just landed my first real gig in film and television. I was a development intern at a local production company and my job was to read and evaluate scripts, watch films and TV and come up with new ideas – literally my idea of heaven. One of the first tasks I was given was to watch a short film, that we were going to develop into a feature. I was told to make notes and present them in a meeting with the filmmaker later that week. And so I I watched this lil short and was so captivated by it that I watched it 3 more times. The film not only resonated with me but it also said a lot without having to be obvious at all. ‘Hair that Moves’ follows the story of 10-year old Buhle who starts to wonder if her life would be much simpler if she just had the perfect “straight” hair she sees glorified on her television screen. The decision to depict such a current topic, that affects the lives of so many adult women, through the eyes of a child was a brilliant move by filmmaker Yolanda Mogatusi. My only note was that I wanted to see more! When I realised I would have to speak in front of the writer and director I was full of nerves. I mean, her film had me ready to start rolling on my own. But I had nothing to worry about because Yolanda is one of the friendliest and most engaging people I’ve ever met. Even though I was just a shitty intern, she made me feel like my points were valid and she took them on board, not dismissing me at all. Yolanda has really inspired me, especially as a womxn of colour working in the film and TV industry today, so once MOXIE got going I just knew I had to introduce her to you all.
Michel’le Donnelly: When did you decide to become a scriptwriter?
Yolanda Mogatusi: I didn’t really decide, it kind of just happened. I went to film school to actually study performance but upon getting there, I quickly realised that as a performer, I will constantly be needing someone else’s approval in order to get a job and I felt like I needed a bit more security than that. I signed up for a directing major instead but directing needed you to write your own scripts. I had written poetry and essays before at school, as you do, but screenwriting was a whole other kettle of fish. That’s how that journey started.
MD: So, what does the South African film industry look like for women of colour?
YM: I don’t know really. I think it looks different for different women. For some women it is a world of opportunity and it is just about being at the right time at the right place. For others, it is working your way up until the opportune time. For others it is certainly an uphill climb and a fight for resources and recognition. I think it is partly what you make it and even with the opportunities that exist specifically for women, it is really what you do with those opportunities to line yourself up for the next one.
MD: Do you remember the first film you wrote, what was it about?
YM: The first film I wrote was in film-school and it was about a girl who has confidence issues when a huge pimple pops up, the day before an important audition. She needs to find the true source of her confidence and get creative with hiding that pimple – which she does. I was later told that short film I made in first year was screened to the next batch of first years the following year which was kind of cool, but surprising as it was, intrinsically, an awkward, first attempt at filmmaking – ever.
MD: What is your writing process?
YM: I procrastinate, read a lot of online articles and then I procrastinate a bit more. The procrastinating is really just to allow my mind to accept what might or rather will happen with the writing process – an outpour of deep seated fears, questions, insecurities, wounds, vile thoughts…all the ugly inside myself that, on a normal day/ week, I really can’t be dealing with. Then if I can, I go away, to a place with a view, the sea, a mountain, a nice garden…somewhere where a kind of untainted natural beauty occurs. Then you bleed on the page for days. The view, the scenery is almost hope that everything will be ok after a moment of looking at the fragility inside yourself.
MD: Hair that Moves is such a delightful and incredible short film. what was the inspiration behind it and did you expect it to do so well?
YM: I wrote Hair That Moves as an entry to the then Focus Features Africa First programme. I wrote it over a weekend and was so unsure about my entry as I thought I had just written this silly film about hair but hey, hair is something that can connect the most unlikely people. I was indeed one of the winners and because of the support from Focus Features, I did indeed hope the film would do well, but back then, only a small audience was getting the message in the film. After the saga at Pretoria Girls High and stories of black girls’ hair being policed and what that means, I think only then did the film seem relevant and did people go oh! I wrote the film in 2013 but it only gained traction in late 2015 into 2016. It’s taken a while but I’m glad there is a growing audience for this type of film here in SA.
MD: As a fan, I’m glad as well laughs. So what sort of rituals do you have? Things you do to maintain a clear, happy and healthy mind?
YM: I try to eat well – don’t alway get it right but I try to respect my body. I dance – random, first-thing-in-the-morning dancing or actual lessons and class and such. In different seasons, yoga or meditation of some sort is really great for slowing life down as well. And then because a lot of what I do involves being quite active on social media and keeping abreast of things, I watch who I follow and what content I receive from my online acquaintances. There’s a lot of empty noise out there.
MD: So true. And is there any medium that you have not yet ventured into, that you’ve always wanted to?
YM: Fashion! I kind of did and then I left to get back to film. My gran was a seamstress and dressmaker, I remember modelling for her from time. My mom worked for a huge Chemical company that invented Lycra, Teflon and Kevlar amongst many others polymers and she would always bring these samples home and this grew my interest in fabrics. One day is one day…
MD: Yas, you have to do it! So, do you see yourself as a filmmaker or a screenwriter?
YM: Filmmaker. Definitely filmmaker. I don’t just write scripts fortunately/unfortunately – I have to make the whole thing happen.
MD: And making the whole thing happen can be such a task at times. What is the most difficult thing about the industry?
YM: Generally, I think access is a big thing. Access in terms of information and just knowing what to do and where to start if you want to get into film. I used to teach a lot of young and even older people from the township who wanted to find an entry point into the world of television and film. They see those bubblegum films locally and from Nollywood and they feel they can also just do it. They probably can but filmmaking, even in the simplest form, is a bit involved. If you just want to create something and show it to your friends or family, then by all means you can probably do it. But creating something on a big scale that you hope will one day be broadcast nationally, you need trained and knowledgeable support. Also accessing funding both locally and internationally…not a lot of people understand what is involved and what is expected there. There are a lot of things I have had to learn on the go and I am still learning because it just wasn’t taught to me. It’s information I really need to seek to find and it’s sometimes information I am expected to know which can be frustrating.
MD: I can imagine, what about any new projects you’re working on?
YM: Yes! I have a documentary film about local dance-sport champions called, Rumba in the Jungle – The return.The two other projects in development are kind of spin-offs or have been inspired by Hair That Moves. The first is an animated project called Rapulani and Rapunzel and is about a 5-year black girl with a magic afro who’s best friend is Rapunzel. The second is a TV show called The B Team, about a girl who moves from the “good life”, in Riverclub Sandton, to the “hood life” in Orlando East, Soweto after her parents divorce. She is also kicked out of the popular group at school (The A team) and decides to form her own group of misfits called the B team.
MD: Ah, that sounds so exciting! What advice do you have for young black girls who are looking to make it in the industry?
YM: Know what you are about. Know what you want. Know what you don’t want – but also be open to constructive criticism. You will get lots of criticism and you need to discern which to listen to and which to just shrug off. Your room for error is still small and even smaller than that of the black male filmmaker – so find a way to be outstanding. It’s ok to fail; even the Spielberg’s and the Spike Lee’s of this world still encounter failure. Nothing is new under the sun, so that script you’ve been hiding from people because you think it is brilliant and someone might steal it, Joe Soap might already be working on it. In the same breath, you can share freely and indeed your ideas can be or rather will be “borrowed”, I will call it. Most of the time, there is nothing you can do when that happens – creation is a very labyrinthine process. What I can advise here is don’t be a one trick pony – keep observing the world around you, learn new things, suffer new things, find new stories to tell…always!