Behind the scenes with Nomawonga on set for Five Tiger

Interview: Visionary Director Behind Five Tiger, Nomawonga Khumalo

South Africa is ever bursting with new and matured talent taking the world by storm, and as if further swanking was required, 2020 logged more accolades from the rainbow nation than ever before. This year, however, the curtains are opening for writer and director Nomawonga Khumalo. She closed the year off with the news of her debut short film Five Tiger gaining selection for screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and now we are merely waiting for the rest of the world to give Khumalo her flowers. The festival is scheduled to take place digitally and in-person from January 28 to February 3.

Five Tiger centres around a religious woman forced into a transactional relationship with a leader in her church in order to support her family. Bringing the film to life is brilliant actress Ayanda Seoka who takes on the lead role. The cast also includes Fumani Shilubani, Khalalelo Makhanda and Menzi Biyela.

Nomawonga spoke to us at Featured Black about the making of Five Tiger, the Sundance Film Festival and her journey as a woman filmmaker.

Lead actress Ayanda Seoka (sitting) and Nomawonga Khumalo behind the scenes filming Five Tiger

Congratulations on your nomination for the Sundance Film Festival. What does this mean to you as a filmmaker, given that it comes hot on the heels of your career-defining feat at the Durban FilmMart with your feature debut The Bursary, which was named ‘Best South African Feature’?

The Durban Film Mart was an incredible space where I was first introduced to a larger group of industry practitioners. Winning prizes for pitching my debut feature film “The Bursary” and all the feedback that the panellists had generously shared with me gave me the confidence to write and direct Five Tiger.

Five Tiger interrogates some of the most pressing issues currently in South Africa; the ‘Sugar Daddy’ phenomenon and young women getting into transactional relationships, while equally highlighting feminism in a contemporary religious context. Why was it important to educate people about these particular issues?

The discourse around transactional relationships, religion and femininity can be convoluted depending on who is telling the story. Five Tiger is an attempt at contextualising these phenomena, offering a sympathetic eye as opposed to judgment in order to see all the moving parts that uphold gender hierarchies. The more perspectives we offer an audience, the more likely they will be to look beyond
the surface. That is what is required if we as a society are to begin the dismantling of patriarchal structures and notions.

Please give us the background on what actually inspired the ‘prostitution’ storyline? 

The inspiration comes from a real-life encounter I had with a prostitute whose faith facilitated her acceptance of her living condition. She resembled many women, including myself, who have had the carrot of dignity and providence dangled before them at the cost of following the prescriptions of culture and religion. Existing outside of this mould (due to choice or circumstance) can be debilitating but is necessary if we are to find our own voices.

What’s the main message/ or some of the key messages you want people to take away from watching the film?

I’d like audiences to review realities they have come to accept and know to be true. Religion has a way of making its followers buy into realities, through conviction, that do not serve them. I’d like audiences to remember that man makes religion and so have the power to change it. This goes for anything that society accepts as the ‘status-quo’.

Five Tiger Stills
Stills from short film Five Tiger

How has the process of making this film both impacted you personally and changed your life as a filmmaker?

For the first time, I see the themes portrayed in my story as not just subjective to the lived realities of African people, as I have had contact with audiences from around the world who resonated with the film. It is difficult to retain authenticity when you hold onto the perspective that your experiences will not translate to the rest of the global community. This film has given me the courage to be boldly and audaciously African in my story-telling and in my being.

Five Tigers has struck a chord with ordinary men & women as it has with key figures within South African & international film circles – with CEO of NFVF Makhosazana Khanyile hailing it as “transcendent of centuries and continents”. Why is it important for local filmmakers not only tell their own stories but those that resonate with the masses anywhere in the world, no matter how difficult or complicated the topic may be?

As a global community, we are far more similar than we think and share many common experiences. The unique flavour brought by local story-tellers gives the world an opportunity to connect with something similar to their own realities but different enough to teach them about a world outside of their own. We have become well versed with Western culture, Indian culture and West African culture through their retelling of what can be perceived as difficult and complicated topics. Nothing is stopping us from doing the same and I believe we are well on our way in finessing our cinematic language so it is accessible to the global community.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I was a broke student who was fortunate enough to find work as an on-set tutor. I recognised early on that the film industry is a great platform for the ambitious, self-taught individual to thrive. I was also fortunate that the culture of the SA film industry is supportive of teaching and learning. Having producers like Paulo Areal, Schalk Burger and Brett Michael Innes, enabled my growth as a writer/director with a support structure I could always turn to.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had learn to navigate along the way, especially as a woman?

As a woman in the film industry, I found that the opportunities to learn were plentiful but opportunities to execute what you have been taught were scarce. Mentors came a dime-a-dozen but very few were willing to take a chance on my capabilities enough to give me an opportunity to write or direct on projects.

Early on in my career, I struggled with transportation to and from the locations we would shoot at, often starting as early as 5 am and wrapping very late. I had to rely on lifts from other male crew members who would take the opportunity to make romantic advances. The element of safety meant I had to construct a façade that would ensure I presented as masculine to ward off anyone looking to take advantage of me.
I’ve had to ignore voices that are more interested in my team or who supports my career than my own ambitions, development and planned career trajectory. I have had insinuations that romantic or sexual relationships are at the core of my associations, which discounts my decade-long tenure in the industry. A man in my position would not be subject to such scrutiny, let alone labelled as a ‘hustler’.

What’s your take on the of the South African industry, particularly in regard to its support for female filmmakers?

The South African film industry is a major player in the emergence of female voices in our story-telling. Organisations such as the NFVF have many grants, funds and educational programs that support the female voice and I’m pleased to see a growing number of women in the industry as a result.

And how would you like to see it changed? 

The growth of the industry at large is beneficial to female storytellers. I’d like to see us playing in international spaces more as I believe we have a lot to offer.
With that growth, I believe more time and money can be put to diversifying women’s stories so the true kaleidoscope of lived realities can be explored.

Where to from here / what are you currently working on?

I am in the development phase of my debut feature film, The Bursary, which tells the tale of a final year student on a Maiden’s bursary who gets raped and must make the choice between completing her studies or seeking justice for herself. The film is set to shoot in the third quarter of 2021 in Johannesburg and KZN with the support of the NFVF, TMPC Productions, Nostalgia Productions, Revolver Amsterdam and LA-based 141 Entertainment.

Watch trailer for Five Tiger below.

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