/ 23 November 2023

Nakhane’s notable journey into movies

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Nakhane and veteran actress Nandi Nyembe on the set of the film B(l)ind the Sacrifice, which is set to hit screens early next year. It was Nakhane’s first foray into writing and directing movies. Photo: Hazel Mphande

On a crisp Monday morning in Joburg, at precisely 9.30, my Zoom connection flickers to life. On the screen is Nakhane, the 35-year-old South African singer, songwriter, actor, novelist — and now film director. 

They are in Cape Town. I would have given anything for a more personal interaction, perhaps over a cup of coffee, simply because they are such a welcoming presence, even in this digital realm.

Nakhane begins by describing their creative retreat in the south of England, where they intended to work on their latest album titled Bastard Jargon, which was released in March. 

However, finding it challenging to concentrate at home, they decided to venture into the countryside, accompanied by their partner and  their dog. 

“What usually happens with me is, when I need to work, and I feel I am having a difficult time concentrating at home — because I have a studio at home and writing space at home — but sometimes I leave and go somewhere in the countryside,” they said. 

After being out in the country for a couple of days, and realising they had not accomplished much in the way of writing songs for the album, they decided to try to write something else — anything, simply to get into a creative frame of mind. 

“This is usually what I do when I am writing music — sometimes to get juices flowing, I do a cover. Just something that is low stakes but you’re still creating,” they said.  

That also did not get them into the songwriting headspace, so they found a familiar alternative — writing stories. But this took a surprising direction.

“I asked myself, ‘What if I write a short story, just to get the language going?’ I thought, 

‘I am going to write for a day, or a few hours at least, and then I will get to whatever I wanted to write about for my album.’ 

“What ended up happening was that I wrote the story the whole time I was there — I just couldn’t stop.”

It is based on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis: “God promised Sarah and Abraham they would have a son, even though she was past childbearing age.”

After Isaac is born, to test Abraham’s obedience, God instructs him to sacrifice his only son. As the pious Abraham begins to prepare for the ritual sacrifice, he is stopped by the angel of the Lord and Isaac’s life is spared at the last moment.

Nakhane shares that they don’t want to simplify the story by saying it is a modernisation of a biblical narrative. 

“I think that cheapens it, but it is definitely a story of Abraham and Isaac, but from the perspective of the son … without the religion or the spirituality, but the human story. 

“When we take away the heroic, spiritual biblical stuff, then it becomes a really frightening story; it becomes a story about a father betraying a son and the family.”

This evolved into a movie script. Nakhane says, initially, when they wrote the film script, it was set in the biblical world. But their agent said the story would be more powerful if it was set in the modern era. 

“As soon as it did, it left the biblical world and it became a much more psychological story,” they said. “You know, everyone always says they are going to make a film but no one really makes a film. It is very difficult because it requires such collaborative work; there are many moving parts.”

The process of making music and making films is vastly different.

“When I am making music, I can do that by myself — in fact, I do do it by myself. However, with film, you can write as much as you want to, and enjoy yourself while you are at it, but it will not get made until someone reads the story and there is money to make it.”

Nakhane need not have worried as many people invested in making the film come alive.

“As much as I suffered from imposter syndrome at the beginning of the process, I had to tell myself every morning I am doing this, this is my only chance, and I only get one first chance to do this and feeling sorry myself won’t help. 

“If there is one thing I learnt this year it is that I need to rise to the occasion as no one will do that for me. Everyone has a job, and is responsible for it, so where I am needed, I need to rise to the occasion.” 

However, Nakhane says we should not confuse this with not needing help. In spaces you are unfamiliar with, don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.  

“Open yourself up to being helped, say yes to help … when someone offers help, say yes because that is gracious and it takes grace to accept help,” they say. 

The working title of the short narrative film is B(l)ind the Sacrifice. They are still in the process of editing it and they aim to bring it out early next year.

The film had to be postponed because of the release of Bastard Jargon in March. However, they had a keen producer who in the meantime got more funding and they were cognisant that they had to start filming because if they don’t use the funding, those taps would run dry.

“I got mam’Nandi Nyembe as the mother, bab’Treasure Tshabalala as the father and Sihle Mnqwazana as the son.  

“It has been an incredible experience for sure. I have directed a music video before but there is a vast difference from directing a music video to a narrative film, and to be directing people who have been in the industry from the 1970s is quite a feat. 

“I was quite surprised at how I fitted into that role,” they said.

The unwavering support of people who believed in the project helped Nakhane stand tall. Even when the shooting conditions were gruelling, the team worked together to make sure that they got it right. 

“It was a difficult shoot. It was in the Karoo, it was hot, we were sweating, it was windy… but people were so supportive, they understood my vision and they were so encouraging. There was never a time where I felt I was not being respected as a director.” 

The foundation of camaraderie was laid during pre-production, where they worked out exactly what it was they wanted to make.

“One of the most important things for me to do as a director was to take charge, which I have never had to do before, to be a leader on the set. 

“That was challenging because I am usually the actor being shipped around, but now it was my set, and I was quite pleasantly surprised because I never thought of myself as a leader until that moment — and I was pretty good at it,” they say with a giggle.

“I might have written this in England, but my stories are set in South Africa, and that is because I know those spaces. 

“And, to be honest, I want to write black narratives. I want to write about the people I grew up seeing. It is such a beautiful, and sometimes painful, place to write from because I always feel like I am scratching the wound.”

While we wait to see Nakhane’s film, we can enjoy Nakhane Live at The Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg on Friday 24 November. 

The last show Nakhane played in South Africa was in May 2022. They say the set will comprise songs from their previous albums plus songs from Bastard Jargon

“It is the first album where every track has drums on it — where one can dance throughout and that is the energy I want for the upcoming show. 

“The show starts with the drum solo, just so we get the language right. I want people to get up and dance. 

“I wrote this album to perform it live and to be able to do that is exciting.”