Producer and screenwriter Nicola Rauch talks about She Is King

Nicola

It took me 25 years to be the producer that I was on this movie. To be what you want to be, you must put every part of yourself into it. This is true for anything in life.

She is King is a joyous celebration of Zulu culture in a glossy contemporary setting, showing off the City of Gold as the Broadway of Africa.The film was written by Producer Nicola Rauch and director Gersh Kgamedi

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with Nicola Rauch

Tell me about co-writing the screenplay?

It was my concept in that I have always wanted to make a musical (a family favourite) and make films about inspirational women. The trick was to integrate culture into a commercial film in a way that was definitely not “edutainment” but an accessible, fun genre movie. I made the film with my two teenage nieces in mind

I did the step outline and hired a writer I knew to do a first draft. I have yet to develop good working methodologies with a writer – I am too bossy. So I ended up writing drafts 2 & 3 myself.

Then I involved Gersh, the Director who is an old friend and we worked for about 8 months to get to a shooting draft. We had some international notes as well as input from our distributor and broadcast partner. Gersh ad I are a good team – I am the structure Queen and he brings the flavour. We also have a shared sense of humour, which helped us through the hard times.

How do you see the future for filmmakers in SA compared to 25 years ago?

I am exceptionally excited at the way the industry is growing. There is a real sense that people are starting to tell their own stories, in varied ways. There have been a couple of solid financial wins that have been the seed of an actual business plan around local black film.

Distributors (particularly Indigenous Film Distribution) are taking more risks, Exhibitors are finally understanding that audiences will support local films and the audience demographics have a predominantly (70%) black audience.

The DTI BBBEE incentive has stimulated rapid growth and the IDC is back in the picture with a number of new approaches planned. Funding is always the most difficult aspect of making independent features and filmmakers are building the business knowledge and financial structures that are needed to survive it all.

I believe that there has never been a better time to make local content.

Advice you have for screenwriters who want to get their work on the big screen?

The most important relationship you will have is with a Producer who believes in your work and your abilities. Even though I wrote/produced this one, I know as a Producer that I cannot carry on doing both unless I only want to make one film every three years. Which is not viable in a business sense.

The next two projects that I will be doing will be scripts from other writers – one with a Director who brought me the script and the other from a writer I have know for a long time. They are experienced writers with mostly TV experience under their belts.

Writers need to have really crafted the script before they ask a Producer to read it. Don’t EVER send out a first draft or something that you are not happy with. Get notes from friends, colleagues and know your target audience clearly. You will probably only get one chance to get a Producer to read your script.

They are busy people and will probably only read the first 15 pages if thy are not engaged by the story and your writing skills.

Whatever you do, don’t send out a script that doesn’t conform to the industry format. You need to look like a pro.

SHE IS KING

Production Information

Explain the choice of title for the film

We wanted a title that causes discussion and entices people to watch the film. Why is She “King” and not “Queen”? Why is She Royal at all? Who is She?

The film is about a young woman following a dream and the obstacles she encounters along the way. There are multiple strong female characters in the film, and the questions is which of them will be the winner, or the titular “King”?

The play within the film tells the story of Queen Mkabayi, Zulu King Shaka’s paternal aunt, one of South Africa’s most powerful female historical icons. Mkabayi was counsellor to her father King Jama and the regent for her young brother Senzangakona after her father’s death.

Mkhabayi selected, groomed, advised and supported kings Shaka, Dingaan and Mpande as leaders of the Zulu Nation. She is also believed to have had both Shaka and Dingaan killed when they endangered the wellbeing of the kingdom. She also commanded the royal Impi and is said to have determined military strategies.

We want audiences to hear Mkabayi’s story, and to understand that the Zulu nation had powerful female leaders and is not as patriarchal as it is sometimes characterized.

Khanyisile comes from kwaNongoma in KZN, which is the historical home of the Zulu royal family. It is the place where Queen Mkabayi ka Jama’s grave is found.

In isiZulu, there is no gender specific third person pronoun – “he” and “she” do not exist. It surely means something that a language, the essence of a culture, does not distinguish gender? When and why did this change?

Mkabayi was, in effect, the architect of the Zulu nation, the power behind five successive kings. Had she been a man, she would have been called king and recognised as such. The title of the movie opens up a debate. In an era of female empowerment, young women grapple with questions of equality at many levels.

Proper names of all cultures have royal connections – Amir, Brendan, Earl, Leroy, Vladimir. The claiming of a royal title is a pop-culture affectation that is designed to express ascendancy and power. Think of performers “Queen Latifah”, Elvis “The King”, Beyoncé (“Queen Bey”) and babies named “King Cairo”, “Royalty”, “Reign” – an association with royalty is aspirational in many cultures.

We also want young women and girls to believe in their own power and ability to be anything they want to be. The word “King” has more power than “Queen” and, in this age of growing equality, we wanted to erase the gender distinction between those terms – just as a woman can be a president, she can also be the king.

Key Themes

When we set out to make “She is King”, there were themes that we wanted to weave into the film. We wanted to show a young woman moving away from her secure rural life into the city, and taking on the entertainment world. People think that success in this industry is about red carpets and glamorous parties. The truth is that it takes hard work.

We were fortunate to cast Gugu Zulu in the lead role of Khanyisile Khumalo. One of the reasons we chose her was because comes from rural KZN, was fairly new in the industry, and had a surname that signifies royal heritage.

Gugu personifies the ides that success takes hard work. Of the 27 shoot days, she was called on for 26. She also worked in the studio to record the songs before we shot, sometimes on her weekly day off. She stayed in a B&B for the duration, and it was the longest that she had ever lived alone. There were times that she was physically and emotionally exhausted but she always found a way to push on.

The movie also shows how, between all the hard work, life happens. You meet people who become your friends, your loves, your irritations. In such a stressed work environment, you are all pushed closer, and you end up being with each other 24/7, enmeshed in each other’s lives.

Gersh

Gersh Kgamedi has honours degrees in drama and film, and history of art. He is a well-established local and international commercials director, working out of Picture Tree, but he has also done a variety of work in the industry for more than 20 years, including award-winning music videos. He is a music-lover and an expert in the genre of musicals with the fine-tuned sensibility of a lifestyle commercials director.

About Making the Film

It took me 25 years to be the producer that I was on this movie. To be what you want to be, you must put every part of yourself into it. This is true for anything in life.

My methodology throughout my career has been to learn the function of every role on a film crew so that I am able to equip each person to be their best, technically and creatively. Only when I felt I had done that, did I feel secure enough to lead the way I want to.

This is a story that I wanted to tell and the most important function of a producer is choosing the right people who will realise that vision with you – people who are technically superb, creative to the bone, and share your passion for the project. And we got so lucky on this film!

When I tell the basic story of our film, many people’s first reaction is to mention Sarafina. And we have so much love and respect for that show/film. In a way, this is the “New South Africa” version of the story.

Twenty-five years ago, Sarafina was held back from realising her dreams by the injustice that was Apartheid. In our film, Khanyi now has the freedom to make her own dream a reality. The film is a celebration of that.

Being able to make a feel-good movie about South Africa is a victory for Gersh Kgamedi and for me. We share a commitment to political activism, and this is a personal way of celebrating the changes that have happened in our land.

We also both believe that movies are meant to be about escapism. We love happy endings. We wanted to make a film that Gersh’s 8-year old son, Mpho’s 10-year old son and my teenage nieces could all watch and enjoy. We want people to laugh, to feel touched and to tap their feet to the music.

Family is a thread that runs through the film. Why?

Family and background shape people in the most fundamental way. We wanted to emphasise that Khanyi’s childhood, was happy and nurturing. She was literally raised by a village – another aspect of African culture that we deeply admire. While westerners may see her childhood as one of third-world poverty, it was rich in all the right ways.

Khanyi’s family is one that sings together. They work hard but also find fun and comfort in each other. Her father is strict and would prefer her to stay safe at home. But he understands that children need to leave home to grow up.

We learn that Khanyi’s mother was not a part of her life and even though she was given all the love she needed from her father’s wife and her wonderful aunties, she has resentment towards her mother for abandoning her. That resentment prevents her from truly becoming herself and is the seed of her confrontational relationship with Gugu Dhlamini, the Diva of the movie and older woman in charge.

 Creative Choices and their Meaning

It is not the norm to tell stories about South Africans that have no violence, sex, swearing or hate. We want to pave the way for a new type of local film that is not attached to these stereotypes of African life. We consciously chose not to be “poverty porn”.  It may be a life that is still imaginary for most South Africans, but it is one that can be attained.

We also want to show aspiration that is not just about fancy cars and branded clothing – a world where aspiration is about deciding what will make your life rich in ways that are not just material. Gugu and Mak are materially wealthy, but we hope that it will be their relationship, the way that they have made it work for them and how they let each other excel, that people most remember.

There is a reason that KZN is called the “Kingdom of Heaven”. It is so rich in natural beauty, good weather and fruitful soil. There is a growing sense in the world that peace lies in being close to the soil, turning off mobile devices, keeping time by the passage of the sun across the sky and going to sleep to the sound of the cattle mooing.

The homestead we chose as Khanyi’s home is beautiful, with turquoise huts clustered around the cattle enclosure. We wanted a marked contrast between her home and the city.

Describe some of the challenges you faced

This film is filled with remarkable female characters across generations because we wanted to show a diversity of female experiences. We also wanted to give some guidance to young women on ways of making choices that don’t require them to compromise who they are.

The “natural hair” debate was at its height while we were writing and we wanted to make the gentle statement that it is a woman’s choice to do whatever she wants with her hair, her body and her personality. As Khanyi arrives in the city, one of the first things her hustler cousin, Ngenz does is get her braided and “beautified” – it was a great way to symbolise her becoming a “city girl”.

Katherine (Zoe Mthiyane), the “Cheeze girl” has long, straight hair that fits her privileged, suburban upbringing. Bongi (Sihle Mooi) has a gorgeous natural ‘fro and Zethu (Mandisa Nduna) has short, spikey, natural dreads that she styles according to her mood. Vivian (Khanyi Mbau) styles her braids artistically and Gugu (Khabonina Qubeka) has a different look almost every day.

Khanyi is faced with a number of love choices – Lu, the gorgeous soapie star (Mbuso Kgarebe), is emblematic of Joburg: he looks rich and sparkly on the outside, but what about under that veneer? Shakes thinks he is irresistible and pursues Khanyi relentlessly.  We wanted to show Khanyi making positive choices on how to deal with them, without resorting to negative stereotypes.

Young women are rediscovering feminism and making it their own, which is why we wanted the younger characters expressing themselves in various ways. Zethu is outspoken and unapologetic in her defence of her friends – she would probably be called aggressive for this. Bongi is outgoing and bouncy, and quite “girly”, but in a way that she chooses. Katherine comes in as a suburban outsider, but is unstinting in her help and support of the other young women. They all become fast friends #SqadGoals!

What about the differences between written and oral history?

The discussions between Khanyi and Mak are about the different “versions” of Mkabayi’s story. Mak has referenced all the written information he can find and has formed a two-dimensional picture of the ruthless warrior who single-mindedly pursued her own “career” and her part in the formation of the Zulu Nation.

But Khanyi’s information comes from the community in which she was brought up – in the heartland of the Zulu Kingdom. Her grandfather was “Isolwazi”— an oral historian who told her the other side of Mkabayi – the listener, the one who gave good advice and helped her subjects with their problems.

That side of her that is knitted into isiZulu language “Buzani ku Mkabayi” (consult Mkabayi), which is still an idiom today.

We want to encourage people to interrogate their own history and culture, and find things within that culture that makes sense to them as individuals, rather than just performing rituals that may not make sense in a modern world

 Describe the creative team

This project is 100% local. It is set in Johannesburg, and all creatives, cast and crew are South African

Nicola Rauch is an  industry veteran who brought to market “Between Friends” in 2014. She worked my way up the production ladder, ran non-profit organisations, started SASFED and studied at the Binger Institute in Amsterdam.

Co-Producer Mpho Ramathuthu is a talented script- and story editor, and has funded and run numerous film training programs. Most importantly she is tuned into the target market and has a unique understanding of the film’s audience.

Director Gersh Kgamedi is a well-established commercials director, working out of Picture Tree, and he has also done a variety of work in the industry for over 20 years, including award-winning music videos. He is a music-lover and an expert on the genre of musicals who also has the fine-tuned sensibility of a commercials director.