Talking to the Zimbabwean filmmaker about Afrofuturism, Hollywood and how to tell kick ass stories

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end of Sunu Gonera’s presentation at Design Indaba 2018. The theme of the film director’s conference talk was the concepts behind Afrofuturism that fuel his and many other adventurous artists’ work, but what really touched the audience was his personal recounting of the highs and lows – and more highs – of his own life. Growing up in a township in Civil War-torn Zimbabwe, Gonera’s home life was hard (“No food, no dad.”) but he found escape by watching classic Hollywood movies and “having big dreams”. He won a scholarship to the University of Cape Town and worked in banking but it wasn’t long before the lure of the moving image proved too strong. He cut his teeth making advertisements for the likes of Nike and Coca Cola and his short film Riding With Sugar made it to Cannes.

Gonera’s dreams seemingly came true when he relocated to Los Angeles to direct his first feature, Pride starring Terrence Howard. But when his involvement in two production companies bombed, he and his family were forced to return to South Africa in 2013 and live in a one-room apartment. It was then though that he truly found his voice and began to focus on telling authentic African stories that reveal the true beauty of the continent. Since then he hasn’t looked back and his revolution-rousing One Source campaign for Absolut featuring the likes of Khuli Chana, Osborne Macharia, Trevor Stuurman, Victoria Kimani, Fabrice Monteiro and Sho Madjozi as Afrofuturist superheroes and adventurers, has garnered awards and acclaim around the world.

Nataal wiped away the tears to talk to Gonera just after he stepped off the DI stage.

Tell us about the making of the two Absolut films.
Those jobs were the hardest I’ve ever done but also the most joyful. I had folders of visuals that I’d been collecting for years and it was the right time to use them. I wanted to show Africa from the inside out. We’re not going to filter. We’re going to shoot raw and real and put surrealism and colour into it. I chose Ghana to shoot because that’s where slavery started, which has always held a connection for me, and also because it has the world’s largest electrical dump heap, so in terms of locations you have to put in very little. We had a tiny crew for both films, and it was tough to create an international scale result with very little budget, but pulled it off and that’s what gives it that feeling. When I went to meet Marvel in LA afterward they couldn’t believe they were only four-day shoots!

There must have been some moving moments on set.
I remember sitting in those dungeons in the slave castle and thinking about how these small rooms were once filled with countless naked people with no food and no water destined for the point of no return. One night I went for a walk on the beach. It was empty and there were all these footprints in the sand. Hundreds of years ago those would have been slaves and over 50 per cent of them didn’t survive the journey to the colonies. That was a moment. I could not stop crying.

Tell us about some of your talented line-up.
Fabrice Montero’s work is fascinating and crazy and using him shows that in Africa it’s not just dark skins. I wanted to mix it up. Sho Madjozi has an amazing dance style. I wasn’t going to do super heroes without a powerful female character and she’s kick ass. And Osborne Macharia is my partner in crime. His photography speaks for itself and we’re going to keep building this world together. We’re working on a TV show at the moment that is kind of a Stranger Things in Africa - what would that be like?

You’re working back in Hollywood now. How does that feel?
It’s humbling. When you’ve been beaten up the first time, you go back a little more aware. I’m more thoughtful with every step now. I’m working on John Singleton’s TV drama Snow Fall starring Damson Idris and a film project with David Oyelowo. I’m also in New York to do an episode of Madame Secretary and have a few other things percolating. It’s important for me to work on projects with an Afro aesthetic and that have African characters in them that don’t have to change their accents!

How do you feel about the South African film industry?
There are some interesting films and directors coming out but we need to work on training more writers to create world-class scripts. In Hollywood I’ve been bringing on some young African writers in big shows.

We understand your daughter is following in your footsteps too?
Yes, she’s 15 years old and she’s already landed lead roles in two films and she’s a great writer too. Why not start in my own home if that’s what she wants to do.

So, what is your definition of Afrofuturism?
Putting yourself into everything you do. Bringing in your unique and specific voice to define and redefine how we as Africans see ourselves and how the world has presented us in arts, culture and entertainment, business, education, religion, media, politics, family. It is boldly moving forward without shame of where you came from or of being African, no matter what your sphere of influence or area of expertise. And no matter who is in front of you… your African voice matters and demands to be heard.

Words Helen Jennings

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Published on 23/03/2018