Generations of storytelling: Charlie Vundla on his most personal film

It’s a Monday night in 1993. Countless South African families sit together, huddled around one of those television sets that need a smack on the side to get a proper signal from the bunny-ears aerial.

The country watches as a tuxxed-out young groom from a family of means is about to marry his ditsy, in it for the money bride. As the episode progresses — and South Africans tuning in feel the jubilance and building tension — a gunshot rings out. The groom is dead. The bride is traumatised. The groom’s brother smiles. The credits roll. Generations, the country’s longest-running soap opera, has given us one of the most famous TV families in SA’s entertainment history — the Morokas.

But one family in Rivonia, Johannesburg, is glued to their screen for different reasons. The Vundlas aren’t your average Mzansi family. The father, Mfundi, is the creator of Generations. Mfundi’s brother, Peter, is breaking down doors in the advertising industry and it’s on his life and career that Generations is loosely based. Mfundi’s wife, Karen, is a New York- born talent agent and producer. Karen and Mfundi’s son, Charlie, is only nine years old. The Vundlas are South African media royalty.

Uncompromising: Director Charlie Vundla (left) on-set during the filming of ‘Hotel On The Koppies’, which won an award at the 2021 Sabira Cole Film Festival and has been screened at international film festivals

Fast forward to 2022. Charlie Vundla is now an established independent screenwriter, producer and director. His 2021 movie, Hotel On the Koppies, has been making waves in the international film festival circuit and will soon premiere on streaming service Amazon Prime.

The film follows Jabu, who is trying to get his life in order and fix his relationship with his young son, while trying to finish his third book. He finds out that his estranged wife is planning on moving to Europe with their child. Meanwhile, Roxanne, a young independent filmmaker whose career trajectory is jeopardised when she learns she is pregnant, befriends Jabu and together they try to help each other figure it all out.

Vundla had to weave through a country and world shutting down because of Covid-19 and reverse-engineer and improvise the making of the film with the resources he had available.

“Making this film, I had to be realistic with the resources I had,” he says. “When you’re shooting a film on a small budget, you have to

come in extremely well-prepared with a plan that you’re wanting to execute and try to hit the target with that plan. There’s no option but to keep shooting,” he says.

Hotel On The Koppies has been selected at several international film festivals, including the International Film Festival Rotterdam and The Garden Route International Film Festival. It also won the Sabira Cole Award for Narrative or Documentary Feature Length at the 2021 Sabira Cole Film Festival. 

Vundla’s journey is inspired by his family.

“Before I moved to Johannesburg, I lived in Los Angeles with my family. The whole town of Los Angeles lives and breathes film, so I was exposed to that from a very early age,” says Vundla. “My parents are very literary people. In our house, if you spit, you’ll hit a book,” he jokes.

When he was about nine years old Vundla told his mother that he wanted to be an actor. “I remember it as clear as day: my mom and I were driving around, there was dead silence and no radio in the car. Out of nowhere, I announced to my mom, ‘I want to be an actor.’”

This announcement wasn’t met with enthusiasm on account of the many child stars that his mother had seen struggling with drugs and mental health issues. But she decided to support him regardless, allowing him to study film at the University of Southern California.

Since then, Vundla has written and directed three films — Hotel, How To Steal 2 Million and Cuckold

“I’ve decided that I want to be an uncompromising filmmaker. I’ve written all the films that I’ve made, and I’ve tried to make them unique to me and how I am as a human being and my outlook on the world,” he says. 

“I’d like to think that if another director had this script and had directed it, they wouldn’t have done what I did just because of how personal it is to me.

“[Hotel] is not an autobiographical film; I was striving for, above all else, emotional honesty. You look at the characters and they very much are within the world that I know — the world of artists. Primarily that came about because of expediency. If I was going to make this movie, and the characters were doctors and lawyers, that would require a level of research that I just didn’t necessarily have time for.”

Figuring it out: Jabu, played by Moopi Mothibeli, and Roxanne, who is played by Zethu Dlomo-Mphahlele, sit back to back in a scene from ‘Hotel On The Koppies’

With the South African box office dominated by big-budget films, independent filmmakers are lucky to see their films reaching the silver screen outside of festivals and on streaming platforms. As a result, these films often don’t get back the money put into making them. Vundla says this is just the nature of the film business. 

For instance, he says, a film such as Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report will be called an “arthouse” film and its intended audience is shrunk, almost hindering it from seeing “box office success”. But Vundla is not perturbed by this. As an indie filmmaker, he acknowledges that these types of films cannot be measured against the same metrics of box office successes. For this reason he believes streaming services may be the new home for independent films.

“It’s a constantly evolving landscape and the pandemic has really accelerated things in terms of ‘Is theatre dead or is it making a comeback? If it does make a comeback, is theatrical solely going to be for big-budget Hollywood films?’ 

“To have an indie film like Hotel On the Koppies [which] has not

had a theatrical release, is probably the right thing,” says Vundla. 

“[As a director] you can either let the film lead or you could kind of rein it in and exert your control and your dominance. I like films that are, you know, both of those. But the thing is when you have a film where the director really tries to exert that control and rein in the film, the film [can] feel cold and calculated.”

Having recently become a father, Vundla understands how his family’s legacy will be something his son will become aware of. But, much like the approach he took to making Hotel On The Koppies, he is allowing his child to become his own person.

“He’s my first child and he’s only just turned three. So, to say that I have a specific parenting principle at this stage might be, you know, overstating my case. Where I’ve come from and where my parents have come from, I think each generation kind of builds on the previous one and learns from the previous generation’s mistakes.”

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