Matshepo Maja and Jonathan Parkinson Join Forces as Co-Directing Duo at The Star Films Company. Meet Phi 2.0 (Interview)

At first glance, Jonathan and Matshepo might not necessarily look like they belong to the same WhatsApp group. In fact this unlikely duo are two South African Directors, opposite in experience, culture, age, you name it! But, and it’s a big but, both have a passion to create work fueled by the sharing of ideas, passing on of knowledge, and allowing for the space to push each other creatively. We met up with this new sexy co-directing team to talk all things Phi and the power of opposites. Buckle up!

The first phase of Phi was a very successful three year collaboration, which saw Jonathan, who has over 30 years of experience in the industry, team up with Director Nicole Ackerman. After an amazing run creating beautiful work together, Nicole has moved on to focus on a solo career and it’s time for a Phi reboot. Enter Director Matshepo Maja. Matshepo isn’t new to the film industry, and has over 8 years of experience in production and directing. After graduating from AFDA she’s steadily been building a powerful body of work as a solo director, including commercials for MTN Zambia, Standard Bank and Unilever Global.

iDidTht: How did this blessed union come about?
: I started putting feelers out for a new Co-director for Phi and people started suggesting Matshepo. I read her bio and thought ‘She sounds just like me!’ She was totally speaking my language. At the time she was living in Cape Town and I was in Joburg. I phoned her in January and said that I would very much like to meet her. Then I phoned her in February. Then I phoned her in March. Then in April. Look Cape Town has a lot to answer for and she was incredibly busy at the time but I finally got her to meet me in Joburg and…
Matshepo: …And we got on like a house on fire!

iDidTht: Don’t lie! Really? All that calling, surely set off some crazy-alerts?
Matshepo: Haha. No. I was so busy, but finally one day I just said ‘Okay Jono, I’m booking my flight to Joburg.’ The next day we had breakfast followed by lunch and we just spent the whole day together talking non-stop. And it was only really after that, when I got back on the flight to Cape Town, that I thought ‘Okay I’m in!’

iDidTht: What is the kind of work you want to create with Phi?
Jonathan: We have a lot of similarities in terms of our strengths, like performance directing and writing. But I also love visual effects and I didn’t always have the opportunity to explore that. Our approach is to do work that nobody has seen before and that’s all about allowing for an expansion of imagination more than anything. And I also love where Matshepo’s interests lie, it’s very exciting.
Matshepo: I like dark, gritty, cinematic and moody narrative commercials that have a storyline that leaves something to the imagination. I would love to push boundaries visually and in terms of narrative and even take things into the third realm of dark fantasy or speculative fiction.
Jonathan: Good answer!

iDidTht: Um, we’re not sure if this is a Stranger Things reference, but what is third realm?
Matshepo: It plays in the field of anything but reality.
iDidTht: Ooh we’re gonna totally use that: ‘Oh, this conversation has gone very third realm!’ or ‘Donald Trump is so third realm right now!’
Matshepo: Haha, yes exactly!

iDidTht: Jono, while at Star Films you’ve been co-directing under the name Phi for over three years, but Matshepo what does Phi mean to you?
Matshepo: There’s a magic to it. In Phi everything works in opposites and it’s about the synergy of opposites and the need for duality in anything in life. There’s beauty and magic in that because that’s where real creativity can spawn from. Just having the power of numbers behind you and how that puts you in a whole different space mentally is powerful too. It’s new, it’s fresh and it’s a way to look at advertising and the work that we do from completely different perspectives while having a balance in-between. And it’s also because of our different experiences and perspectives of the world and the discovery of what that world is that I decided to be in a co-directorship rather than go out on my own. And I think that’s what our biggest goal is: to explore those differences so we can push the boundaries and each other.
Jonathan: That pushing aspect is probably one of the most important parts of it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what business you’re in, you can become complacent and you can think you’ve reached a goal, but actually no, you haven’t pushed far enough. And that’s what Matshepo is gonna do with me and that’s what I’m gonna do with her.

Things Got Real

iDidTht: As a black female director and in a time when everyone is starting to finally talk about the rise of the black female director, what made you change your career trajectory and join forces with Jonathan…who, well, we don’t know if you’ve noticed, but is not a black female?
Mats: He’s not a black female? What? This is all suddenly very third realm! Ha! Yes, I’m glad you asked that and it’s something I also wanted to raise. Be prepared, this answer will seriously add to your word-count but here I go.
iDidTht: We couldn’t be more excited!
Matshepo: I thought long and hard about this and I know some of my peers will disagree with it. But not a lot of people, especially young black females, will have the opportunity or access to be mentored by an awarded and experienced Director like Jonathan, no matter what they do. I want to use that to my advantage because it’s going to be ten times harder for me to gain that experience on my own. But I also want to break the stereotype. Who says we can’t pair up?! I want to encourage people, especially the older generation, that if you want to complain about the industry, think about what you are doing to assist and bridge the gap between the different groups? If we don’t have mentors and people willing to actually openly teach then we’re just going to be stuck in this perpetual cycle and not grow. I think that’s what I would like for this image to represent – we can break the whole system down, and the system does need to be broken down on many levels, but at the same time there has to be some kind of teaching and extending hands down to the younger generation. There is no point in sitting on your throne of knowledge by yourself and complaining about the industry. A door has opened for me and there is someone I can learn from, and sure, he’s the complete opposite to me and yes, it will create a lot of conversations, but at the end of the day, it’s my journey. I feel that this is right and I feel that the amount of knowledge and access I have with Jonathan could take me much further. And that is knowledge I can pass on to the next group of young black females.
iDidTht: Beautifully said Matshepo!
Jonathan: Yes exactly. Our industry is probably the most liberal and the least transformed. It’s about people taking a step forward to make these changes happen successfully rather than saying ‘Well they’ve got the opportunity so let everyone just come forward.’ It doesn’t work like that.

This Cutie Phi is Most Likely to…

Let’s see just how opposite you two really are.

Most likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize?

Most likely to start a sideline hustle as a model?

Most likely to tweet something that goes viral?

Most likely to be the first to suggest ‘shots!’?

Most likely to be stuck in quicksand?

Most likely to fall over their own shoes?

We’ll spare you the rainbow nation platitudes and rather just say it like it is: Jonathan and Matshepo might be opposites in many respects but together the possibilities are limitless. We are damn excited to see what this unlikely combination will create and look forward to going a little #ThirdRealm with Phi!

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Executive Producer: Adam Thal

Produced by the iDidTht Content Studio
Credits: Anne Hirsch (Writer) / Julie Maunder

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