When we finally got to see the highly anticipated feature film Nommer 37, we knew that it was a labour of love for director Nosipho Dumisa. The Durban-born, Cape Town-based filmmaker weaves together the story of a young house-bound man who witnesses a crime from his bedroom window, drawing him into a dark world that could cost him his life. We caught up with Nosipho to talk about her love of film and why she, a Zulu-born woman, chose to make an Afrikaans film.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Durban, raised between Margate and Durban, and then spent my adult life since I was 17 years old in Cape Town, which is actually where the ‘growing up’ part began.
Were there other creatives in your family?
Yes! My father and several of his brothers were writers and musicians, and my older sisters and cousins also learned music. My eldest sister used to write the school plays for her high school, which she would usually workshop and practise on us. My one uncle, on my mother’s side of the family, is the only one of that generation to actually follow this path as a career – he is a music executive. The rest went on to become academics and entrepreneurs.
I believe that at that time, there were fewer options and exposure to possibilities in the creative arts for people of colour. The financial ramifications of choosing such a field were far more restrictive than they have been to us. It has only been in my generation that the creative arts have been seen as a viable career option in my family, and that’s largely due to the sacrifices and efforts on our parents’ side.
Outside of film and writing, what other passions do you have?
Well these will just sound clichéd but I am passionate about music and dance – the only problem is that I can neither sing nor dance. So, I suppose I’ve had to settle for following (some might say stalking) my favourite musicians, dancers and choreographers.
On a completely different tangent, I’ve also developed a love for hiking – it’s one of the most rewarding activities in my life currently. I tend to hike up mountains as Cape Town has so many, and there is much-needed therapy in finding oneself looking down at the world from higher ground. It is incredibly humbling, and this activity has also become a way for me to find silence when life becomes too busy.
Which creatives have inspired you the most in your life?
There are several creatives who’ve inspired me for so many different reasons. I will start with a woman, a musician in fact, who was a national icon and perhaps not a role model in the traditional sense of the word – Brenda Fassie. As a child I was obsessed with her and would look out for all of her music videos. I knew all her songs and the dance moves too. My family used to call me ‘uMaBrrr‘. As an artist, she was fearless and hardworking. She was a pioneer in her time and her music demolished so many cultural and racial walls, whilst staying true to what she wanted to do. I believe seeing a woman being a trailblazer in this way was the first time that I ever had an inkling of my own potential.
The second creative who has inspired me is Can Themba. This love affair began when I read one of his short stories, The Suit, in high school. Of everything I had read in high school (and I read a lot), this left the biggest impression for its quirkiness, commentary on our society and the vividly captured picture of a broken point of view on women. I began to read so many of his works and though I can’t say I’ve always agreed with the points of view presented, I have understood and think he is truly one of the most amazing writers we will ever have.
I loved reading Stephen King books as I was growing up and I think this fed into my love for the thriller genre.
… which leads me to the filmmakers who inspire me. These are directors who have managed to write and direct films in many genres, always shifting from one story to the next seamlessly and yet still remaining true to what makes them who they are. Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the greatest blockbuster directors of all time, and yet he also made a beautiful family drama/fantasy in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and managing to make his passion project, Schindler’s List. Christopher Nolan is similar in that before he ever made The Dark Knight or Inception, he made Memento, this small but brilliant crime thriller. F Gary Gray is a director who will make Fate of the Furious but also deliver on heartfelt dramas like Set It Off, comedies like Friday, and masterpieces like Straight Outta Compton. He didn’t go to film school and is essentially a self-taught director, I find that kind of perseverance and work ethic to be crucial in an artist. Martin Scorsese is a director I absolutely worship and study for his work with actors and nuanced storytelling. Recently, I’ve also truly appreciated directors such as Ryan Coogler (obviously) and Jordan Peele. And then there’s David Fincher – this is a man whose visual style is one I have grown up studying, watching and rewatching. Of all directors, I believe he is probably my biggest inspiration.
Tell us a little bit about your love of film? Why does it speak to you, and what about it inspires you?
I am a storyteller at heart and someday I will probably use all forms of storytelling from theatre, to writing a novel. Film, however, provides an opportunity to be a magician, to make the impossible suddenly possible in a very collaborative way. Making a movie is not a solitary mission at all, along the way one must collaborate and when the final story is shared on screen there have been so many hands, minds and hearts that have played a part in that vision. I think that is a part of what has made me fall in love with being a filmmaker.
I remember watching Jaws for the first time and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I truly believed that what I had seen on screen was real (I’m still terrified of sharks) and when years later I saw the behind-the-scenes video and read up about the making of these films, I was completely enamoured by the idea that as a filmmaker one could create an entire world, bring it to life and force me to believe in it. There is such power in filmmaking because it requires participation of everyone’s imagination but mostly the filmmaker’s. Unlike, say, theatre, where the suspension of disbelief is never fully present because you can see the sets, or when reading a novel, where each reader will imagine a different look to a character or to the world based on their personal bias and interpretation, as a filmmaker I am able to bring the world to life exactly as I please.
In this way, building tension becomes so much more intricate because I can control what the audience sees, when they see it and, if I’m really good, how they will react to it. This is what I loved about making Nommer 37 (Number 37). Film is an incredibly powerful medium because it can truly influence an entire generation.
How did you first get into film?
My journey into the film and television industry was not always planned. It is a lesson in the power of exposure coupled with representation and opportunity to expand a young person’s ability to dream. I was raised to focus on academics so that I would get a real job with a real income, and for many, many years I truly believed that I would be a doctor. This was aspirational in my family’s eyes and, frankly, in my own too. The concept of a film and television industry was a vague and hadn’t reached my conscious stream of thought as it seemed to be something that only ‘other people’ could access. I had never seen anyone from my hometown in any role of significance in this industry and the arts were seen as a hobby, not a career choice in my family’s eyes.
A new drama teacher came into my life almost at the end of my school career, and she saw something in me – at the time it was an affinity for acting – and encouraged a select group of us to explore the arts as a career choice. She took us to film schools in Johannesburg and brought people who had been in the industry to come and speak to us whenever she could. I began to dream … but I was still limited. In all I had seen, I had still never seen a woman, let alone a woman of colour, as anything but an actor or in an assistant role on set. So when I decided to get into film, it was with the idea that I would be an actress.
It was through a mix-up with my application at film school that I ended up studying writing, directing and producing. I fell in love with it because it required me to use all of my skills – even the actor part of myself. I could truly create, rather than merely being a part of the creative process. It stuck and I eventually graduated from film school and started my own production company, Gambit Films, with the aim of encouraging diversity of stories in the film and TV industry while also making amazing local content for both local and international audiences.
How is film different to TV?
In my mind, the two go hand in hand – especially nowadays. I work in both film and TV and, in fact, have been producing Suidooster (kykNET) since its inception as well as directing dramas for TV for some time. Internationally, we are also in the golden age of TV, with so many platforms that exist so that now we no longer have to adhere to advertiser’s requirements when making TV programming. So the length of an episode, the content and so on can be diverse and specifically tailored to the story one is telling. We’ve seen a migration of many top filmmakers and actors from film to TV, for example David Fincher with Mindhunter. Locally, we must still catch up with a lot though, and so film is able to do for me locally, what film and TV are doing for other creatives around the world.
Why did you decide to take on Nommer 37? What about the story do you feel most connected to?
I watched a lot of genre films – thrillers, action, horrors and suspense films – growing up and one of my favourites is the beautiful classic by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, called Rear Window. It also happened to be my Gambit Films colleagues’ favourite film. They had grown up in the Cape Flats and one them, Daryne Joshua, had been brewing an idea in his mind for years about adapting this classic to our own backyard.
My first experience when I began to move out of the student community in Cape Town and venture away from the tourist city I’d known in my trips with my family, was in the Flats. I remember that as the car was driving towards Elsies River, it was driving further away from this amazing Table Mountain that one sees everywhere and more into this space where I could only see an expanse of one type of life around me. In one of the first blocks I spent time in, I observed that once I was inside, I could see nothing but the walls of the blocks around me. I don’t want to stereotype the Cape Flats in any way because there are so many wonderful communities here and people who are really dedicated to making a change and providing a positive atmosphere for the youth. But I’ve already spoken about the power of exposure and its ability to affect one’s ability to dream, and so I asked myself, if all people could see were the walls around them, and inside those walls, crime, addiction, killings and gangs were so rife, how much more difficult would it be to imagine something else? I believe strongly in the idea that if you can see it, you can dream it. So anyway, Daryne had had this idea for adapting Rear Window and I’d been thinking about all of these things and when kykNET’s Silwerskermfees asked us to submit a concept for the short film competition back in 2014, all of us at Gambit Films just knew that this concept was what we had to do.
We could use this as a proof of concept for a feature film. It’s this amazingly contained suspense thriller about all that can go wrong for a man with limited choices when ambition, greed, lies, fear and love collide. The short film, which I co-directed in 2014, ended up winning Best Director and Best Script at Silwerskermfees and was the only short film that year to receive nominations in all the categories. It then went on to win a SAFTA for the best short film and travelled around Europe, and all the while we all knew that this was supposed to be a feature film. So immediately I began to work on the script for the feature and what became important to me was to tap into that feeling that I had had for so many years – a feeling of intense claustrophobia.
Randal Hendricks, who is played by Irshaad Ally, is not just a bored photographer with nothing else to do, as in Rear Window. He is a man who desperately knows that there’s something else in the world that he can’t seem to gain access to. The binoculars weren’t just something he used to pass the time – they were an escape for him. I wanted to see this world, not as an outsider who observes him, but rather see it through his eyes, because I could relate to this idea of a man who makes terrible mistakes and lands himself and his girlfriend in such trouble because he’s making the choices he knows how to make. He’s a strong man trapped in this wheelchair that he perceives as his prison, trapped inside his third-floor flat and owing a great deal of money to someone who will do anything to get it back from him. In his mind, money is the only solution to a good life and getting it quickly is what drives him.
But as a woman, I wanted to place him opposite someone whose truth I connected to more. Pam, played by the brilliant and soon to be very famous Monique Rockman, sees the same world and the same life completely differently. To her, life is worth it if she and Randal have each other. She may never be rich but if they have each other, surely that can be enough? She loves wholeheartedly and is so fiercely loyal to the somewhat undeserving Randal. There’s truth in both of their points of view and for me as a storyteller and filmmaker that’s what motivated me in this story. It’s an opportunity to explore such themes but at the highest stakes possible because it’s life and death and it is a genre.
With a title like Nommer 37, some people will think it’s a movie about gangsterism but it’s not – it’s a thriller with so much tension and so many crazy twists that audiences tend to hold their breath and grip the edge of their seats, being entertained and yet subtly looking into a world most of the country rarely gives a second thought.
The film is in Afrikaans. What about that speaks to you and why take it on as opposed to choosing to do it in, let’s say, English?
I had actually originally written the film in English. I mean, I am Zulu by birth and went to English-speaking schools, so writing in Afrikaans was not my first idea. It was also really important to us as a company that the film should be able to travel around the world and, historically, non-English speaking films, with a majority cast of colour, struggle to achieve this. However, the more I worked on the script and began to look at casting, the more I felt that the story was not working to its fullest potential. The subculture portrayed in Nommer 37 is predominantly Afrikaans-speaking and some things just can’t be translated sufficiently to English. Even the Afrikaans used is specific to this part of Cape Town and I wanted authenticity above all.
Furthermore, I am of the belief that story should transcend racial and cultural barriers. I am far more interested in building bridges than walls that divide. We consume international media and though most of us have never lived in these parts of the world, we still manage to relate to the stories, because everyone understands hardships, family, life, death and love. I had to believe that, regardless of language, if I focused on respecting this story and the audience’s expectation of entertainment, the film would speak to everyone. So far, it’s been incredibly well received by audiences who are notoriously unenthusiastic about reading subtitles. Because the film’s protagonist is a voyeur, so much of Nommer 37 is visual and therefore dialogue and language become secondary. By the way, THERE ARE SUBTITLES!
Watch the trailer for Nommer 37 below: