Johannesburg - Phumi Morare finds herself lost for words.
Several days may have passed since she received news that her latest film Lakutshun’ Ilanga had been shortlisted for a prestigious Academy Award, but the Johannesburg-born director and writer says the achievement still hasn’t sunk in fully.
“It feels quite unreal but extremely exciting,” Morare tells The Saturday Star. “I would never have dreamed that this film, which was my thesis for my master’s degree at Chapman University, would travel this far.”
Two weeks ago, Morare received what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting calls of her directing career when she was informed that Lakutshun’ Ilanga (When the sun sets) had been shortlisted for a 2022 Academy Award in the Live Action Short Film category.
The film, which focuses on a woman who desperately tries to save her brother from a horrific fate, is based on a true story inspired by Morare’s mother and touches on violence against freedom fighters in South Africa during apartheid.
Upon hearing the news, Morare says she immediately picked up the phone to call her mother, and other family members and friends to relay the good news.
“I was very very surprised and in awe,” says Morare. “I called my mom, sisters, my team, and close friends and we screamed with excitement. I also went out for celebratory drinks with my team and friends.”
The film, which features Zikhona Bali, Aphiwe Mkefe and Thembekile Mathe, has already won a gold medal at the 2021 Student Academy Awards, the 2021 HBO Short Film Competition at the 2021 American Black Film Festival, and is a 2021 Student Bafta Award nominee.
The film, which was shot in Johannesburg, focuses on a young, black nurse in 1985 apartheid South Africa who must face her worst fears when she learns that her activist, younger brother may be in danger when he doesn't return after school.
Morare says the film was inspired by a gruelling moment in her mother’s life during apartheid.
“My mother had to find a way to save her younger brother from police abduction. When she told me this story, I was in awe of her courage and I was amazed that the woman standing in front of me was the same woman who had that heroism.
“It also haunted me because I thought of all of the things that could’ve happened to her and my uncle.”
Morare says she felt it was important to share the true story of a black woman’s transcendence through oppression.
“It was important for me to tell this story so that I can shed light on the plight of ordinary black women in South Africa’s past through my family’s story. I wanted to explore the journey of a black woman who could overcome the constraints of oppression through love and courage.
“My mom could probably share better what it was like for her, but I know she could not access the same opportunities at work and life as her white counterparts.”
She says it is also important that South Africa’s younger generation is exposed to such real-life stories.
“Telling my mom’s story caused me to learn about her history and my family’s history. It is important that I learned where we have come from so that I can appreciate the sacrifices my family made to enable me to be where I am today.
“It also allows me to have a deeper understanding of who I am. That’s why it’s important for South Africa’s younger generation to be exposed to stories that help them access their history in a tangible way.”
With the movie being inspired by true events, Morare says her mother was one of the first people to see the film ‒ and she was delighted by the final product.
“Thankfully, my mom is around and well and she’s been very proud of the film’s journey.
“She’s seen the movie and she has shared that it made her realise for the first time the danger she had put herself in to save her brother. Watching the film as a family was a great moment of reflection for us of where my family has come from.”
Morare says just like with all films, shooting Lakutshun’ Ilanga came with its challenges.
“The biggest challenge was trying to shoot a historic film with a student budget overseas, because I was based at my school in California and wanted to shoot it at home in Johannesburg. The feat of moving the film to Johannesburg from LA to shoot it took a lot of planning and fundraising and networking to get all the resources we needed to make it possible.”
But in the end, it was all worth it, says Morare, who was also full of praise for the cast of the film.
“Zikhona Bali, Aphiwe Mkefe, and Thembekile Mathe were a dream cast to work with. I met Zikhona through my casting director, Twiggy Matiwana, who is also a friend and a renowned TV director in South Africa.
“I discovered Aphiwe when I saw the trailer to Vusi Africa’s first feature, Letters of Hope. It took a while to find him, but eventually, we did. Then with Thembekile ‒ it’s really hard to find a great child actor, so I feel so lucky we found her through her agency. I feel lucky to have worked with these three incredibly talented and hard-working actors.”
The film opens and closes with a song called Lakutshon’ Ilanga which was created by Miriam Makeba.
It is a poetic lament of someone waiting and searching for a loved one who’s disappeared during apartheid and never comes home. The song is a tribute to those who remain disappeared after police kidnapping.
Morare says when the film went into production, she chose to separate the film from the idea that it was her mother’s story “so that I wouldn’t have that pressure looming over me”.
“When I cast the lead character, I wasn’t trying to cast my mother, but an actress who could capture the complexities of the character. The film also has parts of me in it, and the character’s journey to find her voice was similar to a journey I was having at the time of finding my own voice.”
She says she is excited to share her movie with the world.
“I’m hoping to share a perspective of South African history from the lens of an ordinary black woman and to honour the strength and courage of black mothers. I’m extremely excited to be sharing my film with the world. An artist can only hope that their art will be seen and received well, so I feel very grateful.”