An afternoon chat squeezed between schedules with Mandisa Nduna, creative polymath and star of Stillborn, turns into a cosmic exploration of the makings of an uncompromisingly South African sci-fi film.
“There’s this theory that Earth is a game that higher beings are playing — and we are just the avatars these beings are controlling, like a video game. That’s a working theory — in the real world,” Nduna declaims as we chat about her and her role in Jahmil XT Qubeka’s latest film, Stillborn.
Suspended briefly in the idea that we are mere fleshy avatars in one big game, we laugh away imminent existential crises.
The sci-fi gem opened at the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Film Festival in Chengdu, China, last month. Stillborn is Qubeka’s response to the festival’s theme, “Where has time gone?”
Stillborn is set 3 000 years into the future, when humans are extinct. Nduna’s character, Nobomi SX1, is an artificial intelligence (AI) labourer in a dystopian society stratified into a caste-like system of labourers, watchers and players. In her work of recovering artefacts from life on Earth, Nobomi SX1 becomes intrigued by her human origins.
But, given her position in her regimented world, she must risk life and limb (or processor and prosthetics) to hack her way into experiencing existence as a human ancestor might have. It’s in the way she blinks.
Nduna’s character is a dystopian hero’s journey like any other. But Stillborn is not just any sci-fi film. It represents a beacon of South African cinema defining sci-fi for itself. Aesthetically, Stillborn is a manifestation of ancestral foresight; costumes draw on traditional Xhosa dress.
The AI characters appear genderless. “He wanted me to look as far from human as possible,” Nduna says of Qubeka’s vision for her transformation into Nobomi SX1.
“I shaved off my dreadlocks and my eyebrows, covered my tattoos, and was made to look gold,” she says with a proud but heavy nod to a briefcase in which her locks are still stored.
Nduna further transformed herself into a distinctly African AI by studying the machines around her. “I’d switch on the printer, for example, and pay attention to its processing time.”
As for the creation of a post-Earth setting, Nduna applauds the imaginations of the film’s set designers: “[They] had a really tough job. They had to create a world where there was no plant life, no bricks, no earthly structures at all.”
The film is in isiXhosa and the conceptual weight of this is not lost on Nduna. “When I think science or technology, I don’t automatically think of Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana culture … so it was very significant that in order to achieve this futuristic world we had to explore the past.”
The resolve to create a believable AI from a South African perspective is convention-shifting. Stillborn’s positive reception in China affirms this. But, in Nduna’s view, there is still a long way to go for locally made sci-fi.
“How far can we stretch our imaginations?” she asks. “How far can we suspend our beliefs? What possibilities do our filmmakers see out there — beyond Earth?”
Nduna is not waiting around for answers — or scripts — to fall from the sky.
Together with creative partners such as Qubeka and director Thi-shiwe Ziqubu, she is diving deeper into Afrofuturism and sci-fi. She starts filming a second film with Qubeka in September, leads the cast of Ziqubu’s upcoming sci-fi feature, Stellar Collision, and is coproducing a superhero series based on African parables with Ziqubu.
A graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Drama and Performance, 26-year-old Nduna is no stranger to the stage, screen or recording booth. As an actress, voice-over artist and musician now adding writing and production to her portfolio, she occupies a multiverse all her own.
“Yet no one teaches you how to do your taxes when you’re an artist,” she exclaims.
This yanks us back to Earth, to take a closer look at the industry in which young black creators find themselves. Nduna identifies three fault lines in South African filmmaking.
“On a practical level, those who have the land can film on it for free and use that venue-hire money for better equipment,” she says, explaining how disparities across genres and communities in filmmaking are a function of the country’s resource
“We’re struggling artists before we even leave school,” Nduna says of the systemic shortage of funding and status afforded to university arts faculties — factors that serve to skew the industry towards those with existing resources.
“Filmmaking is an art. But film production is a business, so we need to be taught to play the game.”
The game Nduna refers to is the influencer game — one that requires actors to be good on screen and on social media.
“It’s sad, but there’s no time to be a thespian. Hashtag your life,” she says.
With that sentiment, we break into laughter.
“We might just be avatars in an intergalactic video game after all. But whether real or not, hashtagged or not, Nduna — much like her character Nobomi SX1 — is on a mission to usurp the dominant powers, ensuring that no black body in filmmaking goes unremembered. And we’re rooting for a win.
Watch the trailer for Stillborn at https://vimeo.com/221941037.
Dinika Govender is a storyteller and co-founder of Disorient Media who can usually be found with a notebook in hand by day and air-dancing like a balloon by night. Twitter: @AishwaryaFly and Instagram: @aishwaryafly