The character whisperer: Zandi Tisani

Filmmaker

Zandi Tisani (31) remembers a pair of films stacked at the far end of her friend’s mother’s video collection —positioned, presumably, to be out of reach of children.

Not quite unreachable, the films — a rare copy of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and the Eddie Murphy-conceived Boomerang — provided countless hours of clandestine entertainment for the two schoolgirls.

Tisani tells this story at the end of the interview, after explaining how her first love was always theatre and how her father would have none of it, thereby making filmmaking an acceptable compromise. “I think he felt like he couldn’t see a way of me being able to support myself at all with theatre,” she says.

Work and meaning

After enrolling for film and media studies at the University of Cape Town in 2004, Tisani majored in screenwriting.


Not one to shy away from writing, she remembers that, after university, she amassed a lot of scripts but “none of them got made. It was writing for myself. For any person, looking at your early work is painful, because you are looking at your mistakes and the aspirational quality in your stories, which can be quite embarrassing.”

A short film she wrote and directed in 2014 titled Heroes was among her earliest projects to move beyond the level of script, the result of a grant from the National Film and Video Foundation.

“I wrote the script before I knew about the grant,” she says. “It was based on a story my older sister told me. A white neighbour was telling her about what it was like before we moved in: they had a meeting about us and a debate about how to manage our arrival.”

The impetus in Heroes emerges from Tisani’s professed signature of character-driven stories. “I’ve never been a sloppy writer, always been more about developing a character than going for the excitement. My characters are where I find my plot.”

Her other documentary-style projects reveal an oblique way of envisioning worlds that are in close proximity to her. Highlands and Style Diary: Yeoville, made in 2015, although two very different films, both pull from beneath the surface to showcase the hard-won dignity of everyday people. For instance, a homeless man living in an incomplete concrete hovel on Yeoville’s sacred ridge casually says: “I’m watching movies here, people robbing people. People stealing people’s things.”

Tisani’s aesthetic emerges, it seems, from an egoless part of her subconscious. In Style Diary, she was interested in fashion that had “nothing to do with what was on the blogs”.

Future plans

Represented by Arcade Content as a commercials director, an environment she says has helped her become a professional as opposed to just a creative, Tisani has more or less continued to write, something she is hoping to do more of soon.

A pilot for a web series she developed about two years ago went to the New York Television Festival and played in competition.

She landed a development deal for the project, titled People You May Know.

She is also setting her sights on historical fiction. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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