Updated: Jun 19, 2018
Thandi Gula-Ndebele, cinematographer and storyteller for the popular South African web series, The Foxy Five, didn’t always know what they wanted to do with their life. Then the night before they had to submit their A-Level subject form, they came across the cinematic arts and the rest, as they say, is history.
Image: Elijah Ndoumbe
Name: Thandi Gula-Ndebele
Based In: Cape Town and Harare
Education: University of Cape Town (Bachelor of Arts in Screen Production and Film Studies)
It’s no secret that the careers most Zimbabwean parents aspire to have their children follow are easily categorised as traditional and limited. I’ve heard multiple stories of parents refusing to pay tuition because a degree in theatre, for example, is not ‘appropriate’ and met many students who’ve expressed anything but joy at the prospect of becoming yet another engineer. When Thandi Gula-Ndebele, cinematographer and storyteller at one of South Africa’s most popular web series, The Foxy Five, came to speak at the opening event for Varsity Newspaper in early 2017, I was surprised to learn that the young womxn who stood before us was Zimbabwean. How, I wondered, did they manage to get away with enrolling in a faculty that wasn’t commerce, engineering or medicine? I approached Thandi a few weeks ago to ask just that and they were thrilled to share their experiences, career aspirations and give a sneak-peak at what they do on a daily basis.
1. When we last spoke, we agreed that career guidance in Zimbabwean schools isn’t where it should be. In an environment that champions careers in medicine and engineering above all else, what led you to pursue a degree in cinematography and film production?
I’ve always been really into acting, storytelling and movies and my desire to share through storytelling is probably what got me here. Initially, I had no clue what cinematography was but I knew that I loved storytelling, movies, cartoons, computers and art. I knew what I wanted but wasn’t sure that it was possible and kind of winged it with traditional responses until I had to pick A level subjects. For most of my high school life I told my dad I wanted to be a dermatologist (lol) because the word sounded good and it was a medical profession he would see as valid. I remember doing a million personality tests, career tests and things like that while waiting for my O-Level results trying to figure it out. I still had no clue till the night before I had to submit the A-Level subject selection form at school. I was up all night on Google looking up degrees and found Cinematic arts on one website. I was so surprised that exactly what I wanted and thought was impossible existed! When I later came across degrees like Media studies etc, I thought that I could become a journalist or editor like my grandfather and decided that anything in that field was for me.
Image: photographed by Thandi Gula-Ndebele, art directed by Thandi Gula and Yonela Makoba, styled by Yonela Makoba and make up by Haneem Christian, lighting by John Second
2. Although your chosen career path should be a personal decision, there’s no denying that parents play a huge role in what you finally decide to do. Did you have difficulty persuading your parents to accept your decision?
Initially it was difficult to get my parents to fully understand what I wanted to do. There was some reluctance and resistance, especially since I also had a place to study Law and another to study IT. I convinced them that I could “really do this” and my parents have always in one way or another supported my creative interests and, in-fact, introduced me to a lot of them. I think that they might have been scared in the beginning because they had never heard of the degree, so they wanted me to consider law and stuff but I made sure they understood why I wanted to study film and nothing else. I also gave them more information about what it was and what it meant for my career. I promised them that if it wasn’t working out within the first year, I would change to something else and they have been supporting me since. Even though my dad still brings up medicine and law (lol) he is very supportive of my choices.
3. While many of us are only just entering the world of work, you’ve already built yourself quite a resume. You were the storyteller and cinematographer for The Foxy Five, a popular South African web series. The story follows the lives of five black womxn and explores important issues like Feminism and Intersectionality in a post-apartheid South Africa. How did you become a part of such an iconic project and how did you manage to balance such a demanding job with your academics?
Jabu (Nadia Newman) and I met in first year and have been friends ever since. We had already worked together by the time Foxy Five came to life so I think I became part of the team because of our aligned intentions. She knew my work outside of projects we had been on together and we had wanted to collaborate anyway. Jabu had me over one day after briefly telling me about having an idea and asked if I’d be interested in working on a research project/web-series with her. I immediately knew I wanted to be involved, and everything escalated from there.
Balancing my academics was definitely hard because school was already difficult and clashing with my mental health, but working on #TheFoxyFive kept reminding me why I started everything in the first place and reaffirming me in my craft. So even though the deadlines were hectic and I could feel the pressure, I had to adapt and did what I needed to keep myself mentally healthy and able to cope. I crashed a lot of times and also failed some courses but it only taught me to manage my time better and to know my capacity and my boundaries. I had to learn how to take care of myself, internally and also physically, in order to find balance in everything. I think that love for what I was doing kept me going. Seeing the potential in myself and the work that needed to be done for my community through the stories I wanted to tell helped me “balance” everything. I’m still learning to balance it all.
Image: photographed by Thandi Gula-Ndebele ,style +make up by Andrea Klo and Grace De Kroon, creative directed by Jabu Newman
4. What would you say are your biggest career accomplishments to date and what are your hopes for the future?
I would say my biggest accomplishments thus far are getting to work with my closest friends, working on stuff we literally dreamed of and wrote down and realising all our (mine and my community’s) power in our authenticity. Letting go of imposed perceptions of value is also a big one for me. It’s helped me navigate my career with less fear.
My hope is freedom and remembrance. Everyday and in everyway, my craft is centered on it and I hope to experience freedom and share it with my community in the present.
5. What does a day in the life of Thandi look like?
6. Are there any exciting projects that you are currently working on?
I’m very excited to be continuing an on-going multi medium body of work I started last year. I’m working on a docu-series and am really excited to be getting the chance to work at home in Zim for that.
Image: photographed by Thandi Gula-Ndebele, art directed by Thandi Gula-Ndebele and Yonela Makoba, styled by Yonela Makoba and make up by Haneem Christian, lighting by John Second
7. Finally, what advice do you have for other young Zimbabweans who aspire to forge a career in Film, a field that lies outside the accepted (Zimbabwean) norm?
I would say that work speaks for itself, so start as early as you can and don’t be afraid to suck or fail. You can’t really fail and only learn with each experience. If you are afraid to be bad at it remember that this is a risk to begin with; it’s better to try and grow from there (P.S “bad” is very relative so don’t beat yourself up if your ideas or style are different from others). If you don’t know if it will work, try it before you decide. Don’t let excuses kill your inspiration, use what you have (you’d be surprised how many mundane things can be a resource), practice and learn your craft and reach out to people so you can learn from them. I also want people to know that not going to film school doesn’t determine whether you can have a career in film or not, experience is a great teacher and so is Youtube. I also want them to love and trust themselves. That will come in handy all the time because it influences the decisions they make as they navigate their career.
I hope that those of you out there hoping to forge a career in film found this insight into Thandi's journey interesting and helpful. Would you like to get in touch? Connect with Thandi on Instagram, Twitter or head over to YouTube to watch a few episodes of The Foxy Five.