Nigerian-born Akin Omotoso has been working in the South African film and television industry since the mid-1990s, doing a bit of everything – acting (Lord of War and Blood Diamond); producing (Jozi and TV show Sorted); writing and directing (TV series A Place Called Home, plus movies including his first directorial project, God Is African, in 2003, and the hard-hitting drama about xenophobia, Man on Ground, which came out in 2011).
Tell Me Sweet Something is his new movie, a romantic comedy set in Johannesburg. Written by Omotoso with producer Robbie Thorpe, it stars Maps Maponyane, Thomas Gumede and Nomzamo Mbatha.
What drew you to this particular project?
I always wanted to do a love story. I was very inspired by Love Jones, in 1997 – it’s a classic, and it started a new wave of romantic comedies. I liked the feeling it gave me. I thought I’d like to make a movie with that feeling – you know, you just feel good when you walk out.
I had that idea for a long time. Then the African Women’s Development Fund got hold of me. They had seen my 2008 short, Jesus and the Giant, and they asked me: “What do you want to do next?” I told them I wanted to develop a love story from the ground up. So they funded the development of the project.
What was the process from then onwards?
I went away, I wrote. We got 10 actors together for workshops to develop the story. We wanted to be able to let it develop organically. We paid the actors and workshopped it. Then Robbie and I went off and wrote it for the next two years. When we finished, we had a month of rehearsals, so that everyone was focused; then we shot it in one month – May – in Johannesburg. And then we edited it for a year.
Tell Me Sweet Something is a movie in which, as they say, the city itself is a character. In this case, it’s the city of Johannesburg. Does it make a good character?
I love cinema as a representation of a city. When I went to New York, I thought: Why do I know this city? And of course it’s because of the movies – Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, say, on the Brooklyn Bridge, in Manhattan. We live in this city, Johannesburg, but what representations of the city do we see? Many times I’ve driven through the city, sometimes at night, and looked at it and thought: Wouldn’t it be great to put that on screen?
Look at Amélie and La Haine – they are both set in Paris, but they give very different views of Paris. One is romantic, beautiful; the other is hellish. We see a lot of the hellish Johannesburg, but in this movie we wanted to look at Johannesburg through the prism of love.
Was it important to do a film that was relatively light?
The key thing was to make a film that was fun – to be able to say it’s okay to have fun. My previous film, Man on Ground, was about xenophobia in South Africa, and so inevitably it was very sombre. Working on Tell Me Sweet Something, it was really nice to be able to come on set and laugh.
So you got funding to develop the script from the African Women’s Development Fund, but to actually make it you had to get more funding, right?
Yes. We got further funding for the movie – funding from M-Vest Media, Red Pepper’s Ladies & Gentlemen Films, the National Film and Video Foundation, the department of trade and industry, and some from the American video-on-demand channel, PanaTV, which hasn’t launched yet, but Tell Me Sweet Something will be one of the first films to show on it.
Then the rest was crowdfunded. One of the financiers backed out at the last minute, so we had to fill the gap. We had a crowdfunding evening, and invited about 70 people – and 10 people showed up. But one guy who was invited by chance ended up putting money into the movie. In the end, about 30 people contributed to the crowdfunding.
How do you feel about the state of the South African film industry, generally?
We need to have a dialogue about our audiences in this country. Last week, Leon Schuster’s new film was released, and then there’s Ayanda, Necktie Youth, and others. Every two weeks, it seems, there’s a new South African movie coming out. So that’s a sign we’re growing.
What have the reactions to the film been, so far?
Responses to the film have been very good. One person who saw it and said to me that it was nice to see a film that doesn’t have any violence in it, that’s about love.