• Through the lens

    From courting controversy and battling censorship to vying for a place among 2019’s Oscar contenders, Jahmil XT Qubeka is one of South Africa’s brightest film-makers. Keith Bain finds out... Read more
    Through the lens

    Jahmil XT Qubeka wants to take you on a roller-coaster ride. Like the great film-makers – Hitchcock, De Palma, Spielberg – he uses images to transport you to a different dimension, where he can provoke, shock and surprise you, hold you in his thrall, and make you gasp in awe. He has more than 15 years of experience and has done it all – documentaries, TV segments, commercials, shorts, and a handful of powerful full length films that seem intent on making a lasting impact.

    Qubeka made his feature directorial debut in 2010, with A Small Town Called Descent, a slick crime drama that follows three Scorpions agents investigating small-town xenophobic attacks. His second feature, Of Good Report, was a potent look at an exploitative relationship between a teacher and learner, and what Qubeka describes as ‘a serial killer origin film’. It was shot in black and white, which he admits had a bit to do with wanting it to become a cult classic.

    Of Good Report did achieve pretty legendary status, in fact, not only because of the critical acclaim it received, but because of a baffling decision by the state ratings board to ban it.

    The film, which was initially scheduled to open the 34th Durban International Film Festival was replaced by Qubeka appearing on stage with his mouth taped in protest. The censorial ruling was soon appealed and overturned, but left a bitter taste in the mouth. Nevertheless, the film was widely hailed for its bravery in tackling poignant issues and for opening a debate wherever it was screened. It also earned Qubeka the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for film.

    It was hardly his first moment in the spotlight, though. Almost a decade earlier, Qubeka had used his talent to accrue an armful of international awards for a powerful HIV documentary, Talk to Me.

    He’s worked across the length and breadth of Africa, too. In Lesotho, for another documentary, he interviewed Basotho royalty and almost caused a diplomatic incident. ‘It was my first over-the-border trip, with a small crew to shoot interviews. There was a big ceremony and a parade, and I managed to upset the king’s younger brother because I asked him to introduce himself on camera. He went crazy. “What?” he said. “Introduce myself? But I am the king’s brother!” All in a very strong British accent.’

    He’s had opportunities to work in unusual locations, too. In the arid Northern Cape, 100 km north of Springbok just south of the Namibian border, he shot behind-the-scenes material for a post-apocalyptic film directed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother. And in Lagos (‘the light is perfect, but the heat isn’t good for shooting’), where he shot a ghost story, he worked at a graveyard until three in the morning.

    More recently, Qubeka made a short isiXhosa sci-fi movie, Stillborn, that stars Mandisa Nduna in a distant future reality, when humankind is extinct. It premiered at the BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu, China, in 2017.

    And even as South Africa awaits the local release of his latest headline-grabbing film, Qubeka’s next motion picture, Knuckle City, is already awaiting distribution. Look out for this epic boxing story later in 2019.

    In the meantime, it’s Qubeka’s most recent feature that’s set to generate the most attention this summer. Sew the Winter to My Skin is South Africa’s contender for 2019’s Oscar race. Although there’s much campaigning left to do before the shortlisted nominees are announced at the end of January, there’s every chance that it’ll be joining Tsotsi, the first and only South African film to have won an Oscar.

    A marvellous mix of audacious cinematic style and unorthodox storytelling that edges towards the experimental, Qubeka’s film is breathtaking in its scope. And in many ways, it’s groundbreaking.

    It’s also a movie for people who love movies – made by a film-maker who has movies in his blood. Qubeka, who hails from East London, says he grew up on a diet of Steven Spielberg movies after being bitten by the film bug early in life. ‘My father loved movies and had a lot of them, and I adopted that love and the habit of watching everything. I was deeply impacted by what I watched and was a walking catalogue of films.’

    He also says that he developed some kind of Peter Pan fantasy, largely fuelled by the imagined worlds that film-makers such as Spielberg created. ‘I just never wanted to grow up,’ he says.

    In fact, listening to Qubeka talk about his passion for cinema and his love of storytelling, his voice still resounds with that same youthful exuberance. Even with all that’s happened in his career, he glows with an energy that comes from living out your dreams. ‘Spielberg struck me as a grown-up child allowed to play out all of his fantasies, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do in life. I enjoyed him because he was able to take people on a joyride en masse.’

    Indeed, Sew the Winter is one momentous, thrilling joyride. The film – an adventurous yarn told in powerful images and with great verve – is a kind of man-on-the-run Western set in the early 1950s. It’s based on the story of a real-life Robin Hood-like sheep rustler named John Kepe (beautifully played by Ezra Mabengeza) who makes an entertaining business of evading racist nationalists in the Eastern Cape’s rugged Boschberg Mountains.

    The film had its global premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and the following month opened the Cape Town International Film Market and Festival with a ritzy red-carpet gala screening attended by some 1 400 people.

    That it’s an important film is unquestionable, which is undoubtedly what prompted its selection as South Africa’s official submission for the race to get an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language category.

    Ironically, though, Sew the Winter is almost wordless. What little dialogue there is, is sparse and incidental. Instead, what the film delivers is taut, steely action – Qubeka’s film forces us to experience the anguish of a man almost constantly on the verge of being caught. There are moments where the relentlessness of the white-knuckle chase or hair’s-breadth evasion of capture as John hides under a bed compels you to hold your breath.

    The film’s telling is smart too. Qubeka is flexible with time. We travel between present and past in a deftly woven timeline that brings a dreamlike dimension to the unfolding drama so that you walk out of the cinema feeling as though you’ve been on one hell of a journey.

    It’s what Qubeka likes to call a ‘visceral language’ – one that feels as if you’re engaged in a narrative game with the film-maker. And you know it’s good cinema when you’re literally on the edge of your seat.

    It all goes back to that childhood love of cinema and what the film-making craft could achieve, says Qubeka. ‘I was always enamoured by the freedom film-making seemed to provide – the ability to play and make your fantasies come true. I’ve always lived in that fantastical headspace and always wanted to express myself creatively in that way.’

    He says that a new epoch of local film-making is dawning. He calls it ‘a golden era of South African cinema’, and it’s fitting that he should be leading our film industry into that gilded age.

    Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on 22 January 2019. Should Sew the Winter to My Skin be among the nominees, Jahmil XT Qubeka and his crew will be in Hollywood for the Oscars ceremony on 24 February. The film should be released in South African cinemas in February 2019.

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