Lights, camera, action with Kuda Jemba

About 50 members of the media, label personnel, friends and family are gathered at the Universal Music live space for a dinner to celebrate Kelly Khumalo’s recent gold and platinum certifications for her album, The Voice of Africa. 

When the fashionably late Khumalo walks into the building, all eyes turn to her. Draped in an Egyptian royalty outfit, she is directed to a makeshift throne where she sits and stares ahead. It doesn’t take long for the cameras to start flashing. 

Standing quietly in a corner is Ugandan-South African director Kuda Jemba, who was recently announced as the director of the third season of her reality TV show, Life with Kelly Khumalo. Earphones on as he listens to the audio from the lapel mic attached to Khumalo’s outfit, Jemba cuts an unassuming figure as he jots down notes. For most of his career, Jemba has gone about his work quietly and studiously. He lets his work speak for itself. 

The show is set to premiere on Showmax on 5 July amid the murder trial of Senzo Meyiwa, her lover at the time he was killed, where several reports have pointed to a cover-up involving Khumalo. 

It’s a huge platform for Jemba to show what he can do.

“I was on an important call when a close friend of mine, Bongani Morgan, tried calling me. When he called a second time, I figured it was important so I picked up. It was such a brief call; he said he’d thrown my name in the ring for season three of Khumalo’s reality show to the executives. The next morning I got a call from one of the executives and he gave me a breakdown of what’s going on and asked for my reel and profile.

“He responded on WhatsApp and said, ‘There’s some good shit here’ and from that moment I knew I had one foot in the door.” 

They met and spoke about everything the season could entail and discussed his fee. A couple of days later Jemba received his contract. 

He said that it happened so quickly that he barely had a moment to process the magnitude of the opportunity. 

Before long, it was time to get working. Jemba endured a stressful but rewarding first few days on set. 

“A relatively inexperienced director with an experienced crew. To me that sounded like a recipe for disaster, but deep down I knew I wasn’t going to talk myself out of a room I had worked hard to be in. I had done my homework on reality shows and consulted with my peers in the industry. 

“So when the moment came when I called action and Kelly walked in a room and did her thing, I felt so much at ease just watching everything unfold, jumping between cameras and listening to the sound while taking down notes.”

Jemba, who has his sights set on directing feature films, recalls how he was first drawn to the medium at the age of six when his uncle took him to a drive-in cinema to watch The Iron Giant. 

“It was a magical experience to be in a car and watch a film,” he recalls, “That experience really sparked my interest in films. But it wasn’t until 2001 when my dad had dropped me off at the cinema in Hillbrow, where you could watch two films at a good rate, that I really got into it. 

“I was meant to watch an animation but never made it to that cinema because I saw the poster for The Fast and the Furious. Walking into that cinema a couple of minutes late and seeing that green Mitsubishi Eclipse make its entrance into the underground race world, with green lights underneath the car and tons of cars and women, I was like, ‘Yo, this is super cool. I want to do cool stuff like this and drive souped-up cars like that one day.’”

It took meeting a friend named MJ a year after graduating from high school for Jemba to make his first move into pursuing this dream. 

“MJ had recently directed his first film and needed a few people to help him sell the film to the general public. He had set up shop in Midrand at Carlswald Lifestyle Shopping Centre. Me being desperate to make money at the time, I reached out to our mutual friend Mautle to get me the job.” 

The first weekend selling the film was a challenge, he recalls, but he was drawn to how MJ spoke with conviction when promoting his film. A few weeks went by, and they got to know each other better and discovered their mutual love for cinema. 

Fast forward two years. MJ gave Jemba a call asking him to help with the next film MJ would be directing, one he would later go on to sell to Mzansi Magic. 

“At that time I was a student at Central Johannesburg College, trying to complete a course in accounting,” said Jemba. “That call was enough for me to drop out of college. Being on his set gave me a greater perspective of the filmmaking process, first-hand. Watching him frame shots, rehearse lines with the actors, and call action, it felt like magic to me. Seeing the film on TV and my name in the credits was all the validation I needed.”

But things went quiet shortly afterwards and, to make ends meet, Kuda found himself in an office job. It wasn’t until 2016 when a friend of his invited him to a music video set that he realised he had to get his head back in the game. 

“With the savings that I had I went and bought a laptop and borrowed a friend’s camera for a few months. I sharpened my skills and was finally ready to put my skills to the test. I shot a music video, which didn’t turn out as expected. There was just a lot wrong with it. I shot two more videos and they actually turned out really well.”

A few months later, Jemba was fired from his office job. “That was one of the best blessings for me. I thought to myself, I can either go home, cry myself to sleep and wake up the next morning and apply for another job. Or I can choose to see the good in this situation and pursue [it] full time. I did the latter.”

Two years on and Jemba was enlisted to direct the music video for Manu Worldstar’s single, Nalingi, which would go on to achieve platinum sales status. That moment opened many doors and he has since gone on to work with the likes of multi-platinum stars AKA, Khuli Chana, Amanda Black, Azana, Emtee and A-Reece. 

Given Jemba’s background, where he predominantly directed music videos, adjusting to differences between music and the reality show medium hasn’t been an easy task. 

“On music video sets I am used to having 90% of what’s going on in front of the camera controlled, from shot lists to lighting to camera movement. With a reality show, you have little time to compose and frame shots, and shot lists are almost non-existent. You always have to be ready for anything that could happen in a particular setup because things are happening in real time. It was a bit of an unusual feeling not being able to control 90% of what was happening in front of the camera.” 

When asked what viewers can expect this season, he answers, “This season, there’s going to be a mixture of emotions. We are going to see the highs and the lows, family and friends banding together and how hard-working a woman Kelly is.” 

Was it difficult to focus on the job with all the noise about the murder that’s been unfolding around Khumalo while they’ve been shooting this reality show? 

“It actually wasn’t that difficult because I was planning a social media sabbatical for a while and what better time to do it than now?” 

The one difficulty was getting Kelly to do things she wasn’t used to. “She would call me ‘dramatic director’. We would still get things done though. Having an experienced crew that worked on the previous seasons with her has been one of the biggest positives. Seeing them communicate with each other between shots and coordinate themselves has been really interesting to watch.”

Jemba feels like he’s just getting started and he’s got his sights set on bigger things and lifting up those around him. “When I started out my biggest goals were to create great films, generate a lot of money and win awards, but as the years have gone by I’ve met a lot of filmmakers and experienced a lot to know that giving back is something that’s high on my list. Making it an easier passage for the next generation of filmmakers into the industry is something I think about quite a lot. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I want the money and the awards and to create dope work, but helping the next generation is how we push forward and grow the industry.” 

Life With Kelly Khumalo premieres 5 July on Showmax. 

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