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In October, Phumi Morare became one of only 17 filmmakers — and one of only two Black filmmakers — to win a 2021 Student Academy Award, in her case, the gold prize for best narrative film from a domestic film school for Lakutshon’ Ilanga (When the Sun Sets), which was her thesis film en route to receiving her MFA in Film Directing at Dodge College at Chapman University in 2020. The 34-year-old South African’s production re-creates an Apartheid-era crisis experienced by her mother. It previously screened at the Telluride Film Festival and was recognized with a BAFTA Award nomination. Now, it’s eligible for an actual Academy Award, for best live-action short.
What was your journey to this film?
I was born and raised in Johannesburg, went to boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal and then studied finance at the University of Cape Town. After that, I did my first job in London, in investment banking, until I felt the itch to move into the film industry, which is something I first got passionate about in high school. I moved back to South Africa and did a leadership program at a management consultancy, which allowed me to explore my interests. One of my mentors encouraged me to pursue my passion, so I started working for a producer and helped with development and pitch presentations. But I felt really drawn to the creative aspects of filmmaking, so a friend encouraged me to apply to film school, and that’s how I made my way to Chapman.
You’ve said you’re passionate about “redeeming the African and feminine identity through cinema.”
Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of representation of myself, meaning African and female, onscreen, and if I did see that representation, it didn’t feel holistic or authentic. Whenever I make a film, I want to make sure that those identities are represented in ways that are authentic and holistic and give people dignity.
Seven years ago, my mom told me a story about seeing her brother getting taken into a police van in 1985. During that time, a lot of young people were in activism against the Apartheid government, and whenever they were taken in that way by police, they were never seen again. She chased them down, screamed and shouted at them, made a scene — and it actually worked. Her brother was released. I couldn’t believe that my mother did that. I saw her in a completely different light. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do for my thesis, one of my professors said, “Do the things that haunt you.” This story had always haunted me.
Most Chapman MFA films are shot in and around L.A., but you were intent on shooting in South Africa.
It was a decision that I debated with professors and my team. Eventually the conclusion I came to was that we had to because of the authenticity of place, people and language. We embarked on raising the funds and organizing the logistics and pitching people locally who could assist us. It took about a year of planning.
You finally get to South Africa, and then the pandemic hits …
We were shooting in March 2020 and hearing rumors of the pandemic. It was stressful because it felt like we were shooting as the world was ending. On top of that, because we were an international shoot, we had funding both in U.S. dollars and in rands, the local currency, and the currency went wild during that time. Our budget was constantly fluctuating. We wrapped on a Friday and the country shut down the following Wednesday. It added complications to postproduction because I was stuck in South Africa for months, so I [met] with my editor over Zoom with a nine-hour time difference, and with my sound designer we constantly had sync issues because we were doing it on Zoom.
How did you find out you’d won a Student Academy Award?
I was told I was going to be interviewed about what it’s like to be a finalist, but I arrived on Zoom and there was a surprise guest, [actress-director] Marielle Heller! She was there to tell me that I had won. I honestly couldn’t believe it, it was so wild. I was so shocked and wasn’t prepared for that at all.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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