How did you go about creating What Did You Dream? Can you talk us through the filming processes a little?
I had a very detailed visual treatment based on what I remember of my grandmother’s house in the summers of the early 90s in the township of Atteridgeville, Pretoria. The visual treatment had to match that memory which was part of the experiment in testing what my nostalgia looks like in film-form. We had to find a house in Atteridgeville that matched my grandmother’s and those are now very hard to find three decades later. We ended up shooting in rooms and spaces in three different houses. Similarly, we had to find furniture that matched my grandmother’s and had to make sure that when we’re shooting exteriors, we don’t show too much of the modernised world. The township now has a lot of satellite dishes on the roofs of houses. We came up with a plan to cover them with sheepskin. I also knew that I wanted to cast child actors that spoke the Setswana language particular to Pretoria townships (where I grew up). There are not a lot of trained child actors in general especially from this region. We did a casting call at the local theatre where they run a small theatre clinic for children. I chose six children and workshopped the script with them over weeks leading up to the shoot. I chose the final three and we workshopped the script some more. None of them had ever been on camera and the youngest had never acted before but they all knew their lines well and we had spoken about owning the script and making it theirs. The shoot was four days long during the hottest time of the year because we had to shoot with the child actors during school holidays. The cinematographer (Rick Joaquim) and I, spent days shot-listing every part of the script with visual references because we knew we didn’t have much time with the children. We did enough preparation to make sure we got all our shots in. I also insisted, where it was possible, to shoot the scenes in sequence so that the child actors are able to follow the story as we shoot.
Can you tell us a bit about the young girl’s character, Boipelo?
The character of Boipelo is a representation of my younger self, and in essence, my older self too. I’m interested in exploring how freedom brought about opportunities for black South Africans but also meant some sort of societal schism. Just like Boipelo, I always felt like I didn’t belong, no matter how much I wanted to, because I went to a “white” school (as opposed to a school in the township) and lived in a bigger house because my parents were the small percentage who had “good” jobs. Boipelo’s angst and inability to dream and the tension between her and her male cousin Tebogo, is what I feel a lot even today. The opportunities I was afforded meant that I was alienated from where I come from which is a constant discomfort and a theme I continue to explore in my work.
Your short film is based on your childhood memories from your grandmother’s house. What do you want the audience will get out of it? Did you feel that anyone could relate to this story?
I’d like the audience to see black South African lives represented in a nuanced ways even against the backdrop of the end of Apartheid because much as Apartheid is seminal in our collective history, we had pretty ordinary experiences as well. There was play, fights at school, prize givings, losing teeth, having one’s first period, divorce and we dreamt, every day. I also wanted to tell the coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old who is struggling with the angst of going to a new school with people who are nothing like her – a girl who has to learn to move forward and still hold onto her heritage which is a dance very few have been able to perfect. All these I believe are very relatable themes to audiences around the world.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
The format has given me immense freedom which I had never, ever experienced before. I work in television as a writer/director and the medium has limited freedom as it is dictated by so many stakeholders. My funder of the short film gave me the freedom to create exactly what I wanted with the team of my choice from beginning to end without any interference which was a dream come true!
What do you consider your cinematographic references?
I referenced some of my favourite films with children as protagonists. I really wanted to create a sense of wonder, innocence and playfulness in the world of the children that’s quite distinct from when they interact with the more serious adult world. I also delved deeply into interviews and other material about how the filmmakers directed the child actors. The films are Crooklyn (1994) of Spike Lee, Mustang (2015) of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012) of Benh Zeitlin, The Florida Project (2017) of Sean Baker and We The Animals (2018) of Jeremiah Zagar. The visual treatment of the film was an attempt to replicate that of old family albums and the work of photographers like Santu Mofokeng and Gordon Parks who capture the everyday lives of black people.