Interview with Scottnes L. Smith
He Scott This – An interview with Film Director Scottnes L. Smith
His name is Scottnes L. Smith (the L will remain a mystery); a local treasure born in Johannesburg. He is first and foremost, an artist, inspired by narratives derived from cultures around the world, including his own backyard. As a seasoned nomad, Scottnes L. Smith is no stranger to international waters, having studied in Helsinki and Melbourne where he currently resides.
Scottnes is making waves in the local and international circuit. His resume continues to grow, with a debut feature film (Hear Me Move) and vast collection of TV series’ (Vaya Mzansi, Remix, Thula’s Vine, Guilt) already under his belt, as well as an original 6-part Netflix series coming out in April 2021 (Jiva!). Having collaborated with Scottnes on a recent Compral campaign, we jumped at the opportunity to find out what makes this African filmmaker tick, why young South Africans need to dream bigger, and the secret ingredient to his mom’s Christmas trifle.
1. Tell us a bit about Scottnes Smith?
So it’s a funny name, right? I get all the jokes – “knock, knock. Who’s there? Scottnes. Nah never heard of him”. Scotty doesn’t know jokes or, you know, “Scott nothing to do with you”. All of that stuff.
But my name is Scottnes. My dad came across this artist in the early eighties called Cecil Skotnes. He’s a black consciousness artist, although he comes from abroad, and he kind of thought that was a cool name. The artistic nature has always been, you know, pretty much destined.
I am a director and a producer. Half of my childhood was in Eldorado Park and the other half in Observatory: Two opposite sides of Joburg. I trained at WITS, Arcada University in Helsinki and then at the University of Melbourne. I’m an eighties baby who grew up in the State of Emergency in South Africa.
I’ve got this artist side of things, but I’ve also got this upbringing that talks a lot about culture as a weapon. Culture, as capital, and culture as a tool to share truths about the human condition. Since culture is all about story, I guess I’m all about story. Culture is the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, to make sense of ourselves, and our place in it. So, yeah, I’m a director and a producer with a weird name and I’m all about story. I think that’s my vibe.
2. Tell me about the concept of using narratives as a cultural weapon?
It all comes down to that concept of, to the Victor go not only the spoils, but until lion’s get to tell their story of the hunt, the hunt will always glorify the Hunter. I think culture as a weapon is the way in which one is able to understand oneself, your place in time, your community, and a way to tell the stories about those people, which gives you the tools and the weapons to be able to broaden your impact.
So in a South African context, culture has been weaponized. The terms we use from a racial and socioeconomic, and even gender point of view are violent, and because they are still violent, and because our history is so violent, we need to take our ownership back of those weapons through our stories, to undo that violence. What that means is being assertive. It means being aggressive, and it means being real about who you really are.
It’s a weird little paradox. The deeper you go into understanding who you are, the more you realize we are all one. The one that’s inside of us. The one that creates for itself and by itself. We’re all meshed into this moment, and funnily enough, the moment is now. The moment is before, the moment is what’s yet to come. We are so connected. So culture as a weapon is really going to undoing what has been done to you so that you can speak truth to the people that come after.
3. When did you first realize that filmmaking was your choice of play?
I’ve got this really old memory. For some reason, my parents and I were at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. I was like three or two years old. There was a choir singing and I remember walking by being fascinated by the singers, the music and the theatre that was going on. That was where my love for the theater and storytelling came from.
And then I went through the course of schooling and around 16 years old, my dad, who has always been one of my biggest supporters in the space of storytelling, moved across to Saudi Arabia for work. I suddenly thought “how was I going to share what I do with my dad?” That’s when I discovered the old-school home mini-VHS video recorder. I realized that this little, small cassette tape could overcome the barriers of distance and time, which allowed me to share my journey in the arts with my dad.
That fascination just broadened, and broadened, and broadened from there. Film is a shorthand with the ability to compress space and time. The magic of being in that space of theatre was able to be transported across the world. When I was in matric, I stole my parents’ Hyundai and got together with my friends and a couple of other schools, and we made a film which was my first feature called “Childhood”. I’ve never looked back since then.
4. Did studying abroad help influence and shape your decision to become a full-time filmmaker?
I loved this idea of globalism from a young age. It was funny because I hated it when I was a kid. I hated leaving home, but in order to undo that hatred and fear of missing out at home, I just threw myself into international waters. I did an exchange course program at Arcada University of Technology. It was to create a series of documentaries with some colleagues from that school as well as Helsinki University, AFDA and WITS alma mata. That was my first introduction into international filmmaking.
Eventually finished my degree and came back to Joburg and started my own production company called Coal Stove Pictures. I worked on that for a while and continued to push on until I decided to go back and study at the University of Melbourne where I did my post-grad over there. When I got to Melbourne, I was like, “oh my goodness”. This is such a fascinating, crazy place with great coffee.
Because I believe in this African excellence and globalism, generally, I made the decision to make it another base. So I’m partly in Melbourne, partly in Joburg and Cape town.
5. What is your favorite thing about filmmaking?
I think my absolute favorite thing about filmmaking is how a film crew and the cast are like a little army. I think it is the closest thing we get to being in combat. You arrive on some location somewhere and you take it over for a moment, and you’ve got this “by any-means-necessary” approach. Whether you are in the grips department, or in front of the camera. Whether you’re the DOP or in the production office, we all come together to create something that lasts for a minute, in one instance, but forever in another.
It’s the comradery for me. I dig the “we can get it done” attitude about filmmaking and teamwork. It’s one of the greatest team sports. It’s crazy.
6. What sort of narratives do you like telling?
I really love stories about characters that overcome insurmountable odds. I’m always for the little guy. I love how we have that hero’s-journey-thing going on in those kinds of narratives. Storytelling is a way for us to understand the world around us. The reason why the hero’s journey works, and is in all cultures around the world, is because its structure mirrors how humans problem solve.
And that problem-solving ability is why our species has been so successful at dominating the planet. Whatever your feelings are on that, the formula works: You have to forget everything you know in order to solve this problem. And you have to grow in doing that. You have to confront the bad, and the root of this problem until you finally learn the new solution. That’s the basis of every story, but it’s also the basis of problem-solving itself.
Stories about characters that overcome seemingly impossible odds are inspiring because they talk to our internal operating system, which in turn clicks into something even deeper: our emotions. The satisfaction of seeing someone overcome something amazing is so emotional. It speaks to our humanity and creates hope, which keeps growing and burning and reinventing itself.
7. How did you end up collaborating with MR Films on Compral?
Compral was really interesting. Myself and Kabelo have had a relationship since WITS days. We’ve been friends for years, and we bumped into each other in Cape Town about a year and a half ago at First Thursday.
We started talking and we said that we should really collaborate because we’ve got some great chemistry. And then another friend of mine reached out to say, “Hey, Compral is doing this redo of a campaign that they ran a couple of years ago. Would you be keen?”
My production company, Coal Stove, reached back out to KB and suggested we team up with MR Films, and that’s how we come together. What was most interesting for us is what it could mean for the future? Coal Stove’s background has always been long-form film production while MR Films has a massive background in film production services for commercials, so it was really exciting to team up and do something cool.
I do love the team. They’re a special bunch. Earl is incredible. At the time I wondered “who is this guy with the big hair?” He is like a fireball of energy and determination. I actually need some more of this guy in my life.
8. What have you been busy with in 2020?
In the middle of last year, I got a call from some people who suggested I come and meet Netflix. The project is called Jiva, and Jiva is a show about a young woman who has to form a crew of dancers in order to get back at her ex from years ago, and win this dance competition. Two years ago, I did a film called Hear Me Move, so Jiva was kind of a natural fit.
At the end of last year, around October, I had a show in Cape town and we started pre-production. We went right through production of the first leg. And then on a Sunday, while I was away from the shoot for that one day for my sister’s wedding, our President got onto the national stage and said “my fellow South Africans” for the first time.
The project went into a hiatus for six months. I’ve just now, at the end of October, come back to conclude Jiva which includes exciting dance influences like gqom and pantsula, traditional African dance that has influenced international acts and being assimilated into pop culture. The first season is a 6-part series and will go on the streaming service right across the world. It’s super exciting because it’s an official Netflix original, which is the third after Queen Sono and Blood and Water.
It’s been so exciting coming back onto this project to finish up. During the down period, I also used the opportunity to use stock footage together with some conversations I’d had with artist friends of mine from around the world to create a short social video, talking about the muse, and how artists are the muse for society. How we reflect and inspire society to grow, to shift, to change, to explore and to create.
Art is so fundamental to who we are, and to who the members of society are.
Watch You Are the Muse here. Created by Scottnes L. Smith
9. What does 2021 have in store for Scottnes?
I’m super excited about a project called The Father Son Rule. It’s about an Australian rules football player who is actually from South Africa. She finds herself at the helm of a football dynasty and finds her family through that. That project is in development and early prep. It’s something that I’m really keen on as it’s been bubbling for years.
There’s also a musical project that we’re working on right now. I can’t say too much about it but it’s going to be another beautiful, original African tale in development.
10. What are some of the challenges that South African filmmakers are facing?
I think the industry needs a lot of work on racial and gender equality. I also think South African filmmakers have this challenge of really embracing creativity. It’s difficult to think in terms of really pushing boundaries and dreaming big when it seems like you’ve got limited resources, which can often be the case for filmmakers in South Africa because of all economics.
I think embracing real creativity (and this is the best kind) is when creativity is not in the concept alone, but in its execution with those limited resources front of mind as well. What can come out of that, if you really, truly are being creative, is that you find simpler, more efficient and elegant ways with your means to tell a bigger story.
And that genius is what the audience responds to. I think that the challenge of the industry is really to deepen its creative output. I don’t know how we’re going to do that, but I know when you see it done, it’s going to be gold.
Some Fun Facts about Scottnes L. Smith:
- Favorite food as an adult: Mozambique Spicy Prawns
- Favorite food as a kid: Mom’s Christmas Trifle (with Tennis Biscuits)
- Your favorite colour: Red (for Fire)
- Best movie ever: So tough! Skyfall, Creed, Avatar, City of God and GoodFellas
- Your favorite film project and why: Hear Me Move. It was my first big break and my team was amazing
- Best movie quote: “A gun, and a radio? Not exactly Christmas, is it Mr. Bond?” – Skyfall
- Must read book: The Alchemist
- What are you listening to: “Expensive Shit” Fella Cutie “Act 2: The Love of My Love” The Roots, Got To Give it Up Marvin Gaye
- Favorite song lyric: “Let’s get it on”
- Favorite artist: Myles Davis, Blue and Green
- Best artist: Banksy
- Most exciting country you shot in and why: South Africa because it’s home and Scotland for the people and history
- Favorite City you shot in and why: Cape Town. Anything is possible (close second, Prague)
- True or False. There is no place like home: True.
- The most memorable thing someone has ever said to you: “You die once. You live every day.”
- The biggest challenge you have had to overcome: Starting over (in reference to the move to Melbourne)
- The best decision you ever made in your life: My partner. We have a beautiful family.
- Who should we follow on instagram: @ntombimoyo
- If someone gave you 1 billion dollars, what would you do with it: I would build a family center. And then bring families from around the world for a two-week holiday consisting of workshops, community building, pampering and legacy sharing. A place to tell their stories and archives….and then I am going to buy a whole bunch of sports cars.
- Favorite thing about adulting: I don’t have a favourite thing about adulting. It was cool being a kid.
- Least favorite thing about adulting: Having to decide what to eat.