“There are so many ways of being able to define your own success that sometimes the obvious ways are not the ways in which you’d think you’re succeeding,” she says, shrugging.
I’m sitting across from Lodi Matsetela, whose embers of filmmaking fire are only stoked by actually doing the work. She leans in, fingers spread out on the table, with a grin on her face when she speaks about her dream film - a love letter to Winnie Mandela, if you’re wondering - and the reality of consistently creating polarising drama series like Tjovitjo.
But she keeps her hands clasped when talking about all the other facts of the TV and film industry that feel incidental to actually creating. We speak about how Tjovitjo - of which she is the executive producer and has written an upcoming episode - has been nominated for seven South African Film and Television Awards.
This includes the Best Actor nomination for its lead, the inimitable Warren Masemola, who plays MaFred.
Through Puo Pha, her production company with prolific director, Vincent Moloi - who also directs Tjovitjo - the documentary about the genocide in Namibia, Skulls of My People, has been nominated five times. Matsetela’s silver hoop earrings dangle as we discuss these as well as why she’s not stressed about bringing home any gold after the Saftas ceremonies held at Sun City this weekend.
“Awards are fantastic,” she tells me. “But if I was looking at awards as the only thing that’s going to affirm the work that I’m doing then I might be sorely disappointed. I must just continue to do the work. It’s nice to be nominated,” she smiles. “It’s niiiice. But I guess I have other things on my checklist that would give me the stamp of being a bonafide successful filmmaker.”
Like what, I ask her.
“Just to be able to finish a production and not owe anybody,” she says, matter-of-factly. She’s referring to stories last year about some cast, crew and suppliers not being paid after shooting Tjovitjo. Puo Pha clarified the financial stuggles it faced as an independent business in an industry that relies heavily on outside funding.
Skulls of My People has received critical acclaim, but it’s Tjovitjo that has become the marker for its ability to move the needle in the mainstream. Set in a township called Tjovitjo, where pantsula dancing is a literal lifeline, the drama potrays issues of toxic masculinity, faith, poverty and more in a striking manner.
It’s no wonder the show is nominated for technical awards such as editing, art/production design, cinematography, sound design and wardrobe/costume design. It’s also no wonder that Tjovitjo, also nominated in the Best TV Drama against Harvest and Die Boland Moore, raked in a whopping 5.7-million viewers.
“People look at Tjovitjo and think it’s so groundbreaking,” Matsetela says. “But in terms of, say, storytelling, we’re playing on the boundaries and we’d really like to push the boundaries and take the South African audiences with us. We broke the mould of how people think stories should be told. That you should be spoonfed.”
Like with Matsetela’s debut breakthrough TV drama, Society (with then-business partner, Makgano Mamabolo), Tjovitjo has brought a deviation to the obvious that hasn’t really been seen in this country since Yizo Yizo. Now in its second season on SABC 1, Tjovitjo allows the viewer to sit in and interrogate their feelings about certain things.
Like MaFred’s resistance to being seen as affected, juxtaposed with being prone to emotional outbursts. Or the feared Bra Terror’s imminent depression. Or the mirroring of how being raised in the hood doesn’t allow girls the luxury of playing princess. This last part ties in with something else she is passionate about: the erasure of women as participants and peers in this industry: “It’s not that we’re not there,” Matsetela, who started out as a copywriter in advertising, says.
“I just feel like women are not getting certain opportunities. The advertising industry is the last frontier of apartheid - there’s a large production sector that almost excludes black practitioners. And that’s South Africa, in general. I also realised that guys are oblivious of the fact that their female counterparts are nowhere to be found. I think if they were to question that, they’d also have to question: ‘Am I really that great?’ ”
With a decade of experience as a producer, writer and filmmaker, Matsetela continues to be the loudspeaker for those whose voices are ignored. But keeping her feet on the ground means she is also aware that she needs balance - “I worry that there is a pragmatism there that doesn’t allow me to see the fruits of our production company.”
But for now, Matsetela is keeping her eye on the work.
* Tjovitjo airs on SABC 1 Sundays at 8pm.