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Film director Amy Jephta: ‘I want different people to be seen’

Film director Amy Jephta: ‘I want different people to be seen’
Amy Jephta, playwright-turned-screenwriter and now film director and TV showrunner. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

Amy Jephta aims to bring communities together by making films that are gritty and personal.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Amy Jephta doesn’t like the limelight. The playwright-turned-screenwriter and now film director and TV showrunner shuns being fussed over to the extent that she refuses to let the publicist carry a chair outside for her when she’s being interviewed on set. “On the red carpet, I like the actors to be interviewed. That’s part of their job. I’ll stand back. I don’t feel I need to cultivate a particular brand for myself. I just need to know that people like my work and engage with it,” says Jephta.

“She’s a gem,” the publicist winks. “Going to go very far.”

Which is a bit of an understatement given how far Jephta’s already come. At 33, she’s soaring. Having had her work performed on international stages including New York’s Carnegie Hall, she was 2019’s Standard Bank Young Artist Award recipient for theatre. Her adapted-from-reality screenplay for Ellen: The Ellen Pakkies Story, about a Cape Flats mother who killed her drug-addicted son, not only drew critical acclaim, but had women audience members thanking her, saying, “Your film made me feel like I’ve finally been seen”.

And now, having directed her first feature film, Barakat (which opens in cinemas in May), she’s been signed on to adapt a Booker Prize shortlisted novel for the screen, and is attached to SA’s first television co-production with Australia, a crime series called Detective Cooper, about an apartheid-era cop concealing his mixed-race identity.

On the set of her first TV series, though, Jephta carries her own chair on top of being responsible for just about everything. As showrunner (“it’s not as glamorous as it sounds”), she wears an infinite number of  hats, including managing the added stress of shooting during a pandemic, not least because insurers refuse coverage because it’s too risky.

“The reality is that if someone catches Covid on your set, you have to shut down for fourteen days,” she says. “You lose time and money, have to renegotiate locations, maybe lose actors to other projects.”

The show is Skemerdans, which was shot in November 2020 — entirely incident-free —although Jephta says her team remained on tenterhooks throughout, “scared something might happen”. Lack of insurance aside, Covid-19 protocols – screenings, temperature checks, constant sanitisation – drive up production costs, adding maybe 20% to an already expensive exercise.

The series – Showmax’s first Afrikaans original – was, for Jephta, a genre U-turn after Barakat, a light-hearted comedy-drama she calls “warm and fuzzy”.

Amy Jephta says there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to stories from the Cape Coloured community. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

By contrast, Skemerdans is what you might call “Cape Town neo-noir”, a suspenseful murder mystery that deliberately doesn’t show Table Mountain or pretty beaches. Instead it’s set in a jazz club on Voortrekker Road. “I wanted to meddle for a bit in a world that’s aesthetically gritty, harsher and more pessimistic than Barakat.” She loves the genre’s moral ambiguity, the grey areas its characters inhabit.

She also wanted to create something “hyper-close and very local”. Filming at legendary Athlone nightclub Club Galaxy brought the story into the orbit she grew up in. Once upon a time, before he became a cop, Jephta’s dad was a nightclub singer – and Club Galaxy was a venue where his band gigged.

Such drilling down into the personal has become vital to the kind of stories Jephta tells, although she admits that as a starting-out playwright she pushed back against writing about her own community. “I was in denial about wanting to write about my identity, whether that means being a coloured woman or a black woman. Or an Afrikaaps woman… It felt like such an obligation to have to service stories that speak to my culture.”

Instead, she wrote generic stories, she says, “about things that could happen at any time, anywhere, to anyone”.

Consequently, the default interpretation of what she wrote was that they were white stories. “If I didn’t put a name or demographic or race to the character, people assumed they were white.”

She found her voice the moment she recognised that her default is different, and started writing intentionally “from a particular perspective”. She says interest in her writing came when she started taking ownership of her “multiple identities” and began “tapping into stories that felt very personal, and sounded very local”.

Much of the uniqueness of Skemerdans is in the language. “Our characters use slang and Afrikaaps and really sound like they’re from Cape Town. It was important for me to have a writer’s room with just coloured writers – it’s set in that community and I didn’t want to compromise on authenticity.”

Jephta says there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to stories from the Cape Coloured community. “We are always being portrayed in one or the other context – either the Cape Flats or in relation to the Cape Flats.”

Skemerdans, however, is set in urban-industrial Cape Town with its cross-pollination of cultures. “Our community is a mixed bag, not just from Manenberg or Bishop Lavis or Mitchells Plain. We actually exist in all spaces. And we’re middle class, too. So there’s a different way of framing the community I come from, and it was important for me to show that.”

Jephta herself grew up in Mitchells Plain, “very sheltered”, she says, because her parents are both cops, “aware of the streets’ potential dangers”.

Instead of playing outside, she found sanctuary in the library – “hours and hours sitting among books where my parents trusted I’d be safe”. A voracious reader, she idolised authors the way other children loved pop stars.

While books gave her the seed of a career focus, her love of storytelling was more ingrained, emanating from a family tradition of being very communicative.

“Being in love with the art of weaving a tale was part of my upbringing. My community is steeped in an oral culture, whether it’s gossip or anecdotes or jokes that take forever to reach the punchline.”

Claiming to be “too impatient to write novels”, she went into theatre because it seemed a manageable way of fulfilling that urgent need to tell stories that was fostered throughout childhood. Filmmaking, though, has another advantage: the presence of others. “On set, I’m always surrounded by people, constantly in collaboration, and that’s where I feel most inspired, most alive.”

She says the past year has reignited this need to be among other people. “Community is everything,” she says. “I draw on people energy. That’s where stories come from.”

The moments she lives for are when her writing unlocks something in other people – whether among actors who are reduced to tears during the first read-through of a script, or when a woman in the audience feels that her plight has been acknowledged, that she’s been seen.

“That’s the only reason I do this, really – to find those flashes of connection, those moments when something I’ve written has made a deep connection with someone else. Because those are the ways in which stories can really bring humans together.” DM168

Keith Bain is a Cape Town-based freelance journalist and magazine editor.

FIVE QUESTIONS:

What’s the image on your cellphone home screen?

A rainy street in Manchester, seen through a coffee shop window. It was the last trip I did before lockdown. I came back last March, a week before the border shut, and that was my last day on that last trip. I haven’t travelled since and I’m really sad about that.

What would you spend your last R100 on?

Probably the wisest thing would be flour and yeast. Because, as a result of the pandemic, I’m really good at baking bread, and I could probably feed myself for a very long time with – what? – 20kg of flour.

What’s the worst piece of advice you ever took?

I’m very sceptical about advice so I don’t often take it wholesale. But… I should never have waxed my eyebrows the first time. I think I did that because of my cousin who said I should. The 1990s were a terrible time for eyebrows.

What’s the thing you wish you’d learnt earlier in life?

Not to put a clock to my life. When I was in my early- to mid-20s I always thought I was going to do A B C by the time I turned 30, do X Y Z by the time I reached 35. Now, as those ages pass me by and those things aren’t happening, I’m realising that there’s no reason to set those goals… I’m not running a marathon, I’m only in competition with myself, so there’s no reason for me to have done anything by the time I’m 40.

Three books that have changed your life?

Difficult! There are so many. Starting with all Judy Blume’s books. They were my introduction to reading and why I fell in love with writing; they ignited my desire to tell stories.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Quite random, but it’s probably the book I’ve read the most so it’s changed my life simply because I’ve read it over and over.

Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, a book of poetry I’ve read and reread and that just gives me hope for everything. Hope for the future of South African literature, hope for the future of the country. I keep it by my bedside.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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