Uga Carlini: Be the Change

Uga Carlini is one of South Africa’s most innovative filmmakers; celebrated locally and abroad, her latest film Angeliena is set to release on Netflix on the 8th of October. We sat down with this creative force to discuss the upcoming film, as well as her multi-continent, multi-profession and multi-award winning career as a whole.

As a founding member of the female-driven and owned Towerkop Creations, do you think the South African films which are given the largest platform and official selection for international festivals tend to be male-driven? What do you make of Toorbos finally representing a South African entry to the Academy Awards directed by a woman?

I believe in being the change I need to see. Are male-driven films mostly on the platforms from Africa? I am certainly not spending my time focusing on that, instead, I’m spending my time being a female, making films, and making sure my female heroines on screen lead the way, leaving footprints to try on for size.

For Toorbos: Fantastic! Let’s keep on keeping on. I don’t get hung up on these things. The only way to
make the change is to be the change. The real problem is that we’re still having to have this conversation.

You are an exceptionally humanitarian filmmaker, is there a charity or push for societal betterment you are most proud of having been a part of, or a cause you wish more people knew of now?

Thank you. There’s always something I’m pushing for – whether what I’m doing is a music video, fiction, non-fiction. It’s all I know. Animals and female *equality*. Most proud, would be the #thebutterflyrevolution, which we rolled out for two reasons 1) in support of the film Alison, 2) as a standalone campaign and follow up of the infamous 1999 Charlize Theron ‘Real men don’t rape campaign’ because guess what – they don’t, 3) as means to a way to offer some kind of platform for the outpour of survivors that found us because of the Alison movie/story.

butterfly revolution

Inspired by Charlize’s commercial, this was our answer, our follow up, 17 years later – with stats even worse than what they were then. And instead of saying what real men do and don’t do, we took it home, saying what we will be doing about it. Celebrities were approached, we had one day in Joburg and one day in CT to shoot, so whoever was available that could make it, ended up participating. The crew and cast did this 100% for free. This was our giving back. The public were then invited to tell us and share what *they* will be doing too, posting a photo with them holding a placard of sorts saying, “I’ve joined #thebutterflyrevolution cause…..” There were 19 x 15-second commercials and we gave it away for free to whichever broadcaster would like it. In the end it enjoyed broadcast time during the then 2016 Olympics in Europe etc.

Alison of course too – for many reasons of its own. It was my debut film. It’s like the first
kiss, the first time you taste your favourite dish. The first time you hold your new-born. Nothing can beat the first time. Not usually.

Angeliena. It’s my love poem to South Africa and all her good people. And there are so so so many. It’s about everything I love about this wonderful place. About everything we got right as a complicated, wonderful nation. It’s me boasting about the Rainbow nation that is me. That is you.

It’s safe to say your farthest-reaching film so far has been Alison, about a woman who was brutally raped and left for dead, who not only survived but continued to flourish as time went on. As a story to tell, Alison’s would have been incredibly emotionally harrowing simply as a biographical film, or awe-inspiring as a documentary which makes clear that her survival was miraculous, but real. Instead, you opted for a hybrid documentary and narrative film style, and Alison is now taught as a part of South African Documentary courses for its innovative structure, how did you settle on this choice?

Alison as a person, is *so* engaging, authentic and warm. What makes part of her miraculous story so heartwarming and identifiable, is her own voice in it all, always. She spoke to the press when it just happened, in fact she was the first South African woman to publicly stand up and say, I was raped and it’s not my fault. She gave her story its voice and I wanted to stay true to that. It’s that voice with that heart, that has given so many rape and sexual abuse survivors a light, a soft cushion of understanding. Also, all these incredible people that crossed her way in all their different capacities who helped her in all of it. It takes a village right. They are as authentic and refreshing. I wanted to keep it that way.

And it was a way for me to honour all these heroes as authentically as possible. *But*, I am not a journalistic documentary filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker. And I needed to also bring in the creative side of it all, to help tell this story in a way that I could live by too. My voice in it all. I grew up with fairytales. They often helped me get by. Helped me make sense of some of the horrors and tough stuff. So stylistically my style is magical realism and with all the miracles that this story has medically and spiritually, well it was the best serving and most authentic stylistic choice for me. And the voice I have as a filmmaker. And that is why I felt the best middle ground for this incredible story, to do justice for where the real meets the surreal – would be a hybrid feature documentary. The sweet spot where fiction and non-fiction meets – my way – for Alison’s way.

It is pretty much a given by now that anything you put out will receive awards recognition, and in your acceptance speech at The International Innovation Film Festival you said every time an award recognizes “the blood, sweat, tears, responsibility, passion, good and bad times”, it is the elixir that keeps you going. Was there a time working on any of your films that had you worried that your distinctive vision may go misunderstood or unrecognized? Any particularly challenging moments?

Gosh thank you. You’re so kind. I’m going to be phoning you when I have my behind closed doors ‘moments’ – of which there are many.

There are always challenges, they seem to grow as projects become bigger – but so do the incredible people that form part of that village that helps get the film to screen. In lessor to the fabulous, incredible cast and crew and audiences who watch; there seems to always be someone who will not get me, agree with me, my vision or my way; misunderstand me. The ‘haters’ it seems. But in life, especially in positions of leadership, one often pisses people off by simply getting up in the mornings. By simply showing up. That is not whom I am here for. And same goes for those who don’t get, like or care for my stylistic choices, stories, films a.k.a. me.

Because I am an artist. And what I do is always an extension of me within the world of story and subject of course. I live and breathe for my stories and to tell them for and with those who *do* get me and them. And if I could make one person’s life a little better for even just 95 minutes, it’s a win. I’m not here for those who don’t get me. I am here for those who do. My vision is all I know, and I am always true to that. It’s a little bit like the Mark Twain quote visually and emotionally – ‘If you tell the truth, you have nothing to worry about.’ And I do. My truth anyway.

What can you tell us about the upcoming Beyond the Light Barrier? Is it a feature length version of your own Good Planets Are Hard to Find?

Indeed and of course another hybrid documentary. Ironically this is my first film I started with when Towerkop Creations was born in 2010 and then others jumped the line and got in there first – *but* I’m so grateful for that because what I have found out over time, and having lived with this story for so long (since the age of eight), well the surprises do not cease to amaze me.

A true story about a legendary, enlightened meteorologist who spent her days on earth trying to convince the world that her alien Starman and lover from an advanced human race existed, and held the only solutions to all our problems on earth. Science? Fiction? Or the greatest science-fiction love story of all time?

uga carlini and sons

Before Beyond the Light Barrier, we can look forward to your soon to be released film Angeliena, which, in contrast to much of your previous work, is an original story. Have you had Angeliena in mind for some time? Does personal experience inform the story? Any filmic sources of inspiration?

Yes. Yes and Yes. All the projects on my slate at Towerkop Creations have been living in me and with me for some time. And when I finally make them, it’s not different to me than the birth of my sons Roka and Neo. I birth my films.

In 2010, my then husband and I had a, let’s say ‘moment’. As a 9–5 kind of guy it was hard for him to sometimes come to terms with the free-spirited, not always earning monthly salaries, a.k.a. the non 9-5. He also saw how hard I would work, and how much I loved it, for sometimes months or years to get the next one made. He felt frustrated that I wasn’t writing more and producing less –understandably. So he gave me this article of a car guard in the UK that one day just didn’t show up for work. It was strange because he never missed a day’s work in his life. So when someone went looking for him, they finally found him in the Bahamas where he retired with the millions he made. An urban legend? Maybe, maybe not.

So I took that, once the dust had settled, realised he was onto something, got excited, combined it with my medical technologist at Tygerberg hospital single parent mom who raised us and where we spent a lot of time, and ‘Angeliena‘ was born, then titled, ‘The Retirement’. Then the NFVF gave me development money and an incredible script supervisor, Margaret Goldsmith and later
Thandeka Zwana and the script evolved. By 2019, Tia Smith in the US gave me more notes, many of my fellow filmmakers all over the world too, and a table read with what had then already become ‘Angeliena‘, followed. And I felt we were ready. And Netflix agreed. South Africa was my biggest inspiration — just look at our flag. Rainbow is the favourite colour there.

I also drew a lot from my love for South African retro and kitsch and South African Pop Art as well as my Italian influences – my dad is Italian, from Rome. Combine that with influences from travels and how those memories get reworked into that which inspires us visually in the way we decorate to find and make our little place under the sun – like Angeliena our heroine too. From a film visual inspiration point of view – I would say this would be the place where Amelie (in quirkiness) and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (in unapologetic flair and P!nk) meet Slumdog Millionaire (in spirit) for a milkshake at Baghdad Café (so mooi, the score!!!) and Baz Luhrmann is the milkshake-maker.

uga and cine

You often focus on dire and urgent topics, reporting on pressing issues through shorts, documentaries and music videos alike. Your new film upholds the resilience of women but in what appears will be a far more upbeat viewing experience. This also stands in contrast to many South African films, which tend to depict our many problems or, in lighter fare, do away with any pretense of saying something about our national identity. Why have you shifted focus to a more amiable story?

Not at all shifting focus. It’s the upbeat moments, the laughs, the laughing at myself, that more often than not gets me by and helps me get up again. It’s not the ‘success’ part that appeals to me, but the road map to get there. The journey. The adventures. The lessons.

I’ve realised the importance of self-love in a practical daily life kind of way. My Boxer dog Mr. T helps a lot with this. He’s goofy, lives for walks and for us. He shakes things off and tomorrow or after his nap is always his chance again, to start over, and get things right with so much love, it’s infectious. He chooses his battles. Knows not all fights are worth it but that some so are. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff but at the same time knows that the smallest thing can help with the change we need more of, not less. Well, that’s Angeliena. That and assholes, and making money, and terminal illness, divorce, and nature, and friendships and hardships, poverty, travel, beauty, hot doctors, loving Nelson Mandela, loving plants, dreams and… being *good enough*. So not shifting focus but sharing my current focus. Sharing what I needed to get off my chest and be reminded of.

Similarly, many recent South African movies shot digitally have a muddy and faded “realistic” look, yours looks to be visually vibrant, is this a continuation of the fairytale aesthetic you’ve shown an interest in previously?

Always. It’s my magical realism world that I live in. On screen, at home. Day and night. I find the miracles and if I don’t see them, I make them. And if all else fails, I imagine them till they happen.

Just the other day my sons and I were walking on Jagger’s walk in the most beautiful place in the world, Fish Hoek. And there was an elderly lady, swimming with a retro swimming costume and swimming cap. She waved. We waved back. I told my sons, “Look, a mermaid.’ And they too knew and believed that that’s exactly what she was.

Uga watching playback

To some degree, Angeliena is about dreams, following them or having to sacrifice them. You yourself were something of a self-starter. Tell us about your journey to becoming a director, how you pivoted from acting, and your experiences in Fiji?

Self-starter, yes that’s me. I don’t wait for people to give me permission. And I also don’t really care what the ‘votes’ say, I can’t. It fucks with my focus and my well-being. Late bloomer is also more what I would call myself. My final destination was always going to be directing. From a very, very young age. But how I would get there, I wasn’t clear on, initially. So I started with acting. The biggest contributing factor for that was that my mom worked for Stellenbosch so that we could study for free as that was a perk of her employment. So I didn’t really have a choice.

The closest I could get to filmmaking there was to study Drama and in my final year specialize in acting and filmmaking. I acted professionally for a year and then started traveling the world, always making sure that no matter where I was I would do courses in screenwriting, filmmaking, acting, directing, you name it. Whatever was available and whatever I could afford. I would then also attend as many industry specific events, functions, plays, screenings, all over the world. Europe, States, Australia and then came Fiji.

Long story short, in 2006 I wrote the syllabus for acting, filmmaking and screenwriting for the now Fiji National University and started the course up with 13 pioneering students. Many of whom are today actively involved in the Fiji TV industry. That’s where I got to really cut my teeth and make films – in Paradise. In 2009 I retuned and spent some time in Namibia writing. By 2010 Towerkop Creations was born as I rose out of the ashes of a personal catharsis to finally find myself where I always wanted to be, behind the camera, writing, directing and/or producing female-driven heroine stories. Because they are the ones that inspire me and keep me going.

Recently a friend of mine, born free, expressed that South Africa was and remained a failed-state before and after 1994, going so far as to suggest that the reformative ideals and belief in unity of the ANC and Nelson Mandela circa 1994 were tentative and naïve. Since Angeliena aspires to remind us of the generosity of spirit that allowed the rainbow nation to be born from so dark a predecessor, what do you make of this sort of ennui?

The dark shadow of Apartheid’s afterbirth that still tends to come out when the sun shines brightest cannot be denied. The scarring (in Afrikaans the word is ‘verwonding’), runs so, so deep. At times the pain feels overwhelming. There’s a lot of blame and negativity out there. A lot of broken dreams, promises and ideals. It’s simply not how I choose to wake up and my focus will remain – for the sake of somehow finding healthy ways to move forward towards a better South Africa for all – the rainbow nation that is today. Not yesterday, not tomorrow but right now, because that’s what we have to work with.

Everyday really is a choice. I choose to find the best part of every situation and if I can’t I find myself a new situation to work with. Or I’ll sleep on it, go for a walk in the mountain and see if anything has shifted. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have all the choice. We all do.

Uga directing actors on location

There are some very motivational characters in the film, saint-like even, what was it like casting and directing these roles?

I almost always know exactly who I want for the parts. I also believe there are no small parts. But because I tend to be so clear on who and what I want, I always also allow for the casting process, in case I missed someone or something. And this includes not just professional actors.

I’m also always, organically scouting. People, places, moments, words. I email myself constantly. I also have countless of notebooks and anyone who knows me well or works with me closely will probably tell you their pet peeve is that either I can’t remember which notebook I wrote it in (and spent ages finding it) or then, I can’t read my own handwriting. But there’s something in writing it down. It’s a ways to a means to cut out the noise, find the essence, the bare minimum.

I love the process. I also earmark people and places and store them away, only to come back to them years after I told them I would. Everything goes into the kitty, the Pandora’s box. You just never know. I’ve almost always scouted my own films and projects. *But* again, I’m always willing to hear and listen if there’s a magic spot I missed. Everything helps tell the story, from the place to the person to the ‘thing’. For me anyway. I’m a visually-motivated person, driven by senses. I see through Venus-tinted glasses. Even the horror, I don’t shy away from it, I embrace it, highlight it but within a world of magical realism as to find a way to make sense of it. To hold on to that which we can’t always see but know is there.

My characters are all saint-like to me – in their imperfections, struggles, inner hopes, dreams and fears, they rise to the occasion and elevate us, so we can too. That’s my kind of sainthood. My kind of Mother Theresa – wait till you meet Angeliena and friends, you’ll see what I mean. And if you don’t, that’s ok too. There’s still room at the table in true Angeliena Spirit.

Many of your projects seem to have a goal to impart a positive change in the world or lives of the viewers, including some ventures whose proceeds went directly to charities. You seem to very often have an actionable impact in mind for your films, what do you hope this movie does for people?

In no particular order as they are all equally important to me and the themes of my film:
– That if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.
– That friendship is more important than revenge.
– To never judge a bergie (or any female for that matter) by her cover.
– That self-love really is the greatest middle finger.
– To love yourself so fiercely, that when others see you, they know how it should be done.

Angeliena will be available to watch on Netflix October 8th. When a formerly homeless parking attendant, Angeliena, is diagnosed with a fatal disease, she dares to put her lifelong dream of traveling the world into motion.