From Drum Magazine
SOUTH AFRICA: The Cape Town-based filmmaker’s refreshing combination of cool confidence and whimsy comes across before we even sit down for the interview.
“Hello, can we reschedule?” says a breathless voice as I answer the office phone about an hour before our scheduled meeting in Johannesburg.
“Is that Zoe?”
Johannesburg is in the midst of a suffocating heat wave and I am happy to push back the meeting time to take a breather.
But the calendar looks jam-packed. I hesitate.
Zoe fills the brief pause with unexpected candor.
“I’ll be 100% honest,” she says, panting slightly. “I got lost and I’m on a mountain.”
Half an hour later she’s settled and sounds cool, calm and collected as the team interview begins.
I wonder aloud if we shouldn’t reschedule until she’s back in town, but she insists the show must go on.
I picture the petite lady chilling on a mountaintop, a little lost but unfazed as she says, “I’ve found some shade.”
That’s the composure that founders are made of.
She is one half of Totem Zea, which she founded three years ago with Reabetswe Moeti-Vogt (winner of the 2018 Safta Golden Horn, Best Achievement in Scriptwriting – TV Drama, for Lockdown).
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“Our latest project is a Netflix film called Real Estate Sisters, which we just finished producing. It’s scheduled for release on Netflix in 2023,” Zoe shares.
It is one of six films selected for funding of around R4 million each under a partnership between Netflix and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) last year.
The premise is delightful.
Two broke real estate agents from Pretoria, who also happen to be sisters, are determined to make their mark in the business, one Mamelodi backroom at a time.
It’s comedy-mystery, explains Zoe, and it’s set in Pretoria because Tshwane tends to be “very underrated when it comes to film”.
“The film is a portrait of a city. The sisters sell back rooms in Mamelodi and Sunnyside apartments.
“They have big dreams of selling mega mansions and becoming the next Pam Golding.”
Things take a dark turn after getting a lavish Waterfall Ridge estate for sale. “There’s a corpse in there.”
The filmmaker promises a lot of “Pretoria flavor” in Real Estate Sisters, from the music to the styling to the dialogue.
“It was a lot of fun filming that.”
Zoe says she had no filmmaking experience when she decided a few years ago, “I think I can do a reality series” — on a very limited budget.
“It’s the bravery of ignorance,” exclaims the Zimbabwean-South African filmmaker, who will be among some of our continent’s talented producers and storytellers to pitch their work on the 7 pitching platform for international film industry promoters.
The 32-year-old laughs in disbelief when she remembers her first attempt at film. “It was a cooking show. My aunt just renovated her Airbnb kitchen and I filmed the whole thing inside.
“I had no film background at all at the time. I had studied law at Wits, that was my background, and then I did my masters in African literature and cinema, so I decided, ‘Okay, let’s try this film thing.’”
Turns out she was pretty good at this movie thing.
“There were definitely people who had experience with camera work. But there just hasn’t been much support for filmmakers in Zimbabwe – until now.”
Zoe will be joined by Temilola Adebayo (Nigeria/Canada), Mia Bittar (Sudan), Pedro Soulé (Cabo Verde), Matheus Mello (Brazil/Mozambique), Bramwel Iro (Kenya), Sawsan Yusuf (Egypt) and South African Marion Isaacs , Caroline Kganyago-Ralefeta, Lucia Meyer-Marais and Tracey-Lee Rainers at the second Creative Producer Indaba (CPI), which will be held online for a week.
The CPI is presented by the Realness Institute in partnership with EAVE, the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) industry initiative, IFFR Pro and the Atlas Workshops of the Marrakech International Film Festival
“We have a brilliant array of experts this year who will be meeting the producers, including Femi Odugbemi, Katriel Schory, Dayo Ogunyemi and Vanja Kaludjercic, Director of the IFFR Festival,” says Elias Ribeiro, Director of Studies and Executive Director of the Realness Institute.
“The institute does such a good job. Not only to offer African filmmakers more global platforms, but also to build collaborations between filmmakers on the continent,” says Zoe zu Drum.
“Filmmaking is glamor 10% of the time, hard work the other 90%. That can often be very lonely, so having a community of people with shared experiences is crucial.”
Platforms like this also make this a special time for filmmakers, she says, which is why she urges anyone with dreams of making stories to just do it. Now please.
Just like in her aunt’s freshly renovated Airbnb kitchen.
“There is a lot of support for filmmakers in South Africa,” she reflects.
“There are parastatals that will flow into your work; obviously the big broadcaster and Multichoice are based here; and there’s a lot of drive for content coming from here.
“Zimbabwe doesn’t have that kind of support, which makes it that much harder to make something of – despite the fact that there are so many good stories and dedicated filmmakers that are still releasing content.”
She cites Gonarezhou The Movie as one such example.
“There’s a lot of great work coming out of that. There are many great Zimbabwean filmmakers who are making it out into the diaspora outside of Zimbabwe.” She regrets this, but welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with other creators on a global scale.
“Our generation of filmmakers is very privileged to be able to step into a space and believe that people want to know your story the way you want to tell it. There is an appetite to hear what you have to say, the way you want to say it. That was not so before.
“Now it’s hip to be yourself; to be a young person who is black and female. People suddenly say: ‘Oh, tell us your stories!’
She received her MSc from the renowned Ivy League School Columbia and is one of the co-founders of SWIFT.
“We obviously stand on the shoulders of giants. But it’s a whole different story for us because we have a little bit more confidence in being African and female and walking into this space; You enter a room with a different energy.
“So it’s definitely a privilege to get that kind of international exposure and to be able to speak to people who have been doing this for a long time and know that they want to hear what you have to say; that you actually have something you don’t have,” says the Columbia University MSc graduate, who is also one of the founders of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), the organization behind the #ThatsNotOk campaign, which targets sexual harassment in the industry.
“You have your own experiences that can sometimes be painful, humiliating, or more than you wished for yourself growing up — like growing up and seeing Little Mermaid and wishing your hair was straight.
“But you can put all of those experiences into your own cinematic language now, because that’s what people are craving for now that there are thousands of us out there who are also open to seeing those experiences reflected.” And that’s definitely not coming from a white man. There’s no way he can write something like that. You’re the only person who can.”
As a Christian, Zoe says service is important to her, which is why she co-founded SWIFT. “I’m really super stupid proud of what it turned out to be!”
She is no longer involved in the organization, but continues to campaign for visibility of diverse voices working against sexual harassment in the film industry.
“Ultimately, I want to be in the kind of industry that I can work in.”