I’m very excited about the state of our industry.
Daniel Dercksen talks to award-winning producer Bongiwe Selane about her new film Happiness is a Four -Letter Word, a heart-warming romance that explores the lives of three best friends – Nandi, Zaza and Princess – living the good life in the vibrant city of Johannesburg.
Nandi (Mmabatho Montsho) who has just been made partner at her law firm is engaged to emerging entrepreneur Thomas. Zaza (Khanyi Mbau) is a trophy wife to the wealthy and successful property developer Bheki. Princess (Renate Stuurman) is the celebrated owner of one of the trendiest art galleries in town, and is living with her sexy and talented boyfriend Leo. But things aren’t what they seem!
The film is produced by Bongiwe Selane, Junaid Ahmed and Helena Spring and directed by Thabang Moleya. The screenplay was written by Busisiwe Ntintili and Nozizwe Cynthia Jele and filmed in and around Johannesburg during July 2015.
Happiness is a four letter Word is an incredibly provocative and alluring title. Tell me about it?
The film is based on a novel called Happiness is a Four Letter word by Cynthia Nozizwe Jele, which basically offered most of the material for the film.Based on the novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, these strong, empowered and highly individual women find themselves having to negotiate new norms of being upwardly mobile black women in a rapidly changing South Africa. In a time when wealth and position seems to be more important than traditional values, each woman will find out that happiness is not found in a one-size-fits-all box. Only through trial and sacrifice will each friend discover what it is that truly makes them happy.
What inspired you to produce the film?
The novel won the M-Net literary award in the film category in 2011. This prize is awarded to the novel best suited for screen adaptation. The novel read incredibly visual and was reminiscent of the kind of chick-flick I’d seen in films such as Sex and the City, Waiting to Exhale, Think Like a Man etc.– but had a local resonance. I think it offered a wonderful alternative to the more common SA film narratives of grit, crime, and the struggle – and offered an alternative, glamorous and beautiful South Africa that hadn’t been seen before on the big screen. It just felt new in a sense that nothing like that had ever been done in the South African film context.
Was it an easy story to bring to the big screen?
I think it was easy and not so easy – easy in that the novel itself read visually, and provided great material for a film, but challenging in how that adaptation translates into the visual medium of film. Its always difficult to stay 100% true to the novel and as producers, we had to take creative liberties and decide on what needed to be included (or excluded) to make the book filmic. For instance – the novel is a multi-plot story of 4 friends, but in the film, we decided to combine two characters into one so that we have 3 characters instead of 4. This was a deliberate decision to allow enough screen time for each character and for their stories to unfold in 90mins, and also story arcs for their partners.
Did you produce the film with any particular actors in mind?
No. We had a vigorous casting process, which allowed us to see a wide range of talent, and made a decision on the cast based on what they brought to the table. We did however make deliberate choices with our male leads and cast outside of SA – Chris Attoh who plays Chris is Ghanaian and Tongai Chirisa who plays Thomas, is Zimbabwean born but is based and working in Hollywood. Both bring a wider pan African and international appeal to the film.
How difficult is it to produce a film in South Africa? What are the challenges?
I don’t think it’s easy – there are certainly some challenges especially in raising the finance to make a film. It took me 4 years to make Happiness – a lengthy process not only from a development point of view (raising the money to option the novel and the adaptation process), but also raising enough funding to give justice to the story. But what’s positive now is that there’s a lot of doors opening up for emerging talent (writer, producer and director) particularly within government structure such as the NFVF, the DTI’s Black filmmakers Incentive and our distributors are slowly but surely seeing the value of local films. These certainly boost the industry.
What do you as a producer look for in a screenplay?
For me I look at who this film is talking to -who’s “the audience” (if I can put it that way) – I think its crucial to write a story with an audience in mind. After all they are the ones that are going pay to go watch your film. Second to that, is resonance – who will this story touch, appeal to and resonate with? For me a film is a product – it has to be “manufactured” in such a way that it is consumed by a target audience. And lastly I look at the entertainment value of film. For me as a producer, the film medium is first and foremost an entertainment medium and that’s what draws audiences to a film – whatever genre it is, at the end of it, people go watch movies for many reasons, but top on the list is entertainment.
Your views on the state of the local film and TV industry?
I’m very excited about the state of our industry at the moment. I think we are at a positive and growing place right now and moving in the right direction. Our occupation with the legacy or rather struggle narrative is waning a bit as we are recognize that audiences are looking for something more, something fresh, new and positive about South Africa- about the South Africa of today. There’s also a lot of talent and new voices coming up, and I think South Africans are going to be pleasantly surprised at how many South African films will be gracing their screens soon. First time film producers (like myself) are being given a chance and invested in and these are positive risks that funders are taking because it’s the only way this industry can grow, the only way that alternative narratives can come out.
I’m currently producing a slate of short films called the Female Only Filmmaker project, which is a development initiative that provides recent female entrants to the industry with an opportunity to make a film in collaboration with other women. 16 x24 minute short films have been produced under this initiative completed in 2014 and 2015 by amazing and talented women filmmakers who I’m certain will only but go on to make features and be a force to be reckoned with in African Cinema. Some of the shorts have been screened at international film festivals, and won at the Durban International Film festival. This year I’ll be calling out for scripts for 10 short films to be produced later in 2016, while also developing my next feature film.