Milisuthando Bongela: A journey to film


At the core of Milisuthando Bongela’s mission is telling the African story. Her professional journey began in the fashion industry as a journalist and consultant. She has worked for publications such as City Press, Women 24, Dazed & Confused, Colours, Elle magazine, and W magazine. Bongela also worked as the arts editor for Mail & Guardian‘s Friday section and was co-host and co-producer of the podcast Umoya: On African Spirituality

Bongela has recently written and directed her first film, Milisuthando – a poetic coming-of-age personal essay documentary set within the context of South Africa’s apartheid history and post-apartheid present. The film explores the intricate themes of love and being human in a racial world and captures moments from her memory. 

Bongela is the inaugural fellow of the 2020 Adobe Women at Sundance. Milisuthando, the film, had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, with global showcases in other parts of the United States as well as countries like Colombia, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Korea thereafter. It was also nominated for the IDA Documentary Awards to be held on 12 December 2023, in the categories of Best Feature, Best Writing, and Best Director. 

In August 2023, Bongela took part in the IQOQO Sessions and shared her path to filmmaking. 

Milisuthando Bongela: One very warm evening in the summer of 2017, I attended the opening night of the annual Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair with my best friend Buyisa, who was moving back to South Africa from the UK at the time. So, I was showing her my world. 

At the time, I was the editor of the Mail & Guardian. I was also the co-host and co-producer of the podcast called Umoya: On African Spirituality with my friend Athambile Masola. We decided to go to the after party, at which a group of about five people who were curators, writers, artists – old acquaintances and random people from the Joburg art scene – came up to me unprovoked like a cluster of spiders. They stood around me and began to sew a web of accusations at me: “Uzenza bhetele wena.”, “you act as if you’ve just discovered your Blackness yesterday”, “you’re not a good writer”, “the title of your column is the wrong Xhosa word”, and “a whole art editor does not know who Helen Sebidi is” are some of the words I remember. I stood there in rage and shock, and we argued back and forth. 

When I woke up, I realised that those people were external reflections of my inner voice – how I felt about myself internally, despite all the ways I had done well for myself. At 32, I had been a jack-of-all-trades, which I was fine with but I had long felt that there was something profound in me that wanted to come out, that I was running away from. It’s one thing to build a career supporting other artists. It’s another to be bold enough to make your own work. I desperately wanted to be brilliant at something.

And so she found something to be brilliant at. Milisuthando, which has received critical acclaim multiple times over, was however not an easy birth. While the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and a private donor from South Africa contributed funds, 96% of the funding was raised in Europe and America.  

Milisuthando Bongela: Making the film was a combination of our capabilities and intellect as a team, the brief, the script, and what we wanted the film to say and mean to people. 

Filmmaking is a process of intuition because, during production, you don’t know what the film is yet but you intuitively have a feel for things. With fiction, it’s a little bit easier because there’s more certainty on the page. 

With a documentary, you rely on everybody’s skill-set and creativity to come in, play together and see what naturally comes up. It wasn’t a clear process but we sharpened our ability to understand each other, the more we stayed on the project, and the more we practiced. 

Earlier this year, the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which was both surreal and an educational experience. It was a dream come true that came with a lot of sacrifices and a lot of debt that we’re still in, a lot of harnessing the true power of collaboration, a lot of answered prayers, and a lot of dealing with oily opportunistic and dodgy characters which I think are in every industry. 

I spent the last seven months touring the film in different parts of the world, including MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art] in New York and the Encounters International Film Festival in South Africa. [In July], we won the award for best South African documentary at the Durban International Film Festival.

What does all of this success mean for the people and the film industry back home in South Africa?

Milisuthando Bongela: Our goal was to make a film that not only had an impact on the people who were watching it but one that was trying to articulate what contemporary South African cinema is, compared to the rest of the world. We grew up watching very, very good TV in this country. I don’t know what happened to that excellence, but something has happened to it over the years. 

While we have the infrastructure to create our French New Wave or our own Italian Neorealism, I don’t think that our cinema is as brilliant as it could be. This, for me, makes it the perfect place to keep trying to make films. 

Have I made it in the film industry? I don’t know. Success, for me, is not an individual thing, it’s a collective experience. 

It may look like things are changing in film in Africa, and they are. However, in which direction? To me, making it is when independent filmmakers can stop relying on overseas institutions to fund their films. 

Making it is when Africans invest in the development and sustainability of local cultural productions. 

Making it is when really smart, talented, passionate and disciplined creative people can live off of their work; not having to do rent-paying soul-diminishing work just to survive. I don’t think we’re there yet. 

Despite being written about in Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter, going to the best festivals and meeting the most powerful people, the truth is that behind what looks like a veil of success, there are serious challenges.

According to Bongela, there are various major elements to be taken care of for the South African film industry to take a step in the right direction. 

Milisuthando Bongela: There are some government institutions that have been set up to support artists, documentary filmmakers and filmmakers of other forms, but we could also use funding from rich people who can buy boats and live in places like Barbuda and still pump money into filmmaking and cultural production. Why? Not only because they have bleeding hearts, which is good, but also because they would be making money. Hollywood is what it is because they put money into ideas. 

As a country, our stories are very unique and I feel like very few of them have been tapped into. It’s a matter of people learning that in order to have the industry we want to see, we have to support it. What we need is institutional knowledge and the institutions themselves. For example, when I was coming up, the banks hadn’t supported the art world yet. In the last 20 years, Investec, Standard Bank, FNB and many more have been investing in the visual arts, and that’s what we need to do for the other arts. 

Bongela and her team are now striving for a larger audience to see and hear the unique and remarkable story they told about South Africa.

Milisuthando Bongela: Right now, we are looking for a distributor… We are also trusting the film to find its home. 

We are living in a time of distribution purgatory, which means that we came up at a time when everyone wants to support films by Black people, queer and trans people, and so forth. So, a lot of films have now been made and are all just sitting because nobody’s buying them. What the streamers have done in the last couple of years is to overturn everything in a negative way to boost distribution. Now audiences are changing and [those who make decisions] are basically saying that if it is not a celebrity and if it is not a true-crime story, then we can’t sell it. 

I don’t know how to communicate to them that all of us have the capacity for different things. There’s so much fear in the industry right now all over the world. So many of my peers have done exquisite and beautiful films that are stunning works of art that are sitting, in the name of “well, we don’t know how many eyes it’s going to draw in”. The problem is that we’re now not making films for film’s sake and for all the things that art can do, it is about what is going to sell. There is a whole transformation that needs to happen in the industry. 

I really want to put this film in universities where it can become part of the curriculum so that people can sit with it. It is not a once-off film. We don’t necessarily want it to draw attention in a blockbuster way, we just want it to stay with people in a way that teaches them about our history and themselves. 

The conventional way of releasing films is no longer working. The industry itself has to figure out what to do with the new-age films being made by people who were not considered when it was built. There’s a whole bunch of other ways that people are engaging with films and cinema that also deserve to be invested in. 

The connection with spirituality and the African identity was prominent in the making of Milisuthando – and intentionally so. 

Milisuthando Bongela: I discovered, or rediscovered, my spirituality through the process. We always looked at the film as an entity… Every day, we would light a candle that was there to remind us that this is a calling.  

We had to let go of certainty, which means learning to suppress your ego. It took a long time because it was by being in that process that we discovered that making films is spiritual. You’re giving your life to every aspect of it. It affects people across different levels. We dream about characters and storylines. 

I also feel like as Africans, as South Africans who are Black, so much of our ancestors’ skills as artists and craftspeople were suppressed because they had to be domestic workers and gardeners. My personal theory is: now that we are free to become dancers, artists, lawyers and accountants, that energy that was suppressed is now catching up to us and finding us wherever we are, to finally find expression through us. 

There are a series of Milisuthando screenings coming up in Cape Town on 6 December, Johannesburg on 7 December, East London on 8 December, and Bloemfontein on 9 December for the Documentary Filmmakers’ Association of South Africa. Find out more here. 

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