Behind the Work of Directors Teboho Mahlatsi, Stephina Zwane and Justice Mukheli from Bomb Commercials
Directors Teboho Mahlatsi, Stephina Zwane and Justice Mukheli from Bomb Commercials each share a desire to represent and showcase our country and its people with honesty and beauty on screen. Bomb Commercials has for over 15 years shared this same passion; to produce content rooted in authentic South African storytelling. We Skyped the trio about some of their latest stand out work and the cogs that went into creating it…that is, once we got past the buffering.
Over the last ten years, Stephina has been grafting hard as a Writer, Director, and Producer. Apart from her extensive TV work, she also has two feature films under her belt and is now excited to introduce her unique voice to the commercials world. Her most recent film, Baby Mamas, is perfectly timed with her move to join the esteemed team at Bomb. She explains why the production company is a dream come true: ‘Bomb is an institution and I get to work with legends. I am surrounded by support from people who have been in the business for years. After spending just 5 minutes in a room with them you walk out thinking so differently about film. It’s a privilege.’
As the Writer, Director and Producer of ‘Baby Mamas’ – a comedy drama revolving around the lives of four women all in ‘different stages of their own baby mama drama’ – Stephina, who does not have any children of her own, describes where the inspiration came from: ‘I’ve always been there for my female friends or family if they needed to take their husband, boyfriend or ex to court to pay child maintenance. And then one day I did it for my brother and saw the other side. I realised perhaps we are speaking over each other as couples and I wanted ‘Baby Mamas’ to start opening up those conversations.’ And judging by the reception and standing ovations from film festivals in Lagos, New York, Toronto and locally, we think Stephina can take a bow.
iDidTht: ‘A film created by women for women, with 4 female leads, people’s heads must have exploded haha! Why is it significant?’
Stephina: ‘Most of the media I consumed growing up and even now, the stories were most often told from male perspectives. I just wasn’t hearing enough female voices. So when I had the opportunity to tell my own stories I thought it’s important to tell them authentically from my perspective, through my lens and through how I live as a woman.’
iDidTht: ‘Applying for funding took over a year and a half. Did you face any obstacles being a woman and wanting funding for a film with four female leads?’
Stephina: ‘I remember at a pitch one of the guys said ‘Why don’t you cut down the lead characters to 3’ and I said that in my film there are 4 stages to being a Baby Mama so I needed them all to represent each stage. He replied saying ‘But it’s just too many women’. He quickly realised the room he was in and backed down.’
iDidTht: ‘So what was your reaction when you heard your funding had been approved?’
Justice Mukheli joined Bomb Commercials near the end of 2018. His thought-provoking portrayal of South Africa and its diverse people and his background in photography ads a rich emotive layer to his work. His two recent spots; ‘Edgars 100 Ways to do Denim’ and ‘Woñi’ by Blick Bassy showcase Justice’s versatile abilities as a Director.
Justice: ‘The focus for the Edgars ad was really on the lifestyle that goes with wearing denim. Despite our shoot day being completely rained out, we made it work by working with natural lighting and it turned out beautifully. I also have to boast about Bomb because they gave us three DOPs which meant we could just keep shooting.’
Justice explains that ‘Woñi’ tells the moving story of the death of Ruben Um Nyobé, an anti-colonialist Cameroonian leader. The song is about how the ruling colonial party butchered Ruben and dragged his body through the city streets – a message to anyone who dared rise up against them. Ruben’s death sent waves of shock, trauma and hopelessness throughout Cameroon which led to alcoholism and the emergence of countless shebeens around the country.
iDidTht: ‘This is your first music video, why has it taken this long and how did it all come together?’
Justice: ‘I was hesitant at first but my Producer Marc G Harrison reminded me that directing music videos was a great way to exercise my creativity. Coincidently, I ran into Teboho that same day and he said that he would love to see my photography come to life more in my directing work. I figured this could be my opportunity to do that. I then went on holiday to climb Machu Picchu and when I reached the top the inspiration came.’
iDidTht: ‘Just sommer casually on top of Machu Picchu! Haha. What was the idea?’
Justice: ‘I wanted to tell a story that centered in a house run by an older woman who also runs a shebeen. The shebeen was a symbol of what the country was struggling against – the alcoholism and the pain. In the same house, she has a granddaughter who she is teaching and grooming to be someone that will make good choices. She teaches her about the history of the country. We follow the girl and see her being tempted by the shebeen, but also trying to be good for her gran who wants the best for her.’
iDidTht: ‘What wouldn’t we know just by watching the ad?’
Justice: ‘Bomb’s Art Director built that whole set, we shot it in a studio.’
iDidTht: ‘No way! There were some moments at the beginning of the video that cut to a black screen and were silent, um was that intentional?’
Justice: ‘Haha yes, our Editor, Saki Bergh, came up with the idea. At first, I thought it was a bit jarring but I realised that the silence actually pulls you in. People either like it or it makes them uncomfortable and they think it’s a mistake.’
iDidTht: ‘Well it’s not your job to make people comfortable and hey, sometimes we wake up and we think our face is a mistake, but it’s ours to deal with.’
Justice: ‘Haha exactly.’
iDidTht: ‘Was there something about this music video that changed you as a person or Director at all?’
Justice: ‘The whole experience made me realise the power we have as artists and filmmakers. Just by telling the story the way I’m telling it I felt like an extension of Ruben’s voice in today’s time. That moment will forever be with me because it made me realise the importance and power of what we do.’
iDidTht: ‘Lordy we love you! Okay, last question; what was your reaction when you saw the final cut of Woñi?’
When Teboho received the brief from FCB to create something for South Africans that would encourage them to travel around their own country and tell an authentic African story that will resonate with a local audience – he went in with guns blazing.
Teboho: ‘I knew the story needed to be a film instead of a commercial. It needed to feel cinematic in order for us to treat our local audience with respect. It was all in the script, I just tried to bring it to life and introduce African elements – what kind of designer was he, what kind of village was it and what inspiration was he looking for. There were many inspirations I used myself, including Grace Jones for the princess, which was a beautiful contrast to the village.’
iDidTht: ‘What was important for you to get right in this film?’
Teboho: ‘I wanted the South African audience to recognise how beautiful the country was, but also to create an element of desire – be inspired, get off the couch and travel. And in the middle of all of that I wanted to tell a universal story of an artist, of inspiration and of love.’
iDidTht: ‘Was there a moment working on this film that stuck with you or changed you?’
Teboho: ‘When the princess walks into the designer’s house and she’s so regal. Our designer is so intimidated, desperately trying to come up with ideas to please her – that’s me. As an artist, whether you’re pitching or coming up with a treatment or a script, you are trying to please someone. There is nothing wrong with trying over and over again until you reach the heart of the material. I was telling my story as an artist through the designer. You just have to keep going at it until you hit it.’
iDidTht: ‘Maxx Moticoe’s portrayal of Bheki was so honest and as a Director, we think you handled that beautifully, what were you looking for when casting?’
Teboho: ‘I wanted someone with a background in theatre who would be able to improvise. Maxx brought that honesty with him. He was exploring the country as a person the same way his character was. It comes from my background in television. When we did ‘Yizo Yizo’ it was exactly the same approach; you cast someone that is as close as possible to the character that you’ve written and then you step back because, yes the script is there as a guideline, but you have to bring your own colour and truth to it. And we did that with ‘Bheki’.’
iDidTht: ‘Okay so we’re just gonna shoot straight here – we had a problem with this film. Where is the final dress?!’
Teboho: ‘Haha, in my treatment I did have him coming back to the village and presenting a dress or at least a sketch, but the rest of the team felt we should leave it open-ended…’
iDidTht (Shouting): ‘They were wrong! Wrong we tell you! Show us the dress!’
Teboho: ‘Hey this country has endless possibilities and you just have to keep traveling and get inspired, so hopefully in the next installment we’ll see more.’
iDidTht: ‘We better! Teboho, what advice would you give Steph or other Directors making the move from long form to commercials directing?’
Teboho: ‘Steph certainly doesn’t need my advice, but in general, whether it’s a 60-second ad or a 2-hour feature – always trust your instincts. Find the honesty of the story you want to tell and then be bullish about it. If you’re moving from long form to shorts, bring those same instincts along – for me there is no difference. There still needs to be honesty in the material and heart in the story.’
iDidTht: ‘And lastly, what was your reaction when Bheki won Best Film at the One Screen Film Festival?’
Teboho: ‘Basically the same way I celebrate an Arsenal goal.’
Directors Teboho Mahlatsi, Stephina Zwane, and Justice Mukheli are artists wanting to create authentic work that has the potential to change us. And we should all be open to that.
Produced by the iDidTht Content Studio
Credits: Anne Hirsch (Writer) / Julie Maunder
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