With the release of ‘Drummies’, we brought in the big guns to go face-to-face with the new Giant and find out what someone so accomplished in the doccie space is bringing to the commercial world. One of South Africa’s accomplished commercial directors and fellow Giant, Karien Cherry, talks to Jessie about the film, the pursuit of truth and how (spoiler alert) their fear of failure drives them to do great work.
The pursuit of truth OR not having egg on your face
Karien: I was blown away by the formal treatment of your documentary ‘Drummies’. It showed me a world that I’m familiar with but in a way that I had never seen it before. Often, when watching commercials I find everything feels very similar to me, everything looks similar, shot the same, graded the same way. It’s a precious thing to find someone who has such a unique perspective on South Africa, our world and our reality, and to be able to show that to us in a way that is as engaging as you have. What have some of your influences been?
Jessie: I am a theatre nerd and I grew up in the theatre world in Cape Town. It was only when I went to university, where I studied Drama and had the opportunity to pick up a camera for the first time. It was my first exposure to the world of film essentially. I do a lot of documentary work but my influences often come from commercials and fiction. I think some of the best commercial directors are informed by longform narrative world, like Miles Jay for example. I’m a big fan of Andrea Arnold who I think is one of the best directors out there. She’s primarily a fiction filmmaker but her films have this real sense of truth to them, it’s an edge and grit that exists in the footage that you can’t quite put your finger on. I also love this director in South Africa named Karien Cherry.
Karien: I’m not paying her to say that!
Karien: For whatever reason, many people seem to think that documentary filmmaking is just cheap lighting and a handheld camera 😉 Your work is an example of what documentary can be. I find it really interesting how your visual style changes in your work to serve different stories and ideas.
Jessie: I don’t think there is a definitive example of what doccie is and that’s the point to me.
Karien: So how do you define documentary as a form?
Jessie: I guess the correct description according to ‘doccie people’ would be “the creative application of some sort of truth”. That’s the broader definition and what I try to do at least. For me, documentary provides a playful medium to really have fun with storytelling and push genre boundaries, but of course, it always has to be grounded in some sort of truth.
Behind the Scenes for “Faces of Fortune”, Jessie’s new short doccie about one of South Africa’s most prolific drag queens, Terry Fortune. The film is funded by the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture (DSAC) and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF). The film is currently in post-production.
Karien: It’s interesting to see how that pursuit of truth translates in a fictional commercial story.
Jessie: Irrespective of whether it’s a 30″ spot or a 15-minute documentary, there is always a duty to honour the truth of what you’re capturing rather than imposing some sort of outside version of truth onto it. And I think that truth is gathered and created through listening to the situation, the people you’re filming with and the people around you. That all forms part of the vision of truth that will eventually end up on camera, whether a doccie or a commercial.
Karien: And I think you can apply that principle of listening to agency relationships too. Sometimes as directors we come to a project with our own ideas but ultimately, we are there to serve someone else’s idea. I think that is a quality that is rare, but so important. It’s not an us-and-them scenario, it’s something we want to create together.
Jessie: It can be a risk as you know, listening and being open to things changing. But also, being proven wrong in your creative process, it’s a humbling experience but we have to be open to it. It’s a radical honesty that is required and a suspension of ego.
Karien: It’s a relentless pursuit of the truth. I am constantly questioning everything!
Jessie: The thing with documentary that is so beautiful, is that it is a medium that understands the nature of constantly evolving stories. It’s a medium that understands that as you go along in the process, things will change and you always must be susceptible to change and able to make that change.
Karien: That’s a quality that will serve you well in commercials – the ability to pivot quickly and evolve and deal with things as they come is gold. When I watch your work it is obvious to me that you are a filmmaker in the truest sense in that you’re a problem solver. Someone once said to me that 90% of filmmaking is problem-solving – a great idea and a good vision is wonderful, but you have to be able to execute it. Especially with the time parameters we have in commercials.
Jessie: Oh man, 99.9% is problem-solving. Sometimes I think the process of making commercials or any film is a constant pursuit of making it not bad, ha-ha.
Karien: Ha-ha yes. The pursuit of not having egg on your face.
Jessie: Yes, you’re just slowly but surely trying to mould it into something that is good.
Karien: You’re revealing our deep fear of failure here!