Ntshavheni wa Luruli: Tshivenda narratives
The Durban International Film Festival has announced the selection of Elelwani as the film that will open the curtains on the 33rd edition of South Africa’s largest and longest running film festival. This groundbreaking world premiere takes place on July 19, made possible by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (who was both the first funder of the film, and principal funder of the festival), and the National Film and Video Foundation, a crucial partner both of this pioneering production and DIFF. We spoke to the film’s director Ntshavheni wa Luruli.
What originally attracted you to making films?
It’s funny. I cannot tell or remember what made me to be a filmmaker. For some reason I wanted to make films.
Who would you say are some of the people that have had the strongest influence on your creative outlook?
When I passed matric, my father bought me a pocket sized camera, 110mm. When my friends were busy going to stadiums on Saturdays, I spent my time at Ben Suzan Museum of photography which was on Empire Road, Johannesburg, learning about depth of field, composition, and how to take artistic pictures.
What do you think of the film scene locally?
Lots of films are being made at the moment, which is a very good thing. We can only improve and ultimately make great films by doing, and not just talking about them. The only missing link in this venture is the audience support. Films are made for the audience. It takes two to tango.
What relevance do you think films have in South Africa today and what message do you think they need to articulate?
People must be free to make films that they want, and tell stories as they wish.
Lets speak a little bit about Elelwani, How did you get involved with the project?
Elelwani was one of the four novels by Dr. Titus Maumela that I wanted to adapt for television. But after I was turned down several times I decided to make a feature film from the Novel of the same title. But I gave up. Florian picked up the pieces and worked very hard over the years to get the film made.
What are some of the weird experiences and wonderful experiences that you have had during the making of this film?
I did not have a script when we started production. The crew was absolutely terrified. Then we were rained out during the shoot. It was literally raining everyday in Venda, Limpopo. The local Venda people were very generous in helping us with everything we needed, especially his majesty, King Kennedy Tshivhase, who allowed us to shoot at his royal residence, which was unheard of. So to him I say, long live the king.
Tshivenda is a very marginalized language in South African film, why do you think that is and how difficult was it to find backing for this project?
Tshivenda is not only marginalized in films, it is marginalized everywhere. Historically Venda people have always been marginalized. We grew up despised and spat at by other groups in South Africa. We were called “amaShangaani”. Worthless. Unfortunately this trend continues today. Many of the Venda and Shangaan people were killed during the xenophobia riots. I knew that it was going to be very difficult to convince anybody to make a film about these people. I really didn’t envisage though that it would be this difficult.
The film is based on a book, how difficult was it to translate the written narrative into a film?
It was not that difficult. The thing that attracted me to this book, apart from the fact that it was prescribe to us when I was in form 1, was the fact that it is very visually written in terms of form and structure.
One of the criticisms against adaptations is that they lose a lot of the original story, is this a challenge that you faced whilst making the film?
People make criticism against adaptations largely out of ignorance. The reality is that we are dealing with different mediums. In a film you have only two hours (roughly 120 pages) to tell a story, whereas with a novel you have unlimited number of pages — you can go back and forth in telling a story — inside the character, what he/she thinks internally, and the background story in detail. Now imagine if you are dealing with a book which is a thousand pages long. How many hours are you prepared to sit in the theater and watch a film that long? Film is a visual medium. What you see is what you get. Elelwani is based on the novel that was written in the 50’s. I chose the theme and made it contemporary. And it is only 60 pages long.
The film features well known actress Florence Masebe how did you go about casting the film and what value did the cast add to this film?
Florence is a great actress. She carries the film excellently. Luckily she is Muvenda, and she understands the culture very well. She was my choice right from the start. The rest are a mixture of actors and non actors. There is a very small pool of Venda actors since there are no Venda stories that are told, which could help to cultivate professional acting experience.
The film will be opening up the DIFF tell us what this means for you as a director?
I’m a nervous wreck at the moment. There’s too much hype. Too much expectation. I don’t like it when it’s like this. But at the same time I feel very honoured by DIFF. Thanks to them.
What do you think local audiences will take away from this film?
They are definitely going to see a very different film. And I hope that they look at a film on its merit, dealing with human story that touches humanity everywhere, and not just a first Venda feature film.
Are there any plans for wider distribution of the film?
I’m sure if there’s audience for it, it will be distributed accordingly.
What are some of the other projects and initiatives you are working on?
I’m still working on projects that people don’t want.