It’s a well-known fact that South African heritage and tradition is steeped in storytelling. It’s a culture that has, for a long time, been fulfilled by western films. The good news? Local film studios, producers and actors are rallying to produce beautiful work right here on African soil. Happiness is a Four Letter Word, the recently released Johannesburg-based romantic drama that follows the lives of three women is one such example. We chatted to the film’s producer Thabang Moleya about his passion for film, the Pan African film industry, and where he is headed.
Tell us about your roots?
I was born in Tembisa on 19 October 1982, and was raised by my parents and my grandmother. I am fortunate enough to say that my siblings and I are very close. I went to high school at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein, where I majored in art and somewhere along the way I got into photography at quite a young age.
"Like most of my peers, I grew up watching Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris films! Those movies are set firmly in the memories of my childhood."
When did you fall in love with the art of film?
Like most of my peers, I grew up watching Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris films! Those movies are set firmly in the memories of my childhood. Fortunately, we were the only family on our street that had a VHS video machine, so more often than not, a lot of the kids in the neighbourhood would come over to our house and we would just watch re-run after re-run of these films. I believe it was then that I fell in love with film, it was hard not to!
Your handle on a few social media channels is Teabaging – what is the story there?
[Laughs] That was actually a nickname given to me by a close friend of mine when I was in college at City Varsity in Cape Town. Before long everyone had started calling me that, and when I made my short films, I started adding ‘A Teabag Product’ at the beginning of all my work. It only made sense.
If you had to pick five movies to be buried with you what would they be?
- City of God (2002), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund.
- Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese.
- Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese.
- The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
- Lion King (1994), produced by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.
You are respected as one of the most talented young directors in the game. Who do you look up to?
There are many directors doing amazing work in the country at the moment and I look up to all of them because I understand how challenging this industry can be and how difficult it can be to build your name and your show reel of work. And I also realise that there is something I can learn from each and every one of them. There have been producers who mentored me and these people helped to shape me into the person I am today. They are more like my guardian angels, to be honest, people like Desiree Markgraaff, Tim Spring, Bongiwe Selane and Mfundi Vundla, just to name a few.
You worked on the African television series Jacob’s Cross; what made that show the success it was?
Jacob’s Cross was a story of a man torn between doing the right thing, protecting his family and carrying a legacy his father had left for him. The show appealed to Africa as a whole, the drama was captivating and the characters had such intense journeys, filled with turmoil and chaos. Working on Jacob’s Cross gave me the opportunity to work with such amazing actors and a great technical crew. I think that show became the international success it was because for the first time ever a Pan African story was told so beautifully.
Why do you think there are not more Pan African productions in the making?
In my opinion, it’s because we – as African filmmakers – are not brave enough to tackle those stories. You will find that most productions that Desiree Markgraaf creates are successful because, as a producer, she is not afraid of going into the unknown and that makes for amazing viewing pleasure.
What is your take on the #OscarsSoWhite saga?
Well, it is what it is, you know. Hollywood doesn’t want to acknowledge black excellence, people are typecast in roles all the time. There’s only a handful of successful black actors that you can count on your fingers – their stories aren’t diverse, their technical teams aren’t diverse either. They have a long road in transformation, much like we do in this country.
What, in your opinion, is lacking in the current film industry landscape in South Africa – are local filmmakers struggling to make money?
We are now in an age where local films are finally making money at the box office. Recently, two of the top three films in this country were South African – that is a major achievement and something to applaud! We have an audience that’s willing to go out and watch local content. This is a new age of cinema in this country and it’s exciting to be a part of it.
What are the challenges you face as a young filmmaker in the process of trying to make your dreams come true?
Firstly, institutions charge way too much money for kids to study film. Filmmaking has started to become about who can ‘afford’ to study. Sadly, that leaves out a large number of youths who have raw talent but just can’t afford to study. At that stage, someone’s dreams are shattered. Secondly, we don’t have enough mentoring programmes that allow kids an opportunity to shadow those who have gone before and succeeded. We are not empowering the future generations. Thirdly, transformation needs to be addressed. I’ll carry that message and champion that ideal until I die.
How financially viable is it for a local filmmaker to get in the game or is it still a labour of love?
Happiness is a Four Letter Word has grossed R9-million at the box office in its fifth week on circuit. By any standard, that’s amazing. Vir Altyd, another local Afrikaans film, grossed R13-million at the box office. Whoever thinks that filmmaking is not a viable option in South Africa might need to check the numbers and reconsider that. The next stage now, which will enable filmmakers to make more money, is to attach brands to our films and get more budget through product placement.
What has Nollywood done right that South Africa has yet to learn or are the landscapes totally different?
Nollywood makes a lot of films, except the quality of work isn’t great. Nonetheless, they have a dedicated audience and consistent support. We are slowly getting there, and our work is competing on the international level at film festivals and in markets. We are in a better place than we were three years ago, and so time is proving to be important to our growth. It’s an exciting time for filmmakers.
What does the future hold for you and your career?
I intend to continue making great commercials and great films and to empower the youth through training initiatives. Transformation is key for me because I believe you can only leave a legacy by teaching others what you were in turn taught.
Thabang's List of Works
Thabang has created commercials for both Lotto and MTN.
2016 - Happiness is a Four-letter Word (Movie) - Director
2013 - Remix (TV Mini-Series) - Director
2011 - Tokolosh (Movie) - Actor
2009 - The Lab (TV Series) - Director
Montana (TV Series) - Director
2007 - Jacob’s Cross (TV Series) - Director
2006/7 - Jozi-H (TV Series) - Director
1990 - K.T.V - Presenter