How to Break Into the International Film Industry as a South African

We sit down wit Koketso Mbuli, the South African costumer, make-up artist behind films like Roots and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Those with the experience of the film and television industry will know of its demanding nature. We often hear of the magic that is crafted between directors and actors, but seldom about those tasked with accurately aestheticizing the characters we see on screen.

Koketso Mbuli has ample stories to tell about creativity, the film industry and learning. We met at a bakery in central Cape Town where Mbuli is wearing a bright yellow sweater and an intricate new hairstyle.

The twenty-seven-year-old costumer and make-up artist has been toiling and achieving in the film industry for quite some time. Over the years, Koketso has worked on set for "The Book of Negroes," "Roots," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "The Giver" and "Dominion" just to name a few. Having racked up an impressive list of projects, there is much to be asked about how she reached heights that are still inaccessible to many black people.

We continued the conversation amid the strength of Cape Town’s well known south-easterly winds.

A lot of people don’t consider the details of the behind-the-scenes of the television industry, especially makeup and costuming. Take us through how you would normally go about executing the vision for a project?

That’s quite a process depending on the size of the production. I generally work on film sets and we typically make ninety minute features, and I work freelance. I’ve done some pretty heavy jobs. I interchange, quite substantially between makeup and costume departments. You must have two wings in every department. You have a leads wing and then an extras wing. The extras wing will generally have two set costumers and then a supervisor. You then get in what we call daily’s.

The other day I went shopping for materials and that’s when you realize that when people say they have two million to make a movie, it’s not a lot of money.

Photo courtesy of Koketso Mbuli

When did you realize that you were a creative, and how did you get into it?

I don’t really know when it started—I was always an artist. I was always the one drawing and painting, and then decided I wanted to be a fine artist. I was probably around ten years of age, and my mother basically replied with “you’re going to be poor”.

Then I thought, how do I channel this creativity into something that may be a bit more lucrative. I then started looking at fashion design. When I got to matric I found out that TUT (Tshwane University of Technology) was the top in the country.

I walked into the décor room and they were doing these massive murals, basically everything that I had ever wanted to do. I ended up studying Entertainment/Performing Arts Technology.

Describe the experience of working on international films and series. Namely Roots, The Giver and Long Walk to Freedom?

I first worked on the Heineken Ontvoering when I moved down to Cape Town. The production manager came into our costume truck a year-and-a-half into my career on a small German production I was already on. He said Diana Cilliers was looking for a junior assistant. Diana hadn’t hired anyone for six years. Two years after I had watched District 9 and emailed her, here I was going for an interview. She was doing another German production at the time, and I got onto that. Then there was talk of Long Walk to Freedom, and they basically said, “oh yea of course you’ll come onto that”.

It was an honour to be on Long Walk to Freedom, precisely because it was such a South African story and the magnitude of it at the time. It was really amazing.

You go from film to film and it’s not necessarily about how big the production is. Once you crack a crew and have staying power, you have to continue working. Work ethic and a commitment to myself was something I had established, which became a grounding force. Whatever making it looked like, I wanted to be there.

Photo courtesy of Koketso Mbuli

Tell me about where you are now, in terms of your craft. What’s the current vision?

I’ve got something with Unknown Union, which is exciting. My vibe in general, is Africa. All I’m ever trying to do is unearth stuff. My biggest gripe is that I don’t feel like South Africans know enough about the rest of Africa. I say that because I’m in that position. The more I learn, read, and unearth the more I absorb. There’s so much that’s either hidden or we’re just not interested enough to know.

Arrogance stops you from learning, and it’s a damn shame. With my shoots, the aesthetic is always African. There’s just so much, and half the time I don’t know where to start.

Can you speak a bit on your inspirations? People, cultures, movements?

I would, hands down say Fula—Wodaabe women. They’re my heroes’ man. Their hair got me first. Then I started learning about the culture, and how matriarchal it is. For a long time, in my ignorance I thought African cultures were largely patriarchal. That’s really because of my South African experience and all I’ve ever seen.

Being raised by a single parent, my mom defied all those things. Naturally, I watched her do it and figured that’s what I should be doing. So yes, Wodaabe women and just having their own economies, or having more than one partner if they choose to. Immensely inspirational.

Photo courtesy of Koketso Mbuli

What do you think about the industry in the country and continent so far. What would you like to see happen?

The film industry in Cape Town is well established and thriving, it is however very far from being representative of South Africa’s demographic. There are little to no ‘of colour’ heads of department, and transformation is meagre.

Have you done any interesting collaborations with South African creatives, or Cape Town in specific?

I’m currently collaborating with Jason Storey of Unknown Union, and Earl Abrahams represented by Amplify Studio. I also just completed a project with conceptual artist and photographer, Tsoku Maela.

What’s the hardest part about being in your field of work?

The hours, but more of a burden is the notion of pouring yourself out for a narrative you don’t believe in. One only reads the script once a contract is signed. So, there you are creating and giving your all to something you completely disagree with in philosophy or purpose.

Interesting…any advice for aspiring costumers or make-up artists?

If you think you have it in you, throw yourself into it. It’ll teach you so much about yourself and quickly allow you to decide for your own wellbeing. Especially on how you want to steer your creative ship and where you want it to take you.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

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