Interview with Sara Blecher

2015_AYANDAYANDA is a highly anticipated South African film, directed by Sara Blecher and produced by Real Eyes in association with Leading Lady Productions. AYANDA follows the story of a young Johannesburg Afro-hipster who inherits her late father’s neglected garage and sets about modernising it. The film will screen at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on 20 October as part of the Cambridge African Film Festival. Toby Miller spoke to Blecher in advance of the film’s UK premiere at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival, on October 10.

Toby Miller: Would I be correct in thinking that ‘AYANDA’ partly came from a desire you had to see a South African film with compelling, flawed and realistic female lead?

Sara Blecher: That’s absolutely true. I took my teenage daughter to see the Canadian film JUNO, and I remember being completely amazed by the transformation that happened in her – because it was almost as though watching the Juno character gave her a whole load of new possibilities for her life. So I was very keen to make a film that would do the same thing for African women, give them a role model that presented new possibilities that we don’t normally see on the screen in South Africa.

TM: ‘BLACK GIRL’, which is screening at the Cambridge African Film Festival, is an example of how African film once had a reputation for strong and rounded female characters. Your reaction to JUNO makes me wonder if that equality was vanishing in South African cinema, if female characters have become more generic over the last two decades?

SB: I think that has happened. I was a judge on the South African Film and Television Awards a couple of years ago and we couldn’t award for a female lead because there weren’t any presented across the whole of South African television. I think most female leads are either ciphers for the male characters or they are consumed with materialism and trading in looks, and the politics of sexual transactions. I think that’s particularly sad. We get so much influence from American film and TV in this country that there are no South African leads that are flawed but in control of their own lives, making decisions in quite a real way. I think it’s something that needs to be remedied.

TM: You began your filmmaking career in New York and then, when you returned to South Africa, worked in television, including putting together the a South African version of Who Do You Think You Are?. That particular project seems to me indicative of your feature films, especially AYANDA: in that you seem fascinated by the past, and how it impacts on the present.

“We can’t move forward as a country until we honestly grapple with the past.”

SB: Yes, both personally and in terms of my family life. My family comes from Lithuania, where most of them were massacred before and around the Second World War. I’m totally fascinated by the effect that had on later generations. We can’t move forward as a country until we honestly grapple with the past. In a way, that’s the lead character Ayanda’s journey through the film. Her father was killed in quite traumatic circumstances only eight years before. It’s only by revisiting that event through the course of the movie and by understanding how that impacted on her mother, brother and uncle – is she actually able to move forward? I’m totally fascinated by those questions. I’ve now completed my third film this year, an Afrikaans film called DIS EK, ANNA, which is about a young girl who is abused by her stepfather. Abuse is the same sort of thing. When it’s not confronted, the trauma carries over through a person’s entire life and through their children’s lives.

TM: We’ve made “AYANDA’ sound a heavy going drama, but it’s as light as a feather when it needs to be – it’s a comedy, a romance. Was it tricky to make sure your film spoke both to South African and international audiences? You’ll want your contemporary view of a lively, growing and vibrant South Africa to be seen by as many people as possible.

SB: Absolutely. I think it was better received outside the country, but in retrospect people within the country are starting to look at it now. In some ways it was a little bit ahead of its time. To be honest, I don’t really think about the foreign reception of my films. I really consider myself deeply entwined in South Africa, and I really do try and make films for this country. Sometimes people shy away from them, but what I tried to do with AYANDA was to make a film that wasn’t heavy, to appeal to ordinary young urban Africans who are as comfortable on the streets of London, Paris and New York as they are in Johannesburg. People have in their minds this image of Africa that’s all about pain and violence, diseases and suffering but actually there’s this generation who are very tuned in to what’s going on in the rest of the world. I did want to showcase that in AYANDA.

TM: How did you find your debutant star, Fulu Moguvhani?

SB: We needed someone who was effervescent and a great actress, who could carry big drama and sustain every single scene in the movie. So it was unbelievably challenging. By the end, we had seen over 200 girls. We needed someone who could bring something new to South African cinema. She’s not the girl next door, she’s someone completely original. It was fantastic to find Fulu. This is her first film. She’s only acted in one soap but she’s an extraordinary actress and an extraordinary person. She came in at the end of a hectic day when we were so tired, and blew us away. It was like Ayanda walked into the room – it was very exciting.

“The term they use here is “Afripolitan”, Africans who are part of the modern world.”

TM: Could we talk a little more about the young South Africa, the creative youth that you were discussing earlier?

SB: I think what’s happened in the last five or six years is that we are more hooked into what’s going on in the rest of the world, whereas before, especially during apartheid, and a few years after that, South Africa was quite isolated. We became a part of the modern world, and young South Africans are struggling to marry that with a respect and love for their own traditions and culture. And I think what they’re coming up with in that exploration is quite exciting. It’s sort of an African take on the modern world. The term they use here is “Afripolitan”, Africans who are part of the modern world.

TM: I’m a video editor by day and I’ve just now finished four films for the South African tourism board. That’s exactly what they are pushing – those are the people they are interviewing.

SB: I wish they would support us! That’s exactly what the film is talking about. When you look at South Africa with its history, you tend to focus on a lot of negative stereotypes, forgetting that actually people live, and are creative. I was reading an interview with Patti Smith yesterday in which she said that one of the things about freedom is that it’s the struggle that is the more creative period. When you’ve got freedom, people are less creative because there’s less at stake, and they also don’t value and understand their freedom. In a way, that did happen in South Africa after the end of apartheid. But now with the government that we have, there’s a renewed struggle. A lot of interesting thoughts are bubbling around. If you look at the South African music scene and the film scene, it’s all about finding our own voice. Not a question of “we’ve got to end apartheid” or “we’ve got to do things in an American way”. People have the space and freedom to explore who we are, and young people are really doing it.

TM: This year the Cambridge African Film Festival is showing seven films from female filmmakers, which is a large number for a festival of its size. I’ve read that Kenya has had a groundswell of female film directors, and The Ethiopian Film Institute sent four female directors to Cannes a couple of years ago, but what’s the situation like in South Africa for female filmmakers?

“Every day there are more and more women breaking through the glass ceiling.”

SB: It’s certainly getting better, certainly better than it is in America, but it’s not like it is in Kenya or Ethiopia. Nigeria’s also got a huge number of female filmmakers. I’ve been trying to think why that is. Why is South Africa not like the other African countries? The conclusion that I came to is that South Africa had quite a developed film industry, so in fact we had a glass ceiling for women in a way that Kenya or Ethiopia maybe hasn’t. So there is that thing you have to break through as a female film director, and a lot of women are breaking through it. Every day there are more and more. That’s really exciting. The problem is that in terms of cinema, the research has shown that the people who mostly buy the tickets are the men. So even though we have more female filmmakers and are making more films for female audiences, it isn’t often the women who are making the ticket choices. I think that’s the next hurdle. Women need to feel that they can make the choice about what movies they’re going to see, not going with their husbands and boyfriends to buy them. It’s important to have that female perspective, female-centric films that don’t glorify violence, but focus rather on the effect of the violence on those people who suffer it. We need more of that.