Q&A: Filmmaker Mmabatho Montsho zooms in on female sexuality

What started out as a conversation about sexual purity between filmmaker and actor Mmabatho Montsho and her friend, turned into a 10-part web series on YouTube. The series, entitled Women on Sex, unpacks topics such as rape culture, virginity, sex and liberation, through interviews with various women. 

Some of her interviewees include actors Masasa Mbangeni and Khanyi Mbau and experts in somatology and sexual health. The series aims to tackle the broader topic – female sexuality – in a way she feels hasn’t been done before on local television. According to her, there is a huge gap for content that “centres on black women as thinking, critical beings”. She has been filming the series on and off sine 2012. She took breaks in between shoots to raise money for project. Her determination has certainly paid off – her series has sparked the conversation on female sexuality in the media. Mail & Guardian spoke to her about Women on Sex.

Katlego Mkhwanazi: Why do you focus on the topic “women on sex”?
Mmabatho Montsho: I haven’t seen a show that tackles sex aggressively locally. The last great show I saw concerning women was Lebo Mashile’s L’Attitude. It’s an important topic. You cannot talk honestly about sex without talking about the law, power relations, gender inequality, history, the economy, crime – you name it. It is connected to our liberation and we have to review the relationship we have with it.

KM: What do you hope to achieve with the web series?
MM: I hope to challenge the existing narrative that African women don’t engage with their own sexuality in progressive and intellectual ways, the perception that we are “helpless victims”. This narrative has been forced on us and it’s our duty as black female filmmakers to dismantle those stereotypes and decolonize our stories.

KM: What has been the feedback from both men and women regarding the web series?
MM: Many women have been saying “thank you” – that has been the consistent thread. We appreciate seeing ourselves in a new way. Interestingly, some men have been sharing the series with their male friends, challenging themselves to see things from our perspective. That has been a pleasant surprise.

KM: Why did you take the Youtube route? Why didn’t you sell the series to a TV station?
MM: There was an integrity I felt was important to preserve, which after several conversations with TV, I realised could only happen if I broadcast the series online. It also allows us to push certain sensitive boundaries. You would be surprised at what you are not allowed to say or show on TV. There is also the ongoing battle around intellectual property (IP). When broadcasters commission your work, you relinquish all IP rights and you’re not exactly paid for it either. Those are the difficulties creatives are facing. That said, South Africa is still primarily a TV watching audience, so my dream is to find a comfortable compromise and serve that audience. 

KM: How have platforms such as Youtube helped filmmaker/directors? 
MM: They give a director independence, creatively and otherwise. One can create the kind of work they want to explore at a fraction of TV or film rates. It allows for experimentation, to test your voice and content with a global audience. The expectations online are different, so are the rewards.

KM: How did you select the featured women in the series?
MM: That was probably the most difficult part. I wanted to put mainstream and marginalised voices in one space. I looked for women from different parts of SA, different sexualities and diverse demographics. That way we could illustrate how women face the same challenges no matter who they are and where they are from. As it happens with making a film, not all women will make the final cut, so who makes the cut post interviews was also a very difficult process.

KM: Were all the women you’ve interviewed comfortable from the get go with talking about chastity, rape culture and all the other featured topics?
MM: No! There were fears about being on camera, also fears about how families would react when they see the footage. When it came to the topics however, most of the women felt very strongly about their opinions and there was a consistent burning desire to be heard. Social media has so far been the only platform where black women can express themselves this freely and strongly, so to be able to do it on camera and have it broadcast is a big deal. It was a big deal for me too, to have had the opportunity to make this series and have all these amazing women on board.

KM: What do you think of the way in which black female sexuality is being portrayed in modern day films? For example, the film Addicted.
MM: It’s still mostly treated as something that exists for the use and pleasure of others, not for our own pleasure. Isn’t it interesting that in Addicted that the woman has “lost control” of her body? It kind of speaks to self-policing one’s sexuality. That can be powerful or problematic theme depending on the treatment. I’d have to watch the whole film to comment fully on it. On Being Mary Jane, however, I enjoy the different ways they treat her sexual choices – it’s dynamic. She owns her sexuality. And those moments are beautiful to watch.

KM: What other projects are you working on? 
MM: I’m directing a short film I wrote as part of a female filmmaker’s slate called The Groom’s Price. It’s a romantic comedy about marriage, gender and tradition, where a young woman tries to pay lobola for her man. I am also part of the story development team on an exciting 26-part drama series based in the music industry.

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