Milisuthando Bongela on Making A Film with Her Ancestors

The South African filmmaker’s documentary feature, which is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, is a deeply personal film that touches on her life growing up in the Transkei, before it was incorporated into post-apartheid South Africa.

When the credits roll on Milisuthando Bongela’s documentary feature, Milisuthando, among those listed, along with the lighting director and song composers, are the names of her ancestors. For the South African director, it was important that her first film was indeed made in communion with those who came before her.

“They were always consulted,” she tells OkayAfrica. “I would talk to my ancestors about my ideas. I would say, ‘Okay, this is the direction we want to go in.’ Even in terms of the fundraising aspect of the film, we involved them. This is what was fun and groundbreaking about making a film as a South African in 2021 [when she finished shooting it], is that our knowledge systems have said that you involve your ancestors in absolutely everything that you do. And we did”

And so it is that Milisuthando makes its debut into the world at the Sundance Film Festival, having been selected for its World Documentary Competition section. The film, which Bongela started eight years ago when she was a fashion blogger, consultant and columnist, began life as an exploration of hair and identity. But over the years, she dug deeper to come up with a deeply personal visual essay into how apartheid shaped the way she sees herself.


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