Writer-director-producer Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi’s short film Lost in the World is a revenge thriller rearranged to disorienting effect. The South African film tells its story of police officer Whitney’s (Honey Makwakwa) quest for vigilante justice as a series of narrative jigsaw pieces, provoking the viewer to join its confused protagonist in piecing together a fractured past after the death of her girlfriend.
With Lost in the World featuring on the New Queer Visions shorts compilation, Lust in Translation, we spoke to Nhlabatsi about this new short.
What was your experience in cinema prior to Lost in the World?
My experience in cinema before this film is the South African experience, which is, you do it all. Our industry is still relatively small so cinema includes television, corporate/commercial work and music videos. I’ve been fortunate enough to have directed a TV film called Ke’Jive for Mzansi Magic, assisted on a couple of commercials, edited for several reality TV shows and have done a lot of corporate videos (events, activations, promos and sit down interviews) for companies such as E! Entertainment and BET.
What made you decide to tell this story in a nonlinear fashion?
The reason for the nonlinear fashion of the film is that I wanted the audience to embody Whitney’s feelings of disillusionment, of being lost and of questionable sanity. So, like her, you are second guessing what is happening while trying to follow the narrative.
Do you feel it’s necessary that viewers work out all the details of the plot in order to fully appreciate the film or does some of the enjoyment come in the mystery and confusion?
Good question, a close friend who saw the film watched it twice and only got the complete plot after that, so that was great! But no I don’t think the audience needs to follow every single detail of plot to get the film. Although it’s a kind of test of the audience’s resilience to pay attention and unravel the story for themselves.
Could you name any creative influences for this film?
Creative Influences: I could write an entire essay on this! As a kid I always loved detective shows and my favourite one by far was Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. I grew up in a household where the majority of the family were women and my grandmother was the matriarch/boss lady. So I wanted to watch women excel in film and TV in the ’90s but that was seldom the case; instead the imagery of women was usually to just be looked at or have no agency whatsoever because she didn’t have a boyfriend or husband, essentially promoting basic bitchery. I never understood this representation ’cause those were not the women I knew. For Lost in the World I wanted to homage that intelligent, pragmatic, self-sufficient, goal-orientated female character. Influences came from films such as Kill Bill (my personal favourite QT film), Terminator 2: Judgement Day with Sarah Connor, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and of course Ripley from the Alien franchise. Television influence was Xena Warrior Princess.
Within its short running time, Lost in the World suggests an eventful history for its lead that goes beyond what we see onscreen. What was your process for helping actress Honey Makwakwa understand and internalise the complex story of her character?
Yes, very much so. Honey and I started off as friends way before I considered doing the film. We would speak about random things but mostly the topics would relate to obvious double standards that women face. From early on, I understood my male privilege, especially ’cause I have a twin sister and I’d watch how people would treat us differently even though I thought we were equal. This inside knowledge of Honey as a person was the great decider in casting her. For developing the character, Honey and I would chat about Whitney, I’d explain the character and Honey would ask varying questions about her. I gave Honey Kill Bill to watch and would leave her to it. I think it was almost a full year before we shot and most of our conversations would be around Whitney in that time. It was a long and organic process.
Do you consider South Africa to be a generally fruitful nation for LGBT cinema? The work of Oliver Hermanus springs to mind.
No, I don’t think it is. South Africa has a great inclusive constitution but that only works well if the people are open to it. The main reason for making this film was to show this discrepancy. ‘Corrective Rape’ is the deluded idea that you can rape a lesbian woman in hopes to turn her straight. I was assisting German journalists who were here under the guise of showcasing the all-lesbian football team that went over to Germany to compete, when really they wanted to look at ‘Corrective Rape’. Through that I learnt that most cases went unsolved for whatever reason. The victims were left with nothing and no hope or vested interest in finding justice. Lost in the World is my weapon of choice to force a light on this and, in some miniscule way, maybe give victims a feeling that, even though they haven’t gotten justice, they are not alone and can find solace that other people are thinking of them. Hopefully more people who are aware of this will translate to greater pressure on all of us to not allow this.
Have you been working on anything else since this film? What does the future hold?
Yes, currently we’re busy developing a new short film called Into Infinity about a young woman’s determination to see if there’s life after death. A web series about the people of Braamfontein from the people who actually live there and not just the tourist/party/art scene angle. A friend of mine and I have been developing a feature film since varsity about the seedy underworld of Johannesburg called Nefarious Creatures. Plus we have a slate of films planned all the way to 2020! So now it’s about getting funding and challenging the state of South African cinema to the world.