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SA filmmaker Talia Smith’s film Umama wins gold at the Student Academy Awards

Talia Smith is a filmmaker born and raised in South Africa, the country’s rich heritage inspiring her storytelling aspirations from a young age. At 18 she followed her dreams and studied Film & TV at NYU’s Tisch School of the arts.

She has focussed her filmmaking career on true stories- highlighting ordinary people with extraordinary stories. Inspired by resilience and joy in the face of adversity, many of my films have thus far been centred around South African and female lead narratives. No matter the genre, all her films are created in pursuit of expanding perspectives. Her latest film UMAMA was shortlisted for a student BAFTA and received the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards.

Umama is an aching portrait of a mother’s unthinkable loss. The morning after having made a promise to celebrate her son’s academic achievement, domestic worker Sibongile wakes to find he is missing. Despite her worries about her missing son, Sibongile must care for the children of her employer in order to get home and keep her promise. The film stars Connie Chiume (from Black Panther, Rhythm City and Gomora) as main character Sibongile. The film is inspired by Smith’s childhood recollection of her family’s domestic worker Susan’s own son’s death.

Connie Chiume

The film was released on YouTube on 2 June 2021.

GLAMOUR: Can you tell us about Umama? What was the initial concept?

Talia: I was part of NYU Tisch’s undergraduate Film and TV program and it was in my second year there that I wrote an eight-page version of this script, originally writing it for myself because it was a topic I was struggling to comprehend. Coming to New York, I was no longer in a society where these kinds of stories were part of its DNA. When I would tell classmates that I had had a “domestic helper” my whole life, I could not articulate well enough that this was not all she was to me. I then began questioning why I felt such a strong need to justify this situation. The purpose of the script was not to make sense of these circumstances nor provide a solution but rather to simply state and recognise that they exist. The more I travelled between the two worlds of New York and South Africa, the more I felt the need to focus on this story. I have to be honest, my initial thoughts were: “OK, maybe I’ll pitch it and they will say no and then at least I know I tried.” But when my professor actually chose my film for the allotment the real stress began. Now I am making a film in South Africa.

For me the end goal was to have a film that Suzan was happy with. A film that validated her experience and honoured her sacrifices. I think you hope and dream that the film will be recognised but it's definitely not the goal in making it. The main end goal in how I create or tell a story is always “what will the audience walk away with having watched this film.”

G: You’ve wanted to be in filmmaking since being very young. What was filmmaking your dream instead of becoming, say, an actress?

T: When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be an actress. But because most of my experience acting was me directing myself in plays for my family, I never really understood what aspect of that process I enjoyed. That is until I acted in a commercial. I saw that what I truly liked about the process was the creation. Thinking about stories, visualizing them and figuring out all the elements that can create the intended impact.

G: You had an incident where your laptop got stolen with all your essays needed to get into university?

T: You know, those home invaders had taken everything from us. They created a trauma that I would have to live through and I was not going to let them take away my future as well. It brought out an inner warrior in me which I did not know I had. It was also two weeks before the matric finals. So I had to redo my portfolio, study and deal with the trauma. I had worked so hard to get to where I was and I was determined, and maybe even more than before, to ensure that they could not take away my dreams. I actually wrote about the invasion for one of my essays but highlighted the positives that had come from it. That being my new found warrior.

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G: What was your favourite childhood movie?

T: Definitely Fried Green Tomatoes. I absolutely loved that movie and every time I would watch it I was at a different point in my life where I could discover new layers and themes within the film. To me the film evolved with meaning as I matured and I think that’s what I hope to achieve in my filmmaking- to create something that you can revisit and find new purpose for it in your life.

G: What do you love the most about stories and storytelling?

T: Storytelling is human nature. Since the beginning of time we have been storytellers. And what I love about it is that different stories hold different purposes. You can use stories to generate new perspectives, to create a form of escape, to feel represented and then to simply entertain. For every need there is a story.

G: When you moved to NY, was it everything that you had dreamt of?

T: New York is incredible, but it is a hard city. It forced me to become immediately independent and self-reliant very quickly. I spent most of my first year in New York pinching myself. I could not believe I was living in the city of my dreams. I had a very idealised idea of New York City life and sometimes it was like that, but that glamorous "Empire State of Mind'' dissipates very quickly when you are a student walking to class in the freezing cold and trying to dodge the snow that has melted to a brown mush. Having said that, it is an incredible city. There are opportunities everywhere and you are constantly meeting new and interesting people. It is very fast-paced and always exciting which I loved. I wouldn't say I have Hollywood aspirations so to speak, I think as a filmmaker I just hope to get more opportunities to tell unique and incredibly powerful stories wherever that may be and be able to make a living out of it.

G: While at university and being amongst your peers from different countires, what did you find was their perceptions of SA?

T: The biggest thing people would tell me that they found about South Africa is just how friendly the people are. That they had never met a South African who wasn’t. And when I went there I also started to see that my warmth stood out to most of my American peers. I think people were very interested in the political and social landscape in which we exist and how the legacy of apartheid has manifested itself. They also were very interested in how we learned, celebrated and honored our history- many of them could not believe how many public holidays we have.

G: It is said that all of your films are created in pursuit of expanding perspectives?

T: With Umama I created a film which I hope many different South Africans might be able to relate to. And because they can relate, maybe they might be able to see a new perspective different from their own through the other characters and relationships within the film. It was important to me to be completely accurate in my representation of people in the film so that viewers could feel safe to explore these news ideas and feelings for themselves. I do believe Umama has achieved this more than I had hoped. We have received such incredible feedback and insights from people who relate to the film. It has had a bigger reach than I could even imagine, having Dr Scillia Elworthy, a 3-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Kojo Anan and others share their thoughts on the film has been incredibly validating for us all. I am now working with an impact consultancy LivCurious who is helping us create resources, toolkits and conversations around the topics within the film so that the impact of it lives beyond just the viewing.

G: Why is it so important to you to tell SA stories on a global stage?

T: I think that we only know what we are exposed to and so when I am given an opportunity and have the stage, I have to ask myself what it is I need and want to say. More than anything, I want more people to understand and learn about South Africa and South Africans, but also for South Africans to see themselves depicted and represented internationally.

I think the global reach of South African films and content is astounding. It's definitely very inspiring and motivating. I think the world is more receptive to other and new stories which is great for us.

G: Despite many great female directors etc. in the film industry and the many calls for equality, filmmakers (esp. the greatly awarded) are generally men. As a woman, have you experienced any gender discrimination or related attitudes?

T: I think mindsets are changing and things are shifting. However, I have interned and worked on many sets and can confidently say that gender discrimination exists within filmmaking.

G: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

T: I am now writing a feature film which is also based on a true story in South Africa. I am hoping to continue making films based on ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

G: Are there any dream destinations you’d love to film at and people whom you’d love to be a part of one of your projects?

T: I’d love to film a feature here in South Africa and then to be honest wherever great stories are I want to help tell them. I have A LOT of people I would love to work with.I think for me it always depends on the project I am working on to find the people I hope to play that part. Right now I’d love to work with my cast from Umama again, as well as Thusi Mbedu, Ncuti Gatwa, Shascha Baron Cohen, Atandwa Khani and Tony Kgoroge.

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