“What we decided to do pretty early on is… We started to create our own pilot [films] by self-funding, or raising money where we could. We’d ask our friends whom we graduated with from AFDA [film school] to work with us, as the crew essentially. We ended up pitching one of our pilots to MultiChoice. And that almost took off. But at the last minute, they changed their minds and decided to go with a different programme. We were gutted, really devastated.
“For that first year after starting our company, we felt like we’d failed. We just weren’t getting work. I think the best work we got that year was one music video. One music video! And that was it,” says Nosipho Dumisa, the 32-year-old director and writer behind the hit South African Netflix series, Blood and Water.
The company she is referring to is Gambit Films, which she co-founded in Cape Town in 2009 with fellow AFDA film school alumni. Dumisa and her co-founders had been assisting on film sets while at AFDA, and after graduation, while trying to establish Gambit Films, they continued to take on assisting roles in the industry.
“In Cape Town specifically, the film industry was buzzing, but it was very much a service industry. The big international productions brought their own directors and heads of department. The route towards becoming a director was very limited. And for us, one of the things we really wanted to be able to do was to take control of the narrative in South Africa, as far as original stories being told here,” says Dumisa.
Blood and Water, the teen mystery series based around a fictional prestigious high school in Cape Town, forms part of Netflix’s investment into original African film content. It made South African entertainment history when it hit the streaming platform on 20 May 2020. The show, which was made available to subscribers in 190 countries, trended its way to the No. 1 spot in South Africa, France, Trinidad and Tobago, Libya, Jamaica, Kenya, and the US. And it ranked in the Top 10 in other countries such as Brazil, Switzerland, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
It was another Gambit Films’ production, the Afrikaans feature length film, Nommer 37, that first caught Netflix’s attention. After starting their production company back in 2009, losing out on a potential MultiChoice deal, and realising that, bar that music video, their pitches didn’t exactly lead to a flood of work, the team ate their share of humble pie. While they didn’t give up on their dream of establishing Gambit Films, they gave up their office and took jobs with other companies and worked on other productions. Says Dumisa: “We mismanaged it completely. We were creatives. We didn’t understand what went into running a business.”
She moved on to work as a scriptwriter and researcher on SABC 3’s The A-List: “It was during the  World Cup, and it was a show about WAGS.” One of her Gambit co-founders, Simon Beesley, also worked on the show, while her other two co-founders, directors Daryne Joshua and Travis Taute, worked at Homebrew Films, one of South Africa’s most prolific production companies, on their popular show, All-Access Mzansi.
Dumisa would later leave The A-List to join Homebrew as a production manager: “When Homebrew called me for an interview at the time, I basically said, ‘Guys, I really need the work,’ but I also made it clear that I also had to continue working on Gambit Films. I told them I would accept less money if need be, because I’m not giving up on Gambit films. So I would need to be able to split my time. And they were very accommodating. In fact, they became a kind of mentor to us as a company.”
Fast-forward to 2014. By this time, Dumisa had had nearly two years’ experience working on shows with Homebrew and had built a fair number of relationships and contacts. Then came the call that would kick off the creation of a short film that would eventually lead to numerous nominations, a multi-award-winning feature film, a soapie, and a hit Netflix show streaming in 190 countries.
The team received a call from Multichoice’s Kyknet: they were invited to pitch an idea for Kyknet’s film festival, the Silwerskermfees. They were given one day to come up with the concept and submit it. “We immediately rounded up everyone. Daryne had always spoken about this idea of putting [Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie] Rear Window in the Cape Flats. What would that look like?” Dumisa and Travis Taute co-directed Nommer 37, the Hitchcock-inspired short film, and also co-wrote it with Daryne Joshua.
It went on to win the best director and best script awards at that year’s Silwerskermfees, and was the only short nominated in both categories. It would later also win the Best Short Film award at the 2016 South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA). Dumisa would go on to direct the feature-length version, which also went on to win numerous awards.
They submitted it to the SXSW (South by South West) International Film Festival in Texas in 2018, and it was selected to premiere at the festival, making it the first wholly South African-made feature film ever to have its world premiere at SXSW. It was also selected to represent the country at the 18th annual Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF) in Switzerland and it also featured at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2018.
“From the moment we finished making the short film, we started writing the feature film. That was about three years of work, writing and trying to raise money for that, which we then shot in 2017,” says Dumisa.
During that time, the Gambit team also took on commercial work to pay the bills while chasing their dreams of making narrative-driven film.
“It was very difficult, we weren’t making a lot of money, we were doing low-budget commercials all along the way to make ends meet. I’m very grateful for those because that’s where I learnt how to work with non-actors, learning how to get a performance out of them as a director.”
The team also partnered up with their former employers, Homebrew, on another Afrikaans production, a soapie for Kyknet titled Suidooster, which is still running.
But it was the SXSW premiere of Nommer 37 that really shifted things: “That was a big game changer for Gambit. It was a big game changer for me. Through that I got a US representative, Gambit also got US representation. We were able to be connected with Netflix; they saw the film and reached out to us.”
Taking a moment to look back over the past 11 years, Dumisa notes that there have been “a lot of difficulties along the way. It was a very difficult process, but everything was leading to the next thing. And there were a lot of disappointments. But for me, I look at the disappointments as part of the journey towards getting where we wanted to go.”
As of 16 June 2020, just shy of a month since its premiere, Netflix announced that Blood and Water had been renewed for a second season.
Says Dumisa in a 2018 interview with website SheLeadsAfrica: “In chess, a gambit is an early move in which the player will sacrifice one of their pieces in order to gain the upper hand later on. We were the sacrifices, sometimes not even making ends meet, but we held onto our vision.” DM/ ML