Writer-Director Nosipho Dumisa talks about Nommer 37

Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with 29-year-old writer-director Nosipho Dumisa, who makes her feature film debut with the South African crime-thriller Nommer 37.

Set in Haven Mansions, a fictional block of apartments in Dumisa’s imagined suburb of the Cape Flats, NOMMER 37 looks through the eyes of a former petty criminal, who has been spat out by the very world he once thrived in and left to observe it from the outside

Nommer 37  is Nosipho’s debut feature film and makes her one of the first black female narrative feature film directors coming out of South Africa. She formed Gambit Films (danZ and Suidooster) in 2009 with like-minded filmmakers in South Africa and has since served as a producer on the popular local daily soap, Suidooster (2016), and several TV movies – all before the age of 30.

Dumisa is a South African film, television and commercials director, producer and writer, best known for directing her SAFTA award winning short film, Nommer 37 (2014), as well as for directing episodes on the Youth Dance Drama TV Series, danZ (2017). Born a Zulu girl in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province, Nosipho moved to Cape Town to study film at AFDA.

Her student short film, iSoldja, a film depicting a tragic riot that broke out during a health workers protest, earned her a nomination for Best Script at the AFDA Awards in 2008. She then produced some music videos and served as production manager and insert director for lifestyle shows such as All Access Mzansi and Bravo before working as a commercials director.

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Nosipho Dumisa during the filming of Nommer 37 – Picture by Lindsay Appolis

How will you describe Nommer 37 in your own words?

Nommer 37 is a fantastic, authentically South African thriller set in the Cape Flats, about a couple in a desperate situation, caught between deception, greed, fear and  a fight for their lives. When Randal Hendricks lands himself in a deal gone wrong that leaves him paralysed and heavily indebted to a sadistic loan shark named Emmie, he witnesses a crime involving money and a gang lord in his block of flats, through a pair of binoculars, innocently gifted to him by his girlfriend, Pam. Randal embarks on an ill-advised blackmail scheme that sees Pam and their friend, Warren, embroiled in a game of cat and mouse against the gang lord and loan shark, where anything and everything could mean the end of their lives.

What does the title refer to and does it have any significant meaning to you?

This is something I like to tease the audience with because they will certainly have ideas of what it could be about, especially as the story is set in the Cape Flats. But once they’ve seen the movie, they’ll understand.

What inspired you to write the screenplay for Nommer 37?

The concept is inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It’s an idea that one my colleagues at Gambit Films, Daryne Joshua, had for a long time and when the opportunity came to make a short film that we could use as a proof of concept for a feature film, this was the story that made the most sense. We wanted to tell an authentically South African story in the thriller genre because all of us love it, and we knew that it needed to be contained. So I co-wrote the script for the short film and then went on to write the full feature length script.

Nommer 37 began its life as a short film, tell me about this? 

Each of us at Gambit Films were in the process of developing our individual feature film directing debut projects, when we were approached by KykNet’s Silwerskermfees to submit a concept for the short film competition. We only had a day or two to do this and knowing that we wanted this to be a proof of concept for a feature film, we looked for a story that would be easy to consolidate into a short film. We remembered the idea that Daryne had and workshopped it, submitted it and eventually completed the short film back in 2014. We won two awards (Best Director & Best Script) at that year’s Silwerskermfees and were the only the only short film to be nominated in each category. Immediately I began work on the feature film whilst the short film continued to gather support, eventually winning the SAFTA for Best Short Film in 2016.

What were the major changes in the story from the short film version?

The short film was really a skeleton in terms of structure and character development. The key thing that I focused on in the feature film was the development of a complex relationship between Randal and Pam. They exhibit very different perspectives on the same world and yet love each other fiercely. There are layers, upon layers to their narrative within this flat and really this crazy, twisted and dangerous thriller is a story of love and redemption. I also really wanted to expand the world of Nommer 37 without losing the core of what the story is about. So there are new characters like Detective Gail February (Sandi Schultz) who takes into the world of a dysfunctional law enforcement, Pastor White (Elton Landrew) and many others. There are many more twists and turns in film than in the short film. I wanted to give those who have seen the short film, a different and exciting experience too.

Were you in the director’s chair from the beginning? 

Yes, I co-directed the short film with my colleague and friend, Travis Taute. I grew very close to the feature film and I knew that I had to take on the feature – thankfully, my colleagues at Gambit Films agreed and trusted me. We all work very closely, with one another.

How difficult was the process from short film to its big screen debut?

It was rather difficult! In our minds, the success of the short film, should have meant that funding would pour in but that’s not the way things worked out. Immediately, MNET Movies and KykNET approached us about the feature film and we trusted them fully as we had begun working with them on the daily soap called Suidooster. We then received some funding from the DTI. Closing out the finances became very difficult and along the way we lost people who were close to the short film. This was a difficult time for all of us and certainly for me. There were many moments when we were ready to start production and then had to stop. I am grateful for the people who contributed to the short film and ultimately, I believe everything works out the way that it’s supposed to. As executive producers, we backed ourselves and now own a large portion of our own film, which is great, and I believe the delays in production were a blessing in disguise because the script had more time for development.

You mentioned that it’s a crime-thriller that’s “about everything that could go wrong for a couple when depression, curiosity, greed, fear and horrific bad decision-making collide..”  Tell me more about this?

When we meet Randal, he is already a man desperate to change the circumstances of his life. He wants out of this fictional “New Haven” suburb. He makes a bad deal with a loan shark in the hopes of making a quick return on the cash. However things go wrong and he winds up in a wheelchair, owing money to the nastiest loan shark and lying to his girlfriend. Desperate for cash and hopelessly trying to be the man of the house, he embarks on a scheme of blackmail against his girlfriend, Pam’s, wishes. One bad decision after another sees him, Pam, and Warren’s lives intricately trapped in a fight for their lives.

How much of your own life and experience influenced the story?

Thankfully, not too much! Pam is a combination of women I love and admire. She is fiercely loyal and loves Randal to the end of the world. My own spiritual background is layered within the film – I couldn’t help it really. I spent a lot of time in townships in my home province of KZN, and observed life there. It’s insane what poverty and a lack of exposure can do to the psyche of a person. The first time that I was in one of the blocks of the Cape Flats, I remember feeling very claustrophobic because I suddenly couldn’t see anything else (wherever you go in Cape Town, you can see the mountain and expanse of the city). Randal Hendricks and Pam grew up and have different points of view on it. Randal wants out, but Pam just wants Randal and love. Randal becomes an outsider to this world as he is trapped in his apartment – as an outsider to this world, myself, I felt that I related to his feelings of frustration and claustrophobia.

It is set  in a fictional reality of the Cape Flats?

Yes it is set in a fictional suburb called New Haven and a fictional block called Haven Mansions. It is a combination of places such as Elsies River, Langa, Rugby and Lavender Hill.

You grew up watching genre films like thrillers, horrors, action and romance. Tell me more about this and what films specifically influenced Nommer 37?

My parents didn’t know I was watching these films after they went to sleep! I remember watching ‘It’ as a very young child with my cousins and ‘Child’s Play’. I thought they were the scariest films I’d ever seen and then later, I saw films like ‘Se7en’, ‘The Bone Collector’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘The Shining’, ‘The Departed’ and so many others that have truly influenced me. For Nommer 37, besides the conceptual inspiration of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, I was influenced by movies such as ‘Se7en’ and other David Fincher films. I also drew from Horror/Thrillers like ‘Green Room’ and ‘Don’t Breathe’ in terms of building suspense and tension. I think David Fincher particularly nailed the aesthetic of grit in ‘Se7en’ and I knew that I wanted Nommer 37 to have a very gritty edge to it. Randal is a broken man in more ways than one, but most of all in his mind – I wanted the aesthetic to capture that.

You mentioned that Nommer 37 explores important themes that confront us as a society today… Tell me more about this?

We touch on themes of greed and corruption within law enforcement and us as a people. Gail February works in a police department crippled by corruption. She believes that she will make a difference and fights hard to that end. Her journey is a fascinating and important one in my mind. Randal also looks at the world around him, he is aware that the obsessive search for money and survival is what keeps people chained to their circumstances and yet simultaneously, he is embittered by the fact that he didn’t have a choice in where he was born and raised.

The Cape Flats are an area where people were moved to during an oppressive time in South Africa’s history, freedom of movement wasn’t easy and the intention was to kill the human spirit. He is aware that there is something better for him but part of him has given up on trying to get that thing the ‘right way’. Issues of faith and love, what true freedom looks like – these are all themes that were important for me to delve into.

It was equally important for you that the film be hugely entertaining? Your thoughts on this?

This is a thriller genre, and genre allows me to speak about the state of our society through the vehicle of entertainment. Comedians, for example, do this all the time – they make you laugh whilst simultaneously asking you to reflect on the state of the world. This film will thrill the audience and hopefully later on, they will begin to peel off the layers of what lies beneath (oh yes that’s a title of another film I loved when I was growing up).

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How difficult is it to get your screenplay produced in South Africa?

That’s a difficult one to answer. There is no one way to get your screenplay financed and ultimately, after travelling to many festivals and speaking to filmmakers from around the world, I’ve found that if you are not a part of the studio system, it is difficult for everyone. However, I believe what we are sorely lacking on in our country is access to development funding. Often as writers, the process of story development is rushed and done between jobs as we can’t afford to take the time we need to develop our screenplays. This affects the quality of what we bring out to the world. If there’s any area that I believe needs serious attention, it’s a greater investment in development funding because story is KING.

What do you think the obstacles are for most first time writers to get their stories produced?

I would say access to producers who are willing to invest their time in truly developing a story that will find its audience. So many producers and directors are focused on their own projects. It is also difficult because not many writers know how to pitch their stories in the right way.

How do you see the changes in South African Film Industry today, as opposed to a decade ago?

I think it’s exciting to see a new wave of daring filmmakers entering the space of other genres outside of drama, comedies and romantic comedies. I think that the level of production has also improved greatly so we are now moving towards being able to compete on a global level. There are new voices, different voices and it’s fantastic!

What excites you about being a filmmaker?

Being able to create something out of nothing is marvellous! I love watching an audience experience a film I’ve made, knowing that their reaction to a specific moment is what I had planned for. I guess I’m a control freak in that way.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully another film, on a slightly bigger scale.