Durban - It won best African film at the Cannes awards this year, and Bonie Sithebe’s debut feature movie Valley of a Thousand Hills premiered at the Durban International film festival this week.
The Independent on Saturday caught up with her before the event on Thursday evening.
“It was a huge surprise,” said Sithebe, who with her partner Philani, runs Durban Motion Pictures.
“It has always been in my dreams to take a film to Cannes. When I finished the film, I could not submit it to the festival because I had missed the deadline. Then there was an opening for the Cannes awards, so I entered it. Out of the blue I get an email. It was quite a shock. I’m so excited.”
Sithebe was at Cannes for the festival, looking for distribution for the film and pitching new projects.
The film is a coming of age for a young woman.
“In isiZulu culture, on her 21st birthday, a ceremony is performed as a way to prepare a woman to enter adulthood and prepare her to get married. Your father gives you a spear.
“Here a father has chosen a man to marry his daughter, but she’s secretly in love with that man’s sister. The film is set in a conservative community where obedience is highly regarded. She can’t say no to dad, but is also a liberal woman who knows what she wants. At the end, she has to make a choice.”
Sithebe said the fact that her father was a prominent member of the community added to the obligations she felt.
“My father had expectations for me as well. I was meant to be a doctor. Dad had high hopes and I did do pre-med, but it didn’t work out. I guess I’m a born film-maker. I already had a camera at home and did all the videos of the family.
“When medicine didn’t go well, I dropped out and started graphic design and desktop publishing. Then I met my current partner and he was already in the industry. He mentored me. The transition into film was easy. I started as an editor.”
Sithebe said that in movies, location was important.
“I make a movie after I’ve seen the location. I always wanted to shoot in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and I had a this story.
“When the two women are building a house in the valley, the valley becomes part of the character in the sense of how it looks, how the house is built away from everyone so they won’t be a disturbed.”
Sithebe auditioned extensively to find actresses who would portray the characters.
“I knew that I wanted to make a film that would travel internationally. These girls are lesbian characters and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find lesbian characters. I was looking for authenticity. I held three or four auditions and was still not happy. One wouldn’t match the other. Mandisa Vilakazi and Sbongokuhle Nkosi came to the same audition and I just knew. This is them, from the look, to the skin colour, it was how I pictured them in my head.
“Both gave 100%. I told them. ‘ou’ll be kissing another girl”, that I needed them to have that synergy. They’re not lesbian, but I told them just get to know each other. We started shooting just after lockdown.”
The Sithebes have made several movies for the SABC and DStv, but this is her first feature as a director. Sithebe is working on another feature.
“I’m raising funds for it and still writing the script. It’s a totally different film set outside Durban. I shoot most of my films in rural settings because I love the landscape and the culture.”
And when she’s not making movies?
“It’s a 24/7 type of job-slash-hobby,” she said. “Even when we watch TV, we’re still making movies, or we’re travelling and I see locations. I love travelling and there’s meditation and I enjoy eating out.”
The Independent on Saturday