By BRUCE DENNILL
Director Khalid Eljelailati‘s film Nandi is on the programme for the Durban International Film Festival. Nandi and Carl, two meth addicts, struggle to make ends meet and are forced to turn to prostitution to feed their habits. This comes at a high personal cost as they find themselves encroaching on the territory of Moth, an ambitious and violent pimp.
Was there a single moment when you first realised you wanted to make films or TV programmes – a specific movie or show in a particular context? What was it that caught your attention?
When I saw Goodfellas and Rumble Fish. With the context of hindsight, Scorsese and Coppola were my gateway into cinema. Through them, I discovered the craft, the masters and personal storytelling. Goodfellas was the first time I had seen real and relatable characters on screen. I saw myself up there, my father, my uncles and the world we come from. That’s when I realised one could tell a story about everyday blue-collar people. In Rumble Fish, my imagination was captured and shocked by the black and white experimental style of the film, which was so starkly different from Goodfellas. Looking back at those films, I believe they planted the seed that I could make a film myself.
Do you prefer doing as few takes as possible or as many as are necessary? Both choices have their pros and cons…
I prefer doing fewer takes. I came up with the indie model because I didn’t have a lot of money or resources and therefore didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time on set. So early on, I had to adapt my style to fit this model. I formed a three-take structure – the first one is for the actors, the second one is mine and then on the third, we start to merge the best of both. I find it works well as it’s more spontaneous and emotive. I go by the old adage that goes, “Don’t practice something you have to get right the first time.”
Getting (in conjunction with your team) the exact look or feel you want onscreen: what are the most helpful outside factors for you in this process (from location to make-up or costumes to framing or editing)?
Film is a collaborative artform and it does take a village to make a film. My goal is to always make cinema – I want it to feel like cinema, I want it to look like cinema and have the rhythm of cinema. Harmoniously combining all the elements is a must, and I am proud of the team and the work they did, especially considering the time limitations and minimal resources with which we managed to make something beautiful and organic.
While everyone is looking to you for guidance, how aware are you of needing to limit what you say or do in order to let the combination of everything in the frame (the location, the lighting, the costumes, your cast) be as effective as possible?
To me, directing is about two things – problem-solving, and providing an environment for both the crew and cast to do the best work they can. To me, that means having a quiet set where everybody can focus. We dream for a living and there’s a certain privilege in that, so I don’t like to take it for granted. I can’t stand sets where people are yelling and fighting.
The pandemic has created enormous challenges at every level in the film and television industries, but there is still fantastic work being created. What, or who, are the brightest lights in terms of work you have done recently or films or shows you are watching at the moment?
Mark Duplass, Ben Wheatly, Mynette Louie, John Sayles, Kevin Smith, Olivia Wilde, Joe Swanberg, Effie T Brown, A24, Blumhouse – I can go on and on. There is a lot of work being done and I wanted to mention some of the people and companies doing it because they deserve recognition, but also because you’ll find a treasure trove of inspiring work if you just go look them up.
Please unpack your current project? How did you get involved and what is most satisfying about it?
Nandi is a meditation on violence, drug abuse and mental health issues explored through intimate setpieces. Working alongside talented actors and watching them bring characters to life is always the most satisfying part of the process for me.