Academic Pumla Gqola and filmmaker Xoliswa Sithole.
Academic Pumla Gqola and filmmaker Xoliswa Sithole.
Image: Supplied

In the first of a series of conversations between peers in various disciplines, the Director for the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at NMMU, and the filmmaker discuss their work, the contents of Naomi Campbell’s handbag, and sowing their wild oats

Pumla Gqola (PG): You are enormously committed to producing work of a certain quality. What are your thoughts on the relationship between visibility, excellence, and the kind of work that you do?

Xoliswa Sithole (XS): I just do what I do. Often, my projects are a knee-jerk reaction. It was with my documentary Child of the Revolution, about Zimbabwe. I woke up one day and I said, “I’m so tired of what the media is saying about Zimbabwe. Let me just go to Zim.” And I flew to Zim. I got permission to film in the country. It took me nine years to make the documentary, but I made it, through a reaction. My first documentary, Shouting Silent, also came about as a reaction. I know you love Shouting Silent. It was for this documentary that we first met and fell in love with each other. We just have a mutual appreciation of who we are in our space. But, most importantly, you give me so much strength and energy to be the best. That’s what relationships are about. We’re supposed to bring out the best in each other. I’m privileged because you’re an academic rock star. You make academia so interesting and accessible. And you’ve taught me a lot in that space. You’ve taught me the intersectionality of film, of art, of academia, of literature, of books. One minute, you’re profiling Zanele Muholi; one minute you’re profiling Xoliswa Sithole. One minute, you’re profiling some painter; the next minute you’re mentoring a young woman who wants to be in academics.

You’ve pushed the envelope of how people have always understood or misunderstood academia to be books. I’ve always said I want to do a master’s, and I’m not clever enough. And you’re always saying, no, you can do it. That is very, very important.

You’ve created a space for some of us who feel that our work should be accessible within the political, academic, and civil-society space, because we’re bearing witness to whatever is happening around us.

The other thing you’ve taught me is that women — Black women in particular — are being erased from history. How do we find collective ways of contesting that? As a documentary filmmaker, I’m always flabbergasted by the fact that the little archive that is there is very, very expensive. How do we find ways to work around the continuous exclusion of women from our narratives? Even when women have been archived, they have sometimes been archived incorrectly. There’s often something that’s not quite right when we are archived within our glory and our greatness, and you know just how phenomenal we are as women, and especially as Black women. 

You do that for me. And that’s important because film is based on patronage. Many talented women don’t last long enough in film. It’s expensive; it’s difficult. You have to deal with the issue of paying your rent and this and that. I have phenomenal women around me who keep saying, “Xoli, keep going.” I wanted to quit this game about two, three years ago because I couldn’t pay my rent. I couldn’t pay my daughter’s school fees. And I was like, “I don’t think I can do this,” but here we are. So, in terms of excellence and all of that, I’m not sure. And I’m not being modest. I’m not a modest person. I’m not. I just do what I do.

Professor Pumla Gqola.
Professor Pumla Gqola.
Image: Illustration/Manelisi Dabata

PG: You’re incredibly generous. You like to say you’re not a modest person but, actually, your humility is awe inspiring.

I think other people would have listened, allowed you to kind of sidestep your fabulousness, but you know you’re not going to get away with that with me. Eighteen films, two Baftas. The first African filmmaker to have a Bafta is an enormous deal. And a Peabody — just about every significant documentary award in the world. Both in terms of the different film establishments, but also incredible awards for different themes. We often think about excellence and shininess and celebrity, but for me, one of the important ways we should think about excellence is to think about depth, right?Shouting Silent gave us a language to speak about the HIV/AIDS realities unfolding around us. I love that you talk about film as a way to bear witness, but what Shouting Silent does is done on many, many levels. This documentary is critical for how we think about gender, medicine, planning, and power in this society now. It’s a film about children who have to deal with the loss of their parents to HIV/AIDS. It’s beautiful. And then you intertwine your own experience of losing your mom with that of these little girls who are often the faceless, poor AIDS orphans, right?

You’re doing something very important and disruptive; you’re making us think.You force us to think about what the world looks like when you’re this little girl who loses her mom, who has to survive and make big adult decisions. One of the ways in which excellence is very consistent in your body of work is not just that you make beautiful films. The conceptual, deep, difficult but beautiful work you make shifts how we see the world that you pull us into. My point is that I’m not asking you a question. I’m partly pointing to your incredible capacity because this does not happen accidentally. I don’t believe you when you say, “Oh, no, I just did it.” That was a long preamble to my question… There’s a way in which you could also be making a very different kind of film, right? Why don’t you make a happy feature film that’s light and great?

Xoliswa Sithole.
Xoliswa Sithole.

XS: Growing up in Zimbabwe, and coming to South Africa, I felt I was in this space where Black people, especially Black women, were trying to define who we are as Black people. And so there was a certain — I don’t want to say responsibility because then it makes me sound so smug — gravitation to telling those stories. Michael Sachs [adjunct professor in economics at Wits] and [feminist writer] Gail Smith have been influential, really crystallising my political awareness in this country. Michael is a communist and Gail a socialist, and I felt a need to place whatever it is that I wanted to express within that political framework. So whatever it is I do, it happens within that political framework. And you only have to read Angela Davis’ Women, Race & Class to understand what it is. But I have been asked to do many dodgy films. Fortunately I’ve never been motivated by money. It’s happened once or twice that someone has said to me, “I’ll give you a million bucks” to make a film, but if I don’t feel it, I’m not going to do it. Having said that, I really, really, really wanted to direct a film about me. I’ve told you this. When I was very young, I loved sweets. And there was this little storybook, in Rhodesia. And I’ve always said to myself, when I make money, I want to buy a suitcase full of sweets. It would be perfect to direct a 10-minute film of me just buying sweets at Pick n Pay. There’s a lot of fun stuff in the world. What I also really would like to do is a documentary looking inside the handbags of top models. What does Naomi Campbell have in her handbag?

PG: We all know Naomi is a germaphobe like me, so we know that there’s a lot of disinfecting stock in there…

XS: There’s a whole psychology behind what we actually keep in our handbags. But coming to you — where do you find the courage and the chutzpah to tackle serious, humongous subjects? You create a discourse that we’re dealing with as a country. Whether it is the issue of rape, of slavery… Where do you find the courage to do that kind of work?

PG: I’m not particularly courageous. I’m a nerd. I have a curiosity about something, and then I want to figure this thing out. And so I can be a little obsessed and go down that rabbit hole. So most of the time, it doesn’t feel like courage. But secondly, I think it matters who you surround yourself with. My friends are so remarkable. They are in my corner 100% of the time and spectacular at their own work. These are people who deeply care about leaving the world radically different and radically better than it was when they were born. These are also people who know how to love the hell out of me, how to inspire the hell out of me. And also they have such a crazy — you have such a crazy — work ethic. So I can’t be the slacker. I also know that whatever I’m doing, I’m not going to be able to get away with certain things ideologically. We discuss really significant things about why it matters that we think about ourselves as Black people, as Black women, as people, as Africans, as people in the Global South, and how our work matters and what we want to do in the world.

XS: I want to understand this new title you were given. It’s so fancy looking. What is it? And what does it mean?

PG: I’m the Nelson Mandela University department of science and innovation National Research Foundation (NRF) SA Research Chairs Initiative Chair in African Feminist Imagination. It basically means that I can do research in an area of my choosing. So I chose African feminist imagination, which means I get to look at the creative work, popular culture, and other imaginative activity that African feminism creates in the world. So I’m looking at literature, film, performance, painting, print, and other kinds of visual material. I’m looking at popular cultural forms. But I’m also looking at other things that aren’t necessarily the creative arts, but where there’s really imaginative, disruptive work. And I’m trying to think about whether there’s a certain African feminist sensibility at this time.

XS: It is interesting, because someone who has done a PhD on women who choose to be child-free approached me to do a documentary on women who choose. We’re placing that documentary within the context of African women. Within the African tradition, women are not child-free, they’re childless. Within the West, women choose to be child-free, but we want to place the documentary within the context of African women who are choosing to be child-free. How do we find a new language for young women who are coming up? We’re looking at this documentary from an anthropological, sociological perspective. It’s really about women and ownership of their bodies.

PG: Something you’ve taught me is that it’s really important for Black people who create things to always be mindful of the fact that we don’t think about owning things. That relationship between creative and intellectual work and ownership. Of course we have a history; our greats often die in poverty because their pictures are owned by some European. It was incredibly foundational for me that we can talk about copyright, really being able to make the decisions to own your work.You would think that as Africans, who have had so much taken away from us — including people — we would never lose this fight. At times, I’m like, it’d be so much easier if I just get an agent or hand it over to some lawyer, but then I remember your voice saying, “Own your shit.”

XS: It’s disconcerting that we’re short-sighted in terms of you either get more money and give away your rights to ownership, or you can get less, struggle when the project takes long, but ultimately own the project. We need to finish. I want to ask you a very important question. Where do you see yourself going? And what is your desire in terms of what it is that you want to achieve with who you are?

PG: From the time I was 15, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do by 30. I always have a 15-year plan. I wanted certain things by 30. And when I was 30, I wanted to do things by 45, and now I’m 48. And I realised for the first time I don’t have a 15-year plan. I wanted a research chair. And so what I see for myself, part of what I’m discovering in the last decade-and-a-half of my pre-retirement life, is that I want to do more of what I want to do. There is great freedom that comes with having this chair. I have more books to write. I have more students to supervise. I have more life to live. I have more kind of craziness to do. What I would like to do is actually be able to give myself permission to enjoy some of what I’ve created. I’m always going to work on a project. The day I don’t have a thing that I’m working on — like a book, a specific thing — I’m going to be done on this planet.

What I’m enjoying about this time is that I’m a little bit more settled; I’m not as frantic. I was on the treadmill for a long time. I’m not going to write a script for the first time, I haven’t written what I want to do by 60. And I think, you know what, I’m not going to write it. Maybe when I’m 60, I’ll write what I want done by 75, but I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to be sillier. I’m going to enjoy the wonderful things in my life. I’m going to write more books. I’m going to teach more. I want to do more of the same because, actually, I like the life I have created. I do work that matters. I do want the world to be better and people to feel better after I’ve taught them and after they have read my books. That’s a worthy thing to dedicate my life to. So I’m going to do more of that. But, also, I want to dance with you. I want to play more and dance more with my children. I want to spend more time with my friends. Surviving Covid-19 has allowed me to focus on my own mortality. I’m going to create more things and hopefully change people’s lives. I’m going to be completely unapologetic about the joy in my life.

XS: I’m going to stop being a filmmaker, probably in five years. I’ve always wanted to teach. So maybe I’ll be as clever as you are. My 40s passed me by; I was raising my daughter. I didn’t date. I didn’t do anything. I want to have fun. I want to date. Work is overrated. I love what I do, but there are other things. I’m really, really being honest; I actually want to date more. I want to have fun. I’ve discovered how wonderful it is to date younger men. I don’t really want to look at someone my age, with their health problems. So I just want to be silly.

PG: You talk such nonsense!

XS: The point is I want to be silly, and I want to have fun. Single life, clap your hands. And spend more time with you, my friend. Do absolutely nothing.

PG: Our babies will grow up and become fabulous. And need us less. We’ve earned it. I think you’ve earned it. By the time when you’ve been working as hard as we have, and you’ve tried so hard, working so hard at being a good person as well, and being able to live with yourself for so long and having produced work that you think matters, that does matter, that other people think matters, you’ve earned the right to be unapologetically you, to explore, to just have fun.

Like your daughter used to say to you, “Mama, why don’t you just make happy films?” I’m like that too. I write on slavery and violence, and I feel like I was laughing at you, but I’d be the same way. What if I write a happy book? Okay fine, I have written two, but the other books I’m dreaming about are also happy books.

XS: You make me feel so liberated. Actually, I just want to have fun.

 Professor Pumla Gqola has written six books, including the Alon Paton-award-winning Rape: A South African Nightmare. Her latest book is Female Fear Factory. 

 Xoliswa Sithole is an actress and prolific documentary-filmmaker. Of the 18 films she has made, Orphans of Nkandla won a Bafta, and Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children a Bafta and a Peabody Award. She is currently working on a documentary about the fight for cheaper medicine for HIV/AIDS. 

 From the August edition of Wanted, 2021.

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