Terry Gross is one of the best interviewers in the world. Recently, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air podcast shared her interviewing tips with the New York Times. The ultimate ice-breaker? Four simple words: “Tell me about yourself.”
So when I meet Kutlwano Ditsele — producer and showrunner extraordinaire, multi-award winner, a man whose CV is beyond impressive — at a noisy café at 44 Stanley, I start our conversation with those words: “Tell me about yourself.”
“Professionally or me?” he asks. “Whatever you want,” I say. He chuckles. I expect him to be cagey, as most behind-the-scenes people are. Luckily, it turns out he’s incredibly (and pleasantly) talkative. And he knows how to tell a story. One would expect that from the man who has worked on some of the biggest and most-acclaimed shows on our television screens: Isibaya, The River, The Herd, Ayeye...
“I’m just a guy who likes telling stories,” he says. “I think in my personal life and in my professional life, that’s always been me. I see stories everywhere I go. So I always tell them. I don’t just see one thing. It’s the weirdest habit I have. For example, I look at that tree over there” — he points to one nearby — “and I think it was once a little seed, it was a plant, it was a tree, it grew up, it got cut down, and now it’s sitting over there. I walk down the street and I see one of those shoes that’s been ridden over by so many cars. I think, ‘Once upon a time, this thing was on a shelf and somebody said “I want that one” and now look at it.’ My mind goes through stories all the time.” Ditsele has been like that since childhood. He was born in Rustenburg and moved to Johannesburg when he was eight. As a child, he didn’t think that he wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. In fact, Ditsele didn’t know if he wanted to be anything at all.
“What I did have a full obsession with was watching films,” he says. What kind of films? The usual movies little boys (and girls) are into — mindless action. “I only got artsy-fartsy when I went to film school,” he says. Ever the storyteller, his school-report comments would include teachers writing that: “He would do so much better if he stopped talking.”
GIFT OF THE GIVER
After matric, Ditsele studied public relations. Then, in 2005, he was surfing the net when he stumbled across a link to the New York Film Academy. “When I saw what they did, it answered everything that I knew I wanted to be,” he says. He applied, even though he says it was “a pipe dream”. He got in.
But the half-a-million-rand school fees made it out of reach. He applied for every scholarship, bursary, and sponsorship possible. Nothing. Eventually he got a sponsorship from someone he’d never met. That person was Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, now head of UN Women, then-deputy president of South Africa.
Ever the storyteller, his school report comments would include teachers writing that: ‘He would do so much better if he stopped talking’Kutlwano Ditsele
It was only in 2018 — 11 years after he received that sponsorship — that he got to meet her and to thank her for changing his life. “I’ve now got this incredible career where, for 10 years; I have worked on the biggest shows in the country; I have won possibly more awards than I ever thought I could win; I’ve now started my own business; and I got to say thank you,” he says.
The business Ditsele speaks of is Seriti Films, the production company he runs with his business partners Leanne Kumalo and Thabang Moleya. They work across visual media, from adverts for brands such as Debonairs, DStv, Vodacom, and Ford; to music videos for artists including rap megastar Cassper Nyovest. And then there’s the TV and film.
Before that, Ditsele’s first job in the industry was at The Bomb Shelter, the legendary production house behind game-changing series Yizo Yizo, as well as more recent hits such as Jacob’s Cross, Isibaya, and Zone 14.
That Bomb Shelter gig saved him from a year of depression. After returning from film school in Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by his dreams and even partied at Denzel Washington’s house (Washington wasn’t there — long story), he couldn’t land even the smallest job in the South African film and TV industry. He describes it using the following analogy: “You know when you take hot oil from the stove and it’s boiling and sizzling, then you put it in cold water? Whatever that moment is from extreme heat to extreme cold can’t be good for the pan. And that’s how it felt for me. I felt like somebody threw me in a bucket of ice after coming out of a volcano.”
I ask him what phrase he would use to describe his work. He quotes the Commodores’ classic song, Night Shift: “There’s this line that’s always stuck with me: ‘Jackie, you set the world on fire.’ That’s what I would like my work to do. I don’t want my work to ever be ignored: I want it to set the world on fire.” Thankfully for Ditsele, that metaphorical bucket of ice he spoke about is already a thing of the past.
- From the March edition of Wanted 2019.