It’s quite fascinating to observe that despite the emergence of locally produced films and television series featuring homegrown talent, there’s a noticeable disparity in what ultimately makes it to our screens, and largely to our knowledge. One plausible explanation for this phenomenon, I would say, could be attributed to the exponential growth of the film industry, resulting in a variety of cinematic offerings that sometimes cannot be categorised as having ‘mainstream appeal’. Many of these productions are tailor-made for niche, alternative audiences, delving into unique experiences that only a few can relate to.
Aside from relatability as a criterion for how well a movie performs, sometimes a lack of recognition for these films and filmmakers is the relatively modest scale of their productions. With limited budgets and resources at their disposal, many local creatives may find themselves overshadowed by the continuity of big-budget production.
Bubblegum Club Catches up with writer, filmmaker and founder of the ‘The Nameless Film Club’ Motheo Mamabolo who, through their club’s various activities, champions the significance of uplifting the voices of lesser-known filmmakers who craft locally produced films from unheard narratives, that sometimes, fits as a cornerstone to bigger conversations about what the identity of the local film industry is, in recent times, and what are some of the challenges endured by emerging filmmakers.
Illustration by @SivGreyson
Ruvesen Naidoo: What initially got you interested in movie reviewing? How did this influence your interest in reviewing films produced by local and ‘nameless’ filmmakers?
Motheo Mamabolo: To escape the mundane hours during lockdown, I would write an article a day for an online news channel.
When the words would get repetitive I’d put on a short film. I would quickly think of a million things to write about. Are there existing ethics behind directing trauma-induced scenes/stories? What kind of support exists for actors/actresses after the fact? How do producers build safe facilities for conflict during production? After a while, it became pretty obvious what sparked inspiration for me. That’s how I began writing about what I was watching. Looking back at my work I quickly realised that a lot of it was centred around the European & Asian film industry, which I’m still a nerd about. Local was still something that I yearned for. Or maybe it was just a yearning to read about myself and the people I see, hear about and recognise in my own work too.
RN: What’s your take on the local film industry as a whole?
MM: Perhaps I’ll start with the film industry in general or even the idea of storytelling. Being part of this community, and calling myself a filmmaker, is a privilege. Making movies is a privilege when you consider what goes into the craft. In our country, those privileges dictate where and how far. That’s a fortunate and unfortunate thing depending on the angle and lens you view it.
The privilege that I believe in is narrative. Being afforded and blessed with the ability and power to shape a narrative, manipulate it, expose it and create an idea from it. I also believe that our filmmakers are truly exploring that and I want to be a part of that picture.
Many things in our country have multiple, somewhat questionable hurdles. The local film industry could never be exempt from this. Perhaps it might be that the production companies that have a leg in the race have coined a formula that we (small studios) don’t have yet. Perhaps it’s all about faking it until you convince everyone you’ve made it.
RN: What criteria do you and your club members use when selecting which small-cost or local films to review?
MM: The script is our cornerstone.
Accessibility to the film scripts is important to the club. Our pillar is film literature and we prioritise the script, produced or un-produced, as the foundation of all film.
We have been lucky enough to work with filmmakers who have had their scripts produced and that gets all of us chuffed. Seeing the work move from paper to film is a cinematic catharsis. I would like to take a beat to recognise what a privilege that is. There are a million and one storytellers who walked among us, the nameless makers, who might never get the chance to see how their narratives can remedy a child, a teacher, another filmmaker. We don’t take that privilege lightly.
RN: How do you see the role of your club in promoting and supporting independent filmmakers in your local community?
MM: We named this community the nameless film club, at first, because we didn’t have a tangible name for it. Soon it became apparent that our vision is to make way for filmmakers across genres and borders. Filmmakers with narratives, and experiences that serve as mirrors to society. Some of these filmmakers might never see their works on big screens, some might never see where their work goes. Some will remain nameless.
I see this club as part of a widening circle and stories being right in the centre of it all. I see this club squeezing itself and its members into the creative ecology. Our role is to sharpen the narrative and provide tools for filmmakers in the nameless parts of our society. To bring to the fore the stories of the unnamed, who fall by the wayside.
RN: Could you share some of the most memorable or impactful reviews or discussions your club has had about local films?
MM: We read a script that had no dialogue in it. Very short script and is incredibly punchy. We had to read it a couple of times, too. Usually, our feedback sessions go for about 20 minutes, and we sit talking about the script for an hour.
One memorable thing about that discussion was how everyone saw the film play out in their heads. Some members could really feel the intimacy between the two characters, despite never really knowing what was being said in those spaces. It was an impeccable moment that for me spoke true to the importance of film literature.
RN: What challenges have you encountered in running a movie review club that specialises in lesser-known productions, and how have you overcome them?
MM: Finding local content to share has been the biggest challenge. I think that ideas are a precious thing to anyone who has them. For some creatives, it’s a difficult thing to let those ideas go and showcase something that isn’t “finished.” We are basically asking filmmakers to be vulnerable in front of people they don’t know. I accept that as one of my greatest challenges because part of it requires trust.
Another is our curation of events based on how the viewing experience has changed. The introduction of new media has coerced a shorter attention span in viewers. Our model is 1.) to specialise in curating short films and 2.) to do without projectors and utilise phones as a viewing mechanism. This model presents challenges as we rely heavily on WiFi and mobile data. Lastly, we cannot screen too many films to reserve batteries for our guests.
Some of these problems don’t necessarily have immediate solutions. Our temporary solution has been to curate the most ideal environment to enjoy these short films. Providing a safe, well-resourced facility is the key to encouraging engagement for our club members. Our events are designed to feel like a family cookout; a relaxed reunion of creative people who can sit back, enjoy short films at their leisure and feedback over a family lunch.
RN: How do you go about building a community of film enthusiasts who are interested in exploring and discussing independent and local films?
MM: It may sound like a tangent but bear with me. We build community through food because, well, everyone has to eat. I learnt that from my mother. On Sundays, my mother would prepare a big lunch for all of us. Her rule was that we would need to sit together and talk.
We incorporate this model into our meetings. Some of the best feedback comes after one bite of my famous chilli tuna salad. Food encourages community, connection and most importantly compassion. Food reminds us all that we are human with the basic need to be fed. Being asked to pass the blood orange chicken and beetroot at a long table is a gesture of kindness and community. Words like, “please” and “thank you” are majestic expressions that prompt connection. It’s simple and it works.
RN: What types of events or activities would you hope to organise as a club, to engage with local filmmakers or create a sense of community among your members?
MM: Currently our club hosts two events; the table reads and the plot thickens. Each event was curated with an intention in mind. We are planning more club lunches and screenings with the hopes of connecting filmmakers to their future crew members. We would also like to introduce writing workshops and retreats outside of epicentres. A break from industrial expectations could be inspiring and we’d like to explore what that can give birth to.
RN: In what ways do you believe small-cost and local filmmaking contributes to the diversity and creativity of the film industry as a whole?
MM: It goes without saying that making a film can feature many exuberant costs. Truly because no one wants to make a “bad” film so having money really provides a fluffy cushion. In film school, we are taught, as producers, that every minute on set equals x % of production costs.
What we observe with low-cost short filmmaking is the solutions are heavily reliant on the environment and relationship. What we achieve leans on where we find ourselves and how we work together. Community and shared goals can pretty much move any mountain. It’s a filmmaking process that relies on networking across, trusting that things may actually work out if you trust your team. This process requires facilitation instead of finance. All it requires is dedication to solving a problem, how can we tell this story in the simplest way?
What that brings to the film industry is opportunity which this economy desperately needs. The unspoken wish of most filmmakers is to tell stories that live forever, to conquer oblivion. Every filmmaker is deserving of opportunity because it is that very opportunity that will decide in the very end if they will stand the test of time.
RN: Are there any local filmmakers or productions that your club has reviewed that you believe deserve more recognition or attention from a wider audience?
MM: The Film & Vinyl Club is a Johannesburg-based club founded by Malusi Bengu. They have an archive of locally produced films by their members. I truly am inspired by their work and the effort to build their own archive – which I believe is the ultimate vision and mission of our own club.
RN: Can you share any success stories of local filmmakers who have benefited from your club’s reviews and feedback?
MM: Every Monday we host table reads; organised online script reads where a selected script is read aloud to an audience of listeners. We’ve invited filmmakers who have scripts in development and those who have their work produced.
My favourite memory was reading a horror script in development. The writer wanted to share the work to get feedback to see if his concept worked. After reading it, the collective response was beautiful. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the script and the writer felt encouraged and inspired to continue writing.
Sometimes the idea needs to leave the comfort of our screens. Letting go is its own kind of success. I’m happy we got to be part of that.
RN: What are your future goals and aspirations for your movie review club in the context of promoting small-cost productions and local filmmaking?
MM: We are building a home with the help of our club members and the larger community. We started this journey spread across the country, now it’s time to find a place of our own.
The Nameless Film Clubhouse is our next big passion project and we’ve started our fundraising campaign. With the goal of R125 000 the Nameless Film Clubhouse will devote space for film enthusiasts to share in the creative energy. We want to create archives of scripts written by our own members, bring awareness to and screen local films, teach the histories of filmmaking and research local archives.
So far we have raised R915 on our back-a-buddy page and R4 000 from an angel donor.
Our clubhouse will be based in Mahikeng, North West: my hometown. This is to help the South African film industry and its community broaden itself outside of creative epicentres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
Our aspirations are to curate our very own film festival. We truly believe that we are growing a unique archive of stories and experiences. Sharing that library of knowledge with our community is our way of supporting filmmakers in their paths. Wish us luck!
Illustration by Motheo Mamabolo