03 Feb Featured: Filmmaker Yolande Botha | Surrealism and a Dash of Dark Comedy
Copywriter turned film writer and director, Yolande Botha, is currently busy with the post production of her latest short film, Lina and Leo; the tale of a struggling journalist who visits an obscure Karoo town to hunt down a hugely successful, reclusive surrealist artist. A bizarre sequence of events follows. Yolande hopes to premier the independent film at the Durban International Film Festival later this year. Through her self-described ‘quirky or offbeat’ filmmaking style Yolande tackles human stories on the periphery – with a healthy dose of dark comedy meets documentary.
You started out as a copywriter, how and why did you make the transition into film?
Actually, since a young age I knew that I wanted to be a writer/director in film, but felt I needed to gain life experience and more stories to tell before I moved over to that career. So advertising gave me a stimulating, creative career that I loved and where I could learn a lot about a number of industries and worlds. Advertising is often also about storytelling, like film. Just shorter, more concentrated stories. To make the transition, I studied a BA Honours in Scriptwriting and Directing at AFDA, Cape Town, and I am writing, producing and directing short films to build my showreel and experience. A few feature length scripts, documentaries and TV series concepts are also currently in the pipeline.
Tell us about your first film project, what was it and what was that experience like?
Even though it was part of my Honours year, I like telling people about my 8-min experimental documentary called A Telling Face. It’s essentially a moving portrait that shows how we use our faces to express some of the most fundamental emotions. It was an exhilarating, very moving experience, because the people that my wonderful cinematographer, Nina Slabber, and I filmed were so open to sharing some very intimate feelings and experiences with us. I fell in love with all of them and realised there and then that this visual medium will allow me to illuminate people, their behaviour and their stories in a way that no writing on paper ever will.
How would you describe your style as a writer and filmmaker? And what sorts of topics and themes interest you?
My style is often quirky or offbeat. Sometimes soulful. And more often than not involves a dash of dark comedy. I like things, people and ideas on the periphery. In other words, I like writing about and making film projects about the strange, obscure and sometimes risqué. I like delving into worlds and subcultures that aren’t often explored. A few topics/themes I’m interested in are identity, sexuality, dance, music and the human spirit.
In your opinion, what is the current state of the South African film industry?
It is an exciting time in our industry because we are making more films than ever before. Our crews are world-class, having gained most of our experience on commercial production for local and international TV ads. Where I do think we need more support and growth is in the writing, which forms the foundation of any type of film product. It’s what directs all other efforts in the production. If the writing isn’t strong, the product won’t be strong. And unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of people not willing to pay writers for developing scripts. The Writer’s Guild of SA is working hard at creating fee standards, but it is an ongoing battle. We do have enormous potential in SA, because we have such a diverse landscape of stories to explore. And we need to believe that there is a market for our various, unique voices.
What challenges have you personally experienced as a filmmaker?
Funding, as any independent filmmaker will tell you, is always a challenge. I use income that I still generate from doing work in advertising to pay for my filmmaking. There are bodies in our country like the DTI (who recently paid for me to go to the NATPE market) that provide some funding and rebates to successful applicants, so that is encouraging. The other big challenge I’d say is time management. Balancing earning a living and following the dream sometimes leaves little time for anything else. This industry is definitely not for sissies.
Recently, you attended NATPE in Miami, what was that experience like?
Wow, what an experience. People in the States are switched on, to say the least. I wouldn’t stand still anywhere for more than 5 minutes and someone would be introducing themselves to me, exchanging business cards etc. I attended a lot of very eye-opening talks about what kind of content the American market especially is looking for and how this content is being distributed. I made a few great contacts and for me the market was more about starting relationships and learning than selling my feature and TV projects. Who knows, maybe one of my new contacts will lead to a co-production.
Tell us about your latest film, Lina and Leo.
Lina and Leo is a 25-min short film about a struggling middle-aged journalist who goes looking for a recluse, surrealist artist for his next big story. But when he ends up in an obscure Karoo town, with some strange characters, he gets more surrealism than he bargained for. It is in its final post production, sound mixing, so will soon be done. It has been made by the grace and generosity of some really talented people willing to contribute to something creative.
Photo credit: Graham Abott
Surrealism is quite a bold theme for a South African audience, what do you think the reception will be?
I believe audiences like being challenged, not just spoon-fed. And South Africans are no different. Exposing people to new ideas starts conversations and those conversations don’t always have to be about politics, social issues and heavy-weighted topics. This film offers a welcome escape from real life, but it is really about survival and what people are willing to do to survive. Something most of us can relate with.
Who would you really like to work with in future?
Well that depends who you mean. There are a number of local cinematographers and editors I’ll hopefully one day be able to afford or persuade to work with me. And in terms of performers, I believe there is a lot of rising talent in SA and maybe one day, just maybe, I’ll be privileged to combine them with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal and Javier Bardem. One can only dream…