In July 2016, Cape Town filmmaker Jessie Zinn (22) shot her beautiful short film, Sonele, here at the Two Oceans Aquarium. A local charity organisation, the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), commissioned her to make a film about their community outreach programme that, among other things, organises trips to destinations like the Aquarium. Children who benefit from Ria Boweni's soup kitchen in Khayelithsa, with whom the UJW has partnered, are featured in this short film.
Instead of following the usual trajectory of a promotional video – with voiceover and platitudes – Jessie chose to focus on the story of one of the learners who visited the Aquarium. So the film is about one young girl in particular, Sonele: her thoughts, dreams and reflections on what she is seeing at the Aquarium.
Jessie has been receiving a lot of attention in the press. One of her short films, Into Us and Ours was selected for the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Festival (2016) and her documentary Umva received a major award in the United States of America – Best Experimental Documentary at the 2016 Virginia Film Festival. Both films have been travelling the international film festival circuit and won numerous awards.
Watch Sonele, which includes moving narration and stunning images (shot right here at the Aquarium) below:
We grabbed some of Jessie's time to find out more about her process.
Two Oceans Aquarium: How did you go about choosing Sonele for the film’s subject?
Jessie Zinn: As I come from a character-driven filmmaking background I suggested that we create a piece that revolves around one specific child at the Aquarium, to make it more personal. Once we got to the Aquarium, Ria had chosen three girls who were interested and excited to be on camera, and after chatting to Sonele I decided to go with her as we got along well and she was very natural on camera.
It's important for me to have a good relationship with the people in my films and I chose Sonele because she was comfortable with me filming her and chatting to her.
TOA: What stood out about the day for you, in terms of Sonele and the other children’s experience of the Aquarium?
JZ: They seemed to be in awe of the exhibits and the space. For most of them it was their first time at the Aquarium, and I think that it's a beautiful thing to witness children experience anything new for the first time.
There were a lot of kids in the background but it was interesting to see the way that they would all go quiet in certain rooms or exhibits (like the Jelly Gallery).
TOA: Tell us about the experience of filming at the Aquarium – did you find it challenging, and how did you overcome those challenges?
JZ: The most challenging thing was time. I only had a few hours to film Sonele. I didn't want to keep her apart from the rest of the group for too long. However, part of the idea was to feature a single child, alone, in the spaces while her voiceover narration explains her feelings (you'll see from the video that many shots feature her alone in the Aquarium). So I had to work very quickly.
We did the interview and voiceovers separately in a quieter location during lunch, which was a very organic process. Sonele talked about what we had just witnessed and filmed and spoke a bit about her life, her hopes, dreams and aspirations and so on.
The main technical issues were due to lighting. For example, filming in the Jelly Gallery was difficult because of the low-light conditions (it's almost pitch black in there). I used small portable lights to light her face in these kinds of rooms.
TOA: How did the Aquarium as a location influence your creative choices for this piece?
JZ: I have always loved the Aquarium and have always wanted to shoot something there. It was pure luck and chance that the place the UJW selected for the outing was one of the most cinematic ones in Cape Town!
In terms of my filmmaking, location is incredibly important - it is not just a place or space. I try to tie location into the actual story, themes and meanings. For Sonele the location of the Aquarium serves as a type of metaphor for some of her dreams and experiences: for example, in the film she talks about wanting to be like a fish so she can swim around freely, at whatever time of night she wants.
The fish tanks and acrylic walls around the Aquarium also serve as neat metaphors for different ways of “seeing” and “observing”, and the way in which we as South Africans look at each other.
There are so many documentaries about South Africa that “gaze” at children with a very observational lens. In this film I wanted to do the exact opposite. Sonele is the subject who is in charge of the camera's gaze: we follow her through the Aquarium and gaze at the sea creatures from her own perspective. It is important for me as a woman filmmaker to challenge ways of “seeing” by reversing the cinematic gaze.
TOA: What’s keeping you busy at the moment?
JZ: As an independent filmmaker, the truth is that I am always working on a few projects simultaneously. I am currently developing a documentary on school bathrooms and gendered health issues titled Can I Please Go to the Bathroom? In addition to this, I am writing a feature screenplay that is a coming of age story set in Cape Town titled Rust Work. Both of these films deal with issues young South African women face, presented through character-driven and personal stories.
If anyone is interested in either project you can contact me through my email address email@example.com.
TOA: Why are these stories that you choose to tell, important to tell? What do you hope to accomplish by focusing your talents on this kind of social subject matter?
JZ: For me, the essence of any project or film I work on is story: is it a good story? Is it compelling? What does it say? These questions are, of course, intrinsically linked to my identity as a born-free South African woman. I was born in 1994 and so many of my films focus on born-free women and the issues some of them face (whether political, social, or gendered) because that is the perspective and experience from which I come from.
I hope that the films I make help to challenge stereotypical ideas in the media and inspire young women to empower themselves in whatever way it be (whether at home, school or in the workplace).
But I also think it's great to make films with female leads because that's what a lot of women crave to see - to be able to watch a character that you may identify with is an incredibly empowering thing and I hope that some of my films are able to do that.
Every time I see another young woman filmmaker making films, I get really excited and inspired. And that's kind of what filmmaking is all about: inspiring, uplifting and entertaining people. And why shouldn't women be included in that equation?
How to contribute
As an indepenent filmmaker, Jessie is open to accepting funding. Please email her should you be interested in supporting her work in this way.
To find out more about Ria's soup kitchen and the UJW, please contact them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.