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SXSW 2018: Director Nosipho Dumisa talks feature film debut “Number 37”

SXSW 2018 has officially begun! We are so excited to bring you an exclusive interview with director and writer Nosipho Dumisa. Her first feature film, “Number 37,” will have its World Premiere at SXSW on Saturday, March 10. This makes her one of the first black female narrative feature film directors coming out of South Africa. “Number 37” follows  a wheelchair-bound man and his girlfriend that play a risky game of cat and mouse when they blackmail a powerful criminal whilst evading a sadistic loan shark. Nosipho formed Gambit Films in 2009 with other like-minded filmmakers in South Africa, and has since served as a producer on the popular local daily soap, “Suidooster” (2016), and TV movies. Learn more about “Number 37” and Nosipho’s journey below.

Nosipho Dumisa Still
Nosipho Dumisa

Hi Nosipho. Nice to meet you!

Hi Catherine. Lovely to meet you too and thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I’m excited!

Catherine: Can you talk about your journey to becoming a director? What led you to want to become a filmmaker? 

Nosipho: I grew up in a small coastal town in South Africa, in a family of academics and entrepreneurs. Though many of my uncles and even my father were, at some point in their lives, published writers and musicians, what was celebrated in my family was a ‘respectable’ career path from which you could make an honest living. I truly believed that I would one day be a doctor. I’d loved drama and writing but had not considered the possibility of what I thought was merely a hobby, becoming my ‘work’… Until a wonderful teacher entered my life in the 10th grade and saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. She took an interest in me as a budding actress (at the time), exposed me to the idea of film school and changed the course of my life.

My path to becoming a director was by divine intervention. I had applied to film school for the performance stream but was accepted into what they called “Motion Picture Medium” academy. I can’t say that there was a moment when I knew that I wanted to become a director because the choice to major in writing and directing was due to the fact that I didn’t understand what anything else entailed back then. But somehow over the course of film school, I fell in love with telling stories, creating and molding them, collaborating with actors and other departments, and then I realized that I was good at it.

Catherine: You said that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” was a big influence on “Number 37.” You took inspiration from that film and made it your own. What are some other influences that inspire your work? 

Nosipho: Inspiration comes from everywhere – books, stalking people in the streets, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, etc. I study the works of the directors I love and look up to. But I’m most inspired by people and their real stories. Coming across harrowing accounts of people facing the odds and beating them will usually spark my interest. I try to create stories about people that feel real, tangible and authentic and place them within the context of genre films.

Catherine: “Number 37” was a short film first and now your first feature. What challenges did you face turning this into a feature film? Were there any surprises throughout the process? 

Nosipho: Yes, it was a short film and I’d actually co-directed that with my friend and longtime business partner at Gambit Films, Travis Taute – remember his name. The short film did pretty well and I’ll always be proud of it, but it also meant that there needed to be something new in the feature film, something fresh. For me, I was interested in really digging into Randal and Pam’s relationship. It needed to be very layered and I wanted it to feel real and therefore imperfect.

Editing the script was also another challenge. Theoretically, I had more time to tell the story in the feature and the temptation was to put all of my ideas in the film – it seemed so simple. But what I found was that the bigger the story got, the less impact it had and the less I cared about Randal or Pam. Deciding what stayed and what went was excruciating. I wanted to create a whole world that lived and breathed outside the apartment. The stories of each of Randal and Pam’s neighbours, Randal and Pam’s history etc, Detective Gail February and the police chief are all such compelling stories that were in the first few drafts of the script but ultimately had to go.

As for surprises along the way, independent film productions come with surprises every day – some good and some bad. My best memory was arriving on set in the same location we’d shot the short film in and having people remember us and want to invite us into their homes. I hadn’t fully realized how much of an impact we were having in their lives.

Still from "Number 37"
Still from “Number 37”

Catherine: “Number 37” builds up the tension beautifully. Having Randal in a confined space as the anchor really added to that tension with the looming fate that he is trying to avoid. Can you talk about shooting from that location and building up the suspense? What were some challenges in that?

Nosipho: The biggest challenge in telling the story in this little world of Randal’s and, for the most part, never really leaving it, is that over one hundred minutes, fatigue for the audience can set in. Fatigue for the crew is also dangerous. Instead of fighting against this ‘limitation’ I decided to make it my best friend. Randal’s apartment became his prison, our prison, making our access to the outside world via the binoculars all the more crucial. That window became the thing we looked forward to. We had to experience the world as Randal experienced it and I had to create rules for when and how we were allowed to leave the apartment, how we separated days and time within the apartment, and how we could be in the same space and yet have it feel different each time. My DOP, Zenn van Zyl, and I worked hard on this and I think he did a great job!

Initially I wanted to build the apartment in a studio so that it would allow me to play and build the apartment to my exact specifications. Ultimately, I didn’t, and I’m glad. We shot on real locations where the narrative portrayed on screen is not uncommon. That tension on location fed into what you saw on screen.

What was also amazing was watching how being confined to this space began to affect the actors as well. Slowly over the course of the production, Irshaad Ally (Randal) began to grow more attached to the set and his wheelchair. Sometimes we would have to force him to go off-set in between setups. His performance began to change and feel more grounded – it was beautiful to witness.

Catherine: I noticed that you did a lot of wide angle shots and then instead of going to medium you really zoomed in. I liked getting personal with the characters, but then seeing where they fit into the bigger scheme of things. Can you talk about what was behind that? 

Nosipho: From the beginning of my discussions with the DOP, Zenn, and my editor, Simon Beesley, we knew that the film’s visual DNA would shift as Randal’s world tumbled further into chaos. When Randal first arrives in the fictional Haven Mansions, he is forlorn due to his paralysis and the secrets he’s keeping from Pam. He’s gone from being a virile man to what he perceives as broken. On top of that, he’s stuck in this apartment. It becomes his prison. The choice here was to observe Randal from a distance, creating a sense of isolation being at odds with his own space. Jumping from wides to tighter shots, like you’ve said, without giving us time to acclimatize created that strange and unnatural feeling, thereby also adding to the tension. But with the gift of the binoculars and Randal having ‘a plan’ he regains a sense of control and the style shifted with him. His movements began to dictate our movements with the camera and even when we chose to cut. With each tightening of the screws of tension and chaos, our style also began to change.

Catherine: This cast is amazing. Everyone plays their part so well. Can you talk about the casting process and what you look for? 

Nosipho: First of all, thank you for acknowledging that because we worked very hard to bring authentic performances here! I could write a whole essay on this process for me because it’s my favourite part. I’ve already mentioned that I might have become an actor myself in a different life – my mother is very glad that I didn’t. As far as possible, I tried to cast actors who understood the real world that inspired my imagined New Haven/Haven Mansions. The main leads, bar one or two, all grew up in different suburbs of the Cape Flats and the actor who portrays Lawyer (David Manuel) actually came through the prison system in Cape Town, which is where he discovered his love of drama. His story is amazing!

I also wrote the film in English then had the actors, along with a translator, find the authentic Afrikaans that they would have used where some of them still live. If you know the Afrikaans language, you will understand that they are using a very specific Cape Flats dialect that can’t really be taught.

The biggest surprise here was finding Monique Rockman (Pam). This is her first leading role in a feature film, having only had tiny cameos before this. I’d seen her for other smaller parts, which she was just too beautiful for. The role of Pam had been filled from the very beginning so we couldn’t even consider her for the role. But as circumstances unfolded, I needed to go back and audition actresses for Pam again. From the moment Monique opened her mouth and smiled, I knew she was it. For me, she didn’t have to ‘find’ Pam because she already was Pam. And then we started rehearsing and we took that even further, really wanting to show the strength of Pam’s vulnerability.

Catherine: With the recent movements going on in Hollywood about diversity and gender equality in film, how does it feel bringing this film that you directed and wrote to SXSW? You’re one of the first female black feature film directors from South Africa. What do you hope this film brings to the table? 

Nosipho: It’s an incredible feeling! It’s my debut film and for me being at SXSW is more about opening the film industry to different voices and new worlds and hopefully building more open-minded and curious audiences. With social media, the world is changing rapidly and getting smaller. Yet the power dynamics in the film industry haven’t caught up. The fact that I’m one of the first black female feature film directors (narrative) from South Africa should perhaps make me proud, but to me, it only highlights how little progress has been made and how much further we have still to go. I look forward to the day when being black or female as a director, is no longer something to be applauded because it’s just as normal as a white male director. This year SXSW has so many female directors and I’m excited about it. It’s encouraging.

Catherine: Anything else you would like to add?

Nosipho: When my producers at Gambit Films and I made this film, we were trusting that it would speak to an audience beyond our own borders because it’s such a universal story in a thrilling format. My ambition is to make films that speak to the masses without compromising on authenticity. Making it into an amazing festival like SXSW that celebrates genre films is affirmation that we did something right.

Catch “Number 37” at SXSW: 

Saturday, March 10, 9:15pm Alamo Ritz 2 (World Premiere)

Monday, March 12, 2:30pm, Alamo Lamar C

Wednesday, March 14, 7:30pm, Alamo Lamar C

Get the full SXSW schedule here and make sure to follow us for more exclusive interviews, reviews, recaps and more from SXSW 2018!

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