Following the 2022 AFDA Graduation Film Festival, we spoke to Luc Coetzee, director of the festival’s decorated When the Last Shell Falls.
Could you walk us through the experience of the festival, and your thoughts as you won your dual-top prizes?
The festival was always the checkered flag at the end of the race in my mind. Preceded by an absolutely mad dash toward the finish line, I viewed it as a bittersweet conclusion to the journey I’ve walked within AFDA. Seeing my work and the work of my peers, who had gone from complete strangers to some of my closest friends was so picturesque it felt like a scene in a cheesy ’80s film ironically enough.
I couldn’t even bring myself to be nervous about other people viewing my work, as I had been in the past with all my other shorts, as I had been so proud of the work that my cast and crew had put in that it transcended any feelings of “I should have done this, oh that looks bad”. At the end of the day, I was able to see just how far we’d come through it all, going from first-year 3-minute films to sitting in a theatre, and it made me appreciate the journey it took us through.
On the subject of the awards, we (the crew and cast) were beyond elated to have been nominated once, let alone twice. My admiration for my fellow students that were also nominated and the work they did was so great I truly had no idea we would win. When we heard the first award that went to us, I was so shocked that I barely registered it until we were already up on stage receiving it.
In that moment I was firstly proud of the people around me and that their hard work had paid off, my cinematographer (William Annesley) and I were so taken aback that we made a joke while returning to our seats that we would be back on stage soon for the second one. When we received that one as well I could hardly believe it. I would like to think I reacted with the proper poise and grace but realistically I was too busy processing the achievement to stop my jaw from dropping.
Why did you decide to explore a (semi-) wartime subject rather than the more typically understated, intimate subjects of graduating shorts (two people having a bit of an argument or thirty close up glances spread thinly across a social issue)?
When we first started at AFDA, the subject matter being explored in the films was geared toward answering a prompt provided by our course. Everyone, especially the directors, had already stated their intention of using those films to build their skill set so that when we reached our final project they would then be able to tackle the storylines they had been dreaming of filming forever.
I struggled with this concept for a while, wondering if such a concept would find its way to me sooner rather than later hopefully. In my second year I did a war film with William Annesley, due to our shared love for the genre. From that moment on we agreed that we would continue this by doing another film within that genre for the final film.
However, I knew that our two biggest weaknesses in doing a wartime film would be budgeting and scale. My style of writing has always favoured the quiet, character-driven and intimate moments within a story. Incorporating that within something as stereotypically grandiose as a war film was difficult. At the end of the day, I was in love with the challenge and concept of taking the concept of following a character’s self-reflecting journey and using war as a foundation through which he would find his healing.
The subject matter from a personal perspective was deeply fascinating for a multitude of reasons. Having various family members who had served in the military, some during the Border War, meant that I already had a personalised connection to the narrative not only through being able to listen to their stories but through their shared history. Combined with my general interest in military narratives and their impact on the character it was seemingly meant to be.
War takes the best and worst of humanity and blends it all together until you’ve lost sight of what you were even fighting for. At the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I was presented with a video, in which a Ukrainian father and son were driving up a road and then were fired upon by soldiers. The father was hit and crawled into the street. His son, an adult, ran to him and stayed by his side, begging his father not to die.
In that moment I felt hopeless. Being able to instantly view such a travesty from across the globe but being powerless. The war effort placed under a magnifying glass toward a moment of humanity: A man reduced to begging for his father not to leave him as a child would have through no fault of his own. From there the concept saw its origin. Tailored to the context of a war that is viewed quite negatively it forced me to focus on the character. As it was through them that the narrative would find any hope of being relatable to the viewer.
Would you like to highlight any one film by a classmate from the graduation festival?
My peers have all done phenomenal work, and I can truly say that I am beyond proud of the work they delivered for the graduation festival, as well as being tremendously excited to see the work they produce within the industry.
That being said, those that I have been absolutely blown away by were Waiting For Good Things by Lindokuhle Skosana, Iyaloo by Thabani Makanza and Organic by Bryce Donson and shot by Hannah Constantine. These people have done a great deal to inspire me throughout my tenure at AFDA, and I expect nothing but big things from them in the future.
Did you keep to any mantra or guidelines to ensure the final product came out with an air of professionalism?
The two things that I believe helped me immensely throughout the process of creating the graduation piece were firstly remembering that everyone was there because they believed in and wanted to help the end product. It is very unlikely that, if you choose your people correctly, someone will wake up with the express intention of undermining your ideas or trying to destroy the product.
This leads me to the second point, and that was allowing the creative collaboration to breathe. Realising and remembering that the people within my crew and cast have their specialization for a reason and that they can bring so much to the table if given the chance is beyond valuable to a production.
Thereafter it was just keeping a very clear expectation from myself and others to strive for professionalism within the production. Whenever I encountered a problem on set or felt pressure I made sure to talk it out with the relevant parties when needed or mostly griping to my cinematographer, Will, in all honesty.
It’s been a less-than straight road to get here. Could you relate something of the unique film school experience you underwent, characterized largely by Covid?
Starting at AFDA I remember vividly one of the main selling points of their pitch being collaborative-based practical filmmaking. The opportunity to make a series of short films and gain hands-on experience, to make mistakes and learn from them within a peer-focused environment sounded perfect, not only from a networking standpoint but a learning mindset as well. It lasted for all of a month. What followed was a deeply confusing time, to the fault of no one. The world had to react to a force of nature. Every system was uprooted and forced to adapt. Our practical style of learning fell by the wayside in favour of online learning. On-campus meetings and assignments became a dream of the past.
Knowing that the wealth of knowledge we were missing out on while following a course, that no matter how well-meaning, it simply could not cover everything, was very disheartening. Not even mentioning the typical student experience being completely swept away for the time.
However, it was incredible to witness the passion of those that endured these times. Watching my peers develop an almost zealous desire to overcome these challenges was awe-inspiring. The slow decline of restrictions provided us with the opportunity to release those pent-up emotions through our work. Those that remained knew that they would get a chance to strut their stuff, so when the third year rolled around, and we started to thaw from our Covid hibernation, it was something to behold seeing everyone throwing themselves into their work.
So much of filmmaking is problem-solving. Can you think of any, any benefits to the Covid experience as far as the ‘art from adversity’ angle is concerned?
I can only speak personally as to the effects of Covid on my creative process, but I definitely believe the perspective it offered was something that would never have been replicated otherwise. I believe it was Alexis Carrel who said the following: “To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor”
Covid took a great deal from the world, not even speaking of losing family and friends, it took our humanity. It stole precious time from us, with everything grinding to a halt. But within that time when the world seemed almost silent, I was forced to confront myself and my situation in a way that I had never been able to. Almost half a year of introspection can do a great deal for a person when left to their own devices.
How that came to influence my work, I would like to say it helped, but it came at a price. At the start, having to write narratives and shoot films adhering to the new structures of the world, it all felt pointless. The very things I admired about the medium of film transformed into a husk of itself. In that regard, I do believe it forced us to re-evaluate our craft. We knew we were behind in comparison to the previous year groups who had gone through without these challenges. It meant having to accept certain limitations within our skillset moving forward.
For our graduation film, we accepted these elements, not as places of weakness, but as opportunities to innovate. For example, we knew that on a practical front sound would be one of our biggest challenges, therefore the narrative had minimal dialogue and relied mainly on ambience, which could be modified more easily in post-production. Elements like that through which the crew and cast were able to recognize where our biggest challenges would lie and come together to solve them.
Are there any things you wound up learning during the course of your degree, any skills you had to put to use, which you had no mind to take up beforehand? /
From a non-technical level, I would say project management and social skills were definitely the biggest elements. Before film school I would never have viewed myself as a “leader” type nor would I have had the skillset to navigate being one. Going into writing/directing it opened my eyes to just how enjoyable it is to work with like-minded people toward a unified goal.
It also taught me the nature of communication and conflict resolution within group management. As I mentioned previously the biggest step was knowing that at the end of the day, we were all students who had (and still have) no idea what we are doing really helps to temper any personal feelings of petty anger and conflict. Being the person on set that has to deal with a hundred problems before the first shot has cleared really puts it into perspective how daunting the world is if things can get so hectic on a student level.
On a technical level, it would definitely be compositing/visual effects. Although I did do a term of it in my first year, I am nowhere near any semblance of a professional. However, for our graduation film, we had trouble with a shot that needed a VFX landmine explosion. Due to an unforeseen error, the task fell to my cinematographer Will and myself. Two people who had never touched a VFX shot before in their lives, not even mentioning the scale of it, 24 hours before the film was due.
Luckily, we both knew what needed to be done so a quick all-nighter found us both red-eyed squinting at computer screens trying to figure out how to layer dust explosions. (Also, my remembering I was colourblind to green after 3 hours of rotoscoping out a section of leaves… in a green forest).
What do you think you learned about your professional peer group that you might not have outside of a film school environment?
What shocked me the most was how insignificant my previous experience was going into film school and by extension the creative world. I was terrified going into my first year, I hadn’t done drama past ninth grade, nor did I really participate in “film” as a profession as I had decided it was an unsustainable career choice and should be done away with (this still remains to be seen I suppose).
Whenever I would talk to people within those first two months I’d feel out of my depth, the analysis, prose and even the vernacular they could apply to dissect the countless films they had seen (and I hadn’t) was daunting beyond belief. But through the years I realised that my own insecurities were very much a short-term problem. If I applied myself and pursued the creative aspect of directing/writing I found myself on par with where I wanted to be.
Considering that, it took me by surprise how even those with a hefty background in film before starting film school still approached the degree with a similar mindset. One of learning, understanding and evolving their craft. No judgement was levied toward the late bloomers like me, as we shared a love for the thing we came to get better at, film.
What are your hopes for the future of the industry as a whole?
On a local level, I am hopeful that very soon a renaissance will occur. Our history with film as a medium stretches back far longer than most would think. I firmly believe we have access to the talent and drive to stimulate the growth within the industry.
On a global scale, I am tentatively curious to see the evolution from the influence of modern socio-cultural influences. Not even speaking of social media’s influence, I believe the accessibility and continued innovation that’s being provided to those that wish to create is nothing short of fantastic.
Where do you fall on the spectrum from run and gun to meticulous planning?
My directing style was influenced very early by my tenure at AFDA. Since I had a deep knowledge gap and insecurities surrounding what I knew about the craft I approached working on pre-production as a learner. I would meet individually with my heads of department and figure out how they like to approach deliverables, meetings etc. and move from there. The biggest influence was by far Will, his professional style of tight, efficient pre-production complimented my lack of knowledge perfectly.
From there I continued to adapt my style of planning to the level of whoever I was working with. If a head of a department preferred a rigid level of planning, I’d happily oblige. My time spent working with Hannah Constantine for our experimental film Was I Ever required a great deal of focus being placed on pre-production, due to its more urban setting within a business park, rather than my graduation films being set in a forest. Her work ethic was second to none, and it complimented the narrative world beautifully.
However, that film also experienced the most problems out of all my previous work. It forced us to sharpen our reactionary skills and turned what was a meticulously planned venture into a more Guerilla-esque escapade. As time passed toward the end of third year, I branched a bit more into a reactionary directing style (equal parts lazy and calling it spontaneous). Wherein we (Will and I) were usually on the same page from the word go, so it meant little time went into meticulously planning every aspect as we had done before.
This meant devoting more mental energy to reacting to situations during production. Definitely a rise in sleepless nights, but as an educational experience I got a taste of both sides. With hindsight, I’d say I prefer meticulous planning more in terms of logistics and run and gun in terms of creative freedom.
Is there a quality to your craft you’d like to focus on sprucing up a bit?
I’d say the area where I need the most attention is expanding my technical knowledge of the other departments. Ultimately communication can only go as far as what I know is possible. Concerning sound, colour grading etc. the process would benefit greatly from more study.
On a more non-technical front, I’d say my biggest weakness is managing my energy. There have been a few times in which I’d spent so much time and effort in one aspect of production that I had nothing left in the tank when it came to other, equally important aspects. Burnout is not exactly the most conducive state to be in.
That being said I am very much aware that my skills as someone who wishes to step into the industry are still in their infancy. I look forward to evolving them in the future.
Can you share your next step?
With life being as tumultuous as we’ve seen with the pandemic, I can only speculate and hope that things continue to go well. Currently, I’m busy with a book adaptation deal and would hope to see that come to fruition one day. Otherwise, I’m open to anything at this stage of my life in terms of work. I’m young and determined, if it takes a few more years of me building up life experience in other sectors so be it. Any knowledge is useful in the grand scheme of things. Although I do hope that journey does bring me back to film sooner rather than later.
This is a much scarier question at the start of your degree, but at the end maybe you’re leaving with a new perspective. Why do you want to make films? Has your answer to this question changed since enrolling?
When I first started my degree the question always made me uncomfortable. I could never justify the why with a special reason. Anything I could think of felt plain and common sense. To me, the only option was telling stories through the medium. I think I’ve managed to articulate it better now.
This question stands among the very specific few that always catch me unprepared no matter how many times I’ve heard them (another example being what my favourite films are, suddenly I forget every film I’ve ever watched). My best venture at an answer would be that making films occupies such an integral part of my view of the world that I cannot imagine myself not making them. If I see an interesting building, I think about how I could frame it for a scene, I hear snippets of conversation and think about how I would have it be the emotional crux of a narrative climax.
So, when I had to answer this question in the first year, I simply could not imagine someone not envisioning the world in such a way, maybe the rest just have more important things swimming around in their minds most of the time. The world is just too spontaneous and beautiful to ever truly capture but managing to immortalize even a fraction of that beauty is a worthwhile goal I would say. Films allow me to get closer to that goal.