Sibusiso Khuzwayo’s The Letter Reader is a beautiful, soulful and touching short film and “truly an African story” according to screen icon, John Kani. Having won the Golden Horn Award for Best Short Film and the Shnit Worldwide Short Film Festival Best Short in 2019, the film has a bright future. Produced by the team who brought us Mrs Right Guy, The Tokoloshe, Dora’s Peace and Love By Chance, the film is available to watch on streaming platforms Netflix and Showmax.
Spling featured Khuzwayo’s gentle yet powerful film as a curtain-raiser for the last Bingeing with Spling watch party on Heritage Day and caught up with Khuzwayo to go behind-the-scenes.
I understand The Letter Reader is inspired by Thabo Mbeki’s biography, The Dream Deferred… can you tell us more about this?
There is a section in the book which details a time when the former President, Thabo Mbeki used to read and write letters for the illiterate in his village as a young boy and how he used to struggle reading letters that bore bad news.
I was intrigued by this story of a young boy who gets acquainted with the intimate and sensitive matters of the villagers through reading letters. A child this age would not be exposed to such matters but the circumstances of this largely illiterate community forces him into that adult world. For me this world presented a fertile ground for a simple yet moving coming-of-age story.
How long was the project in development… was it always going to be a short film?
It took less than a year. When the idea came, I began writing notes with hopes of getting an experienced writer that would help me turn this idea into a script. I struggled to get a writer and this setback presented me with an opportunity of learning screenwriting. And as someone that had been trying to get into film directing, I realized that it was difficult for people to trust you with their script, if you don’t have a track record. So I learned how to write scripts through books and YouTube videos. In no time I had a script, and a friend of mine sent it to Marina Bekker, a highly regarded screenwriter. Marina became a script editor and a mentor, and she helped me strengthen the script and that moment of working with her was more like a film school for me because there is so much that I learned.
Yes the film was conceived as a short film and this is also because I was inexperienced and insecure to think of making a feature. But as I went deeper into writing the script, I saw an opportunity for a feature, so from there I started positioning the film as a short so that it would be more of a proof of concept for the feature.
The film’s soundtrack is warm and soulful… was it easy to pick the right music and how important was it in setting the scene?
Getting the right music was not an easy task because much as I had a feeling of how it should sound, it was difficult for me to articulate it in words. I remember in one of the meetings we had with one of the potential music producers, I was at pains trying to explain how the music should sound and feel, and she said to me, “you are talking but you are not saying much”. She was so right.
This meant that I had to find a way to communicate these ideas that I have. So I tried my best to write a brief that included examples of songs that had a similar texture. But one thing that I had always been clear about even before shooting was that I didn’t want music that will dictate how the audience should feel. Sometimes music can be used to manipulate the audience where they become moved by the music not the story.
My favourite scene in the film is when Nobuhle undergoes a transformation by changing her clothes and taking off her doek. Some people have described the scene as “heartbreakingly beautiful”. It’s beautiful to see her joyful but sad that she is oblivious to the real contents of the letter. So I wanted music that will subtly express that irony. In edit I used an old famous song and when the music producer Vuyo Manyike watched the scene with the music that I had placed, he knew exactly which song to use.
The film is set in Bergville in the Drakensberg – was this always going to be the story’s location and why don’t we see more movies in this picturesque region of Kwazulu-Natal?
This is another part where words failed me in terms of communicating what I want. So my brief for the location was not detailed and an amazing location scout found a village in Ladysmith as guided by the brief. We went down to check the location and I was happy that we found a village that was a bit unspoiled, but I felt that something was missing. We then asked people about villages in the midlands of Kwazulu-Natal and someone suggested that we should check Bergville.
One Sunday morning I drove down to Bergville alone not knowing exactly where I’m going. I’m religious person, a Christian to be exact, so I had involved God right at the inception of this project. So I had a strong belief that everything that I needed with regards to this film was in place but I needed to be attuned spiritually to find every piece and put them together. So I knew in my heart that there is a beautiful location out there that is just waiting to be found. So I drove past a number of villages in Bergville until a I saw a village called Mazizini. I immediately connected with the place and I felt in my heart that this is the right location for the film.
What was it like working with such a young lead actor in Bahle Mashinini?
Bahle was a joy to work with. Not only is he talented but he is an intelligent actor. I was not only looking for an actor that could perform but one that understood Siyabonga’s character deeper. So as part of an audition I spent time asking Bahle some questions about the character, to get his understanding and his interpretation of the material. I was amazed by his insight. I learned a lot from working with him.
It’s a period piece – was a great deal of time devoted to the mis-en-scene and getting this right?
In the script, the story is set in a specific period but when preparing to shoot we realized that the budget that we had wouldn’t allow us to have everything that we needed for that period. So we decided to not commit to a specific period. Getting everything right was not easy but I was blessed to have Dumi Gumbi and Catharina Weinek, the producers of the film, who made sure that I was surrounded by a strong team. I was surrounded by people that are more wiser and experienced than me. The film owes its success to each one of them. Lance Gewer, the director of photography and Mikhail Hlastahwayo, the production designer marshaled passionate troops in their departments, to ensure that we have a great film.
The Letter Reader’s story has hints of Darryl Roodt’s Yesterday… but obviously with a much more optimistic and rose-tinted perspective. Which other films inspired you?
When you are making a film like that, there are few local films you can reference and Yesterday was one of them. Another one was Storekeeper by Gavin Hood.
It’s a gentle and understated film with some important themes… what are you hoping audiences take away and how have they responded to the film?
I’m passionate about Africa and my outlook is continental so what I hope audiences from all over the world get from this film is to feel the gentleness of the African spirit. The response has been amazing. I continue to receive good messages from here at home, Nigeria, Brazil and the US. It’s the most humbling experience.
Do you have any projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
I’m currently preparing to shoot a TV movie as part of the Kwazulu-Natal Film Commission Made-for-TV movies programme. I’m also developing another coming-of-age film that is set in a village but this is will be a feature.