Raised on her grandfather’s stories, this SA director’s putting SA folktales on a ‘global platform’

Raised on her grandfather's stories, this SA director's putting SA folktales on a 'global platform'
Raised on her grandfather's stories, this SA director's putting SA folktales on a 'global platform'

Africa-Press – South-Africa. News24 Arts and Entertainment editor Leandra Engelbrecht chats with Gcobisa Yako, one of six African filmmakers whose short story is part of the anthology series African, Folktales Reimagined on Netflix.

Filmmaker Gcobisa Yako’s biggest inspiration in telling stories has been her grandfather, from whom she grew up hearing many different folktales. On Wednesday, 29 March, her short film, a reimagined take on Mamlambo, the mystical river being in South African and Zulu mythology, premiered on Netflix.

Yako is one of six filmmakers from the continent who were selected in 2021 following a call for submission, from Netflix and UNESCO, for a short film competition for stories that celebrate African cultural identity, themed African Folktales Reimagined.

It was a ‘shocker’ when the 26-year-old discovered her film had been selected.

“The intention when I applied for the competition was not with the focus of winning it. I didn’t really think it was something that I could achieve. It was just putting myself out there and just seeing where that takes me.”

Yako recalls being the first of 21 people to present her film and thinking she would be forgettable because there were so many people after that.

“It was the first time I had conceptualised something and shared it with such an established audience as the judges there. So, it was a shocker. It was unbelievable. But I attributed it to my grandmother, who passed away, I think, a couple of months prior to it. It felt like an affirmation of her being, you know, transcended to the next phase of existence.”

Yako says it is ‘affirming’ to be part of the initiative, which had 2000 applications from all over the continent. Each emerging storyteller was armed with resources, including a $90 000 budget and creative guidance by established filmmakers as mentors to bring their stories to life.

She completed her studies in 2019, and when she started working, the pandemic hit.

“That whole situation definitely decreased my belief in this dream I had about this filmmaking journey and wanting to make the stories that I wanted to make. Being part of something like this affirms that there is no set path and journey similar to anybody else’s. It’s made me realise that you can think something will work out a certain way, but the universe has other plans for you.”

She adds:

‘I’m going to change the way the woman is portrayed’

Of all the stories Yako heard from her grandfather, the story of Mamlambo was the most memorable, and it was one of the only ones with a woman at the centre of it.

Yako says it was interesting because the woman was constantly vilified, like a ‘horrible, big, bad wolf.’

“I just found that kind of ironic, especially in the sense of how patriarchy works, in the context of this country and everything. So, I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’d like to kind of flip the coin and find a different angle for it because I think culture is important, but culture changes, and I think we’re responsible for how that kind of manifests.

She continues: “And I took it upon myself to figure out how to do that with this particular thing that I grew up hearing. The story exists in a lot of different cultures, in a lot of different ways, and everyone has their own explanation for it. So, I was just like, ‘I’m going to create my own explanation for it. I don’t really like the way the woman is portrayed, so I’m going to change the way the woman is portrayed. And whatever comes from that comes from that’.”

The script for Mamlambo was the second script Yako had written in her life. With the film having a running time of just over 20 minutes, it had to be trimmed down, and Yako says she had a lot of help from the ‘amazing script supervisors.’

Yako wanted the film to be “conversational, but also kind of quiet.”

“I’m dealing with a subject that is very personal to me and a vast majority of women in the country. If you watch the film, there isn’t a lot of dialogue in it. Like, there’s very minimal dialogue in it because I felt like that’s the feeling of alienation a lot of women feel in the context of, like, the subject of the film.

“I wanted to bring that in a different way other than anger and volatility or any common emotion that we usually use. I was trying to find a more delicate and sensitive approach to such an intensified topic.”

Starring in the film is singer-songwriter Simphiwe Dana and Safta-nominated Zikhona Bali.

Yako says that the experience of working with them was ‘very much collaborators in the sense that they were able to draw me back into the conceptual idea of what I was trying to do outside of me directing.’

“They’re both spiritually gifted, um, which heightened the sensitivity of my film because it’s also quite spiritual.”

“It was expansive. And it felt like home because all three of us are also from the Eastern Cape. So there was like a sense of a unified mission.”

‘A small sense of revolution’

On the Netflix platform, there has been a huge appetite for African stories, with content from the continent regularly making global TV lists.

Yako says the nice thing about this project is that “it took us a little bit back in almost a universe where the art of filmmaking wasn’t something that existed yet, or we had access to.”

“We would sit at home if it was raining, and my grandfather would just tell us these stories that were just unimaginable. For me to be able to take that context and put it in the format of film and be able to put it on a global platform and be able to express my clan names in; that was – is – a small sense of revolution in the direction that we can take [storytelling] and how far we can take this.

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