Filmmaker Zandile Tisani on reimagining the African story

Zandile Tisani is easily one of South Africa’s – if not Africa’s – most refreshing filmmakers, telling stories that reimagine the young, urban South African identity as she scratches far below the surface. A University of Cape Town film graduate, writer and director Tisani is behind films such as Heroes, her first production, Style Diary: Yeovilland most recently, Femme in Music: On Tour with Ikonika. She shared how travel has influenced her perspective.

You’re known as a filmmaker who pushes the boundaries when it comes to untold stories. How do you define what you do? 

Simply put, I tell stories, and at the moment, the medium I’m working in is film. Storytelling is just a creative way of ordering my thoughts and preoccupations at a given time.

When did you discover your wanderlust and where has it taken you?

I’m not sure I discovered my wanderlust but I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to some pretty special places. Every holiday without fail my parents would take my siblings and me on a road trip, whether it was to my mother’s home in the Eastern Cape or to the beach in Durban. They had a way of making it feel special. Travelling is just part of how I grew up. I was about 16 when I wnent overseas for the first time, when my mother and I visited my sister in London. The three of us took a train to Paris, France. We did all the cheesy tourist things: the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Élysées, a boat ride on the Seine. I was lucky to have been raised by people who have an appreciation for travel and I guess the means to be able to do so. It also changed my value system: I’m far more interested in having a life that involves a lot of travelling than accumulating a bunch of stuff.

Last year, my mother celebrated a big birthday (I won’t say which one – she’d kill me!). My parents are obsessed with cruises, and while they’re not exactly my favourite way of travelling, it wasn’t about me. Our family took a cruise from Miami to the Caribbean and stopped in Jamaica, Haiti and Mexico. It was awesome to say the least, and I definitely want to go back. I’ve visited Switzerland, Nyon [a municipality in Switzerland] and Berlin, but my favourite place is still New York.

How does travel influence your work and perspective on life? What have you learnt while travelling that you apply to your daily life?

As someone working in film, travelling has been really important in terms of keeping my mind open, and challenging myself as an artist. Our expectations of ourselves creatively can be limiting; we’re also really conservative, so reminding myself that there’s an entire world out there is pretty liberating.

What I love most about cities like Berlin, Paris and New York is the freedom to walk at night. As a woman in SA, it’s a luxury we just don’t have. I really love to walk a place; I enjoy running too and I try to make sure I run in every city I visit.

Which destination in Africa stands out for you?

I haven’t travelled the continent as much as I would have liked too. I’ve been to Kenya, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Nairobi stands out for me: it’s alive; it hums, but it has a different frequency to Johannesburg. I really enjoyed my time there.

What makes the African experience unique in defining identity, creating content and telling stories?

Every place is unique, but we’ve become accustomed to telling “the African story the way we think we should tell it as opposed to how we experience it. We either exoticise ourselves or we try to create African versions of Western narratives. It’s a difficult habit to break and I may have been guilty of doing this at times but I think it has a lot to do with confidence. We’ve spent so much time studying European writers, filmmakers and artists that we associate artistic success by its proximity to the Western canon. There’s a lot of work to be done, a spiritual cleansing of sorts. When I was last in Paris, I saw an amazing exhibition called Picasso Primitif that looked at the influence of the “primitive arts”, much of it African art, on Picasso. Seeing Picassos up close is amazing but I was most moved by the African art. We are some of the most avant-garde people on Earth – but we know so little about ourselves and where and what we come from.

Any hidden gems, locally and abroad, you’d like to tell us about?

My favourite place is where my mother grew up. It’s halfway between Idutywa and Gcuwa (Butterworth). I was born and raised in Johannesburg but my home is in the Eastern Cape. Montego Bay in Jamaica is really dope – excuse the pun.

Tisani is working on a few projects, from music videos and a fashion film to commercial work and developing her web series. For more updates on her work, follow her on Twitter @Zanditee.

Image by Motheo Mogaduro/@motheomodaguru

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