Lavinia Tukuhole Tunga Kapewasha is the writer, director and star of her latest film – Iitandu. She spoke with Masiyaleti Mbewe about her creative processes, her exceptional crew and her recent time spent in LA.

Lavinia Kapewasha (Credit Willem Vrey)

Very few works produced in Namibia have had the harrowingly accurate foresight that the short and visually stunning film Iitandu has. As I write this, the country is currently on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A threat hangs in the air; we might regress as a society and retreat into an individualistic panic that could possibly hurl us into the dystopian, post-apocalyptic worlds we’ve only ever thought of as abstract fictional constructions. Iitandu, much like Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower (1993), vividly outlines the realities of an ominously close near-future without sugarcoating the hard pill we are going to have to swallow. The world as we know it canwill and has…changed. Works like Iitandu remind us of the many lessons that we could learn from young African creatives. I spoke with the film’s writer and director, twenty-six-year-old Lavinia Tukuhole Tunga Kapewasha about how she uses elements of Afrofuturism to explore, reclaim and reshape the difficult themes of our challenging times within an industry that’s also riddled with misogynoir.

How much has your background influenced your work?

I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a multicultural world. I grew up in Russia, India, South Africa and a little bit in England. My childhood was adventurous, a tad chaotic and very vibrant. Being a third-culture kid, you’re exposed to the vastness of the world from an early age so it gives you tools that help you navigate and assimilate in different spaces. It makes you confident because you have to overcome barriers. Adapting becomes second nature.

How has this assimilation shaped your identity? 

I always thought my childhood taught me not to think of myself as only Namibian but as a citizen of the world; I now stand corrected. In fact, I feel it has taught me to know my roots evermore. Growing up, I felt really de-stabilized and disconnected from my land, as though I was split into two and constantly fighting two identities. But I realise it cultivated a need to make work that was firstly Namibian and in a larger context, African. Now that I know myself and understand my roots, even though they’re confused, I know them. This duality was  something that I agonized over but later learnt from.

When did you get your start in film? 

I studied theatre and performance at university. My degree really was broad. Even though it concentrated on technique and theory in regards to theatre, we got the chance to dabble in film a bit. I think I intuitively taught myself because of my obsession with TV and film as a child. It was only after I discovered that I enjoyed bringing stories to life visually that I understood how I’d always had a passion for being in front of the camera and behind the scenes as well.

Let’s talk about Iitandu. What is it about? 

Iitandu is a short film that we made in 2019. It’s science-fiction and set in a post-apocalyptic Namibia after a viral pandemic. We meet a young doctor named Mwadinhomo who lives in southern Namibia and is trying to survive by any means necessary, so that she can make it back up north. In this version of Namibia, the country is divided, so being from the north and living in the south is considered taboo. The short film is just a snippet of a broader idea of this world I want to create. Ideally, this is a TV show.

Assistant Director Charles Zambwe and Actress Jennifer Timbo (Credit Masiyaleti Mbewe)

What does the title mean? 

Iitandu means pieces in Oshiwambo. I usually hate naming projects but “Iitandu” spoke to me during the writing process. I questioned who we are as people. I questioned what things of meaning and sentimental value we would take with us if the world as we know it were to end. These would be the puzzle pieces that would encapsulate someone. 

What were you working on before your started on Iitandu?

I worked on a passion project with my fellow Dark Crown Productions partner, Jenny Kandenge, on a little series we concocted called Untitled ­– The Web Series. Both Jenny and I haven’t been to film school, so inadvertently, this was our film school. We wrote it together; she produced, I directed, and we had a wonderful team and cast that helped bring it to fruition on a teeny tiny budget. We have another short film that we worked on however,due to an unfortunate series of events, the project will be delayed.

‘I had the most incredible crew. They understood the vision so I didn’t have to stress – even though time was a bitch’

You also star in Iitandu, how did you navigate the two roles while making this film?

It was a task. I’m not too sure if I was mentally prepared for the reality of being behind and in front of the camera – bearing in mind, this was my first time. I, however, had the most incredible crew from Charles Zambwe my assistant director, Renier de Bruyn the incredible cinematographer and editor, Mwalengwa Hillebrecht our second assistant director (and first timer as well), Mpingana Dax, the producer extraordinaire, Kulan Ganes the makeup and wardrobe aficionado and the rest of the crew who really held me down. They understood the vision and so I didn’t have to stress – even though time was a bitch.

What was the inspiration for the film? 

I’m a sci-fi fanatic and a huge Afrofuturism lover and so the creatives I look to are writers, filmmakers and photographers. Of course, mother Octavia Butler has influenced my work astoundingly. Her words are a joy to read; they take you elsewhere. Alfonso Cuarón really inspired me, especially with his film Children of Men (2006);  I studied his visual language a bit for the short film. Rungano Nyoni, the director of I am Not A Witch (2017) is an amazing Zambian filmmaker. I loved her use of colour and pace. This helped me look at how I could enhance my story through blocking and colour.

Lavinia Kapewasha preparing to shoot a scene for Iitandu (Credit Masiyaleti Mbewe)

What’s your personal definition of Afrofuturism and does it tie into the making of Iitandu

I like how this question is framed because we do have a wider “definition,” but I think Afrofuturism is individualistic. It can mean something to you and mean something different to me. I see it as us Africans reclaiming and retelling our narrative and allowing ourselves to express ourselves in the past, present and future. As we all know, our history hasn’t been that well documented, nor have we been depicted fairly or allowed to fantasize.

Did films like District 9 by Neill Blomkamp or Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu have any impact on your work? 

They really did. Especially when creating a science-fiction world from an African context. The majority of science-fiction work is western-centric. It’s never really through the African gaze. Watching District 9 brought it closer to home because it was based in South Africa. But Pumzi allowed me to think out of the box; it made me realise that we are our biggest barrier. It allowed me to think of contemporary African issues and  heighten them, like our water crisis. Pumzi really was a piece of groundbreaking work that also had a Black woman as a lead, which has not been the case in many science-fiction films.

How did the writing and shooting process go?

The Namibian Film Commission had a week-long workshop with Cecil Moller and all the shortlisted candidates for their Film and Video Fund. Cecil helped us refine our writing skills and we worked on our stories. Thereafter, many rewrites and discussions over wine with Mpinagana Dax helped produce the final script we filmed with. The shooting had many ups and downs. We shot one day in February (2019), then over a day and a half a month later. We had tremendous help from Romeo Sinkala who sketched out the world for us. He was our conceptual artist. Risto Iita created the gun, which was the springboard for the look and feel of everything else really. If it wasn’t for those two, we couldn’t have been able to build Iitandu’s world. Then we worked with Fallone Tambwe who made the costumes and did a fantastic job; I gave her words and she was a sorceress wielding them.

Actor Charl Botha, Cinematographer Renier de Bruyn and sound engineer Shafa Shaimemanya (Credit Masiyaleti Mbewe)

What were the production realities that you had to navigate in order to still end up with Iitandu?

As a writer, you can try and create something out of your imagination, but putting it into practice with the production restrictions is a slap in the face, especially when you’re an overly-ambitious first-timer. I wrote the role for myself, but finding the other two cast members was difficult because of scheduling and travel conflicts. Thankfully, we wound up with Jennifer Timbo and Charl Botha, who were absolutely great to work with. Setting, locations and dressing were a huge factor because Iitandu is a period piece. It’s set a few years into the future so trying to find the closest semblance to a post-apocalyptic Namibia was another task. We are inundated with resources via the internet, and there were so many references but actually finding the location, here in Namibia was something that I overlooked while writing. If we didn’t find the Scrap Salvage or stumble upon the little shelter for Mwadinhomo at Camp Gecko in Spreegshogte, I don’t know what we would’ve done. It seemed like the universe let us stumble upon everything by chance. It aligned so well that it worked for the film. We were lucky.

What were some of the biggest challenges?

We had so many unforeseen circumstances and a series of unfortunate events that lead us to race against the clock and rush to shoot everything before the sun set. We had to make a lot of compromises. The beauty of editing is that you can piece things together and create a puzzle to your liking. Editing really saved this film; it gave us the chance to add more context through filling the gaps.

How different was your original vision for the film from how it eventually turned out?

The first draft of this script was completely different. To be honest, it seemed more like a western than anything else. The script needed a lot of re-writes. It was gimmicky if I say so myself because there was no context thematically.

If you were to shoot it again, what would you do differently?

The entire ending. We were pressed for time so we rushed because we were chasing the sunset. There are a few moments that I missed which could’ve added more gravitas to the ending. 

‘It’s a strange experience when art imitates life … The short didn’t predict this as much as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion did’

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, with the COVID-19 outbreak, something your short film sort of forewarned. What lessons do you think people can take away from Iitandu?

It’s a strange experience when art imitates life or life imitates art. The short didn’t predict this as much as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) did. This is a natural occurrence that’s been happening for aeons; we just found ourselves in the virus’s timeline. Iitandu really tackles traditionalism versus modernity. And what we really wanted to communicate was how we should never forget the past and our roots. We lived holistically and in harmony with nature before all the human advancement and greed; we’ve really put the world and nature through so much. We just have to remember that this is not ours. We are here just to borrow like every other creature, and I think humans have forgotten that. We’ve interfered with nature’s cycles and in Iitandu the consequences of human greed and capitalism cause the viral outbreak. We all just need to take a step back and see what we’re doing to the planet.

How has your work been received?

Iitandu has been received well. There has been criticism and that has been very helpful. I’ve received a lot of interest in the cinematic world for the film; people are really intrigued and want to learn more of what happened to the characters and what other people in the film’s version of Namibia are facing. That’s a win because that was the intention, to create interest around the idea of Iitandu being a TV show.

The Iitandu film crew (Credit Masiyaleti Mbewe)

Who do you think you make films for?

For Namibians, Africans and the world. I firstly want to make films or TV shows to entertain Namibians because we have to start consuming our own media and hold the baton for our home-grown creatives.

What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to deal with as a Black woman making films in Namibia?

The undermining. We’re all aware of the disparities in all industries, and especially in the film world. There’s sort of apprehension because I’m a woman; not only that, I’m a Black woman. I’ve seen and experienced a few looks here and there from people that are shocked or not convinced of my abilities. But all you have to do is not let it stall you or hold you back – you have to keep working.

What are your general thoughts of the Namibian film space?

It is growing in terms of project production but also there’s a new interest in Namibian film. A lot more voices are coming up. I’m excited to see young people breaking through and telling their stories. We are of course all eating from a very tiny piece of the pie, but I think we need to get to a point where we are collaborating and not fighting for the scraps. That’s what will help the industry and creatives grow.

You were also in Los Angeles for a bit. What was that like? 

Iitandu was fortunate enough to be chosen to play at the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), which was a huge surprise for me and my producer, Mpingana. PAFF highlights and celebrates art and works by artists and filmmakers from all over the world, focusing on the African, Pan-African, Diaspora and Black experience. It was a definite highlight in my little career. It was most humbling and an educational experience because you always think that the grass is greener on the other side, however, all filmmakers, regardless of where they are, are experiencing the same obstacles and hurdles. Funding is everyone’s biggest grievance, and even the filmmakers from Los Angeles (which was always the mecca) have to fight for funding to bring their projects to fruition. I also learnt that everyone is making work on a small budget but they’re making work that is outstanding. I want all young Namibian filmmakers to learn that you can make a project on a next to nothing budget, but from the hard work, perseverance and devotion, you can make your own masterpiece.

Actress Jennifer Timbo, make-up artist Kulan Ganes and producer Mpingana Dax behind the scenes of Iitandu (Credit Masiyaleti Mbewe)

How have your personal beliefs on certain issues been addressed in your work?

Iitandu was a love letter to Namibia. It came from a need to look at our past, present and future with all the issues that we face today. It doesn’t touch on one social theme or idea, it touches on many, so in some ways, it does reflect the society we live in. If you look deeper into the metaphors and symbolism in the film, you’ll see it addresses colonialism and the ramifications of it; something that is still a disheartening presence in Namibia today. For Untitled – The Web Series, we put in a lot of our own personal experiences. In particular, the contemporary African artist’s experience. As one myself, I feel we’re constantly trying to reach a status quo, one that is driven of course by capitalism because we have to make a living, but as African artists with limited resources, it’s difficult. Artists are undermined and underpaid, and we stress that in the show quite a bit because it’s something we (Jenny and I) have experienced. Being a broke artist ain’t cute.

Are there certain qualities that make a film great for you?

If a film doesn’t work, then it’s because of the story. A film is a book with visual aid. If the story does not grip me from the onset, then I’m not sold. That means every component of the film has to aid the story, from the actor’s breath to the the crispness of the shot or the painting on the wall – the art direction. If it does not aid the story then it’s a no from me.

What can we expect from you in future?

Jenny and I are currently writing Untitled Season 2, the series that follows Namibian artists. It’s our baby and for the second season, we really want to dig deeper into the scene and follow our characters as they experiment and live through the upheavals of Namibian society. I’m constantly thinking of ideas and writing. If a certain character speaks to me and if there is something socio-political that I feel Namibian audiences need and ought to see and experience, I put it on paper. I’m a slow writer, so it takes a while.

What advice do you have for any young and aspiring directors who want to get started?

Start small and just do it. We’ve heard the just do it line many times, but it is the only thing we can do as creatives. Write that screenplay for your hour-and-a-half-long feature film but start small. Start with a minute-long short, create it, work with your team and edit. After that, you’ll be able to learn from what that experience has taught you and you’ll make better films.