Berlinale Talent Series: “Cinema is possible anywhere, and by proxy, anything is possible”

Our final Berlinale Talent, Joshua Magor, grew up in South Africa and graduated from London Film School in 2017 with the feature film ‘We Are Thankful’, which had its world premiere at Locarno and was recently awarded Best Performance at Slamdance. He spoke to us about the profound experience of making this film in his home country, why he chose LFS, and why you should never be afraid of failure.

Sophie McVeigh: What was your journey like from growing up in South Africa to coming to London Film School?

Joshua Magor: I think I first started to play around with film making when I was about 15. I was doing fine art at high school and we had a teacher come in who had made art films. He was actually from London, funnily enough, and everyone else in the class really hated him. They disliked his pessimism and delightful English temperament, but I quite liked it! We became friendly with each other. While the kids were working, we would go to his car and he’d show me records like Aphex Twin and things like that. Then he leant me a video camera – he said, “You can keep this for four months and shoot some stuff and then show me what you did.” That was the first moment that I was able to start thinking in images and with the camera. I felt very excited by that. Not excited enough to do an undergrad - I wanted to study something non-film related because I felt like I would always be making films on the side and I recognised that I was very much an idiot as an 18-year-old, so I wanted to expand my knowledge a bit! I got a scholarship to study English and Economics at the University of Edinburgh. I’d never been to Scotland before, but I decided I’d move from South Africa to study there. I’m from quite a small town in South Africa called Pietermaritzburg and I’d lived there my whole life - suddenly I was living in Scotland. It was exciting to be with so many people Scottish people who have such a lovely vocabulary. I think I learnt the majority of my swear words while I was there! I tried to make films as much as I could on the side – writing, shooting and exploring. I made a few short films and I knew this was what I wanted to do all along – it was just a matter of timing. So, I came to LFS basically right after my undergraduate in Edinburgh.

S.M: And what made you choose London Film School?

J.M: I specifically liked the holistic aspect of it. Perhaps some might say that I’m controlling (laughs), but I think having as much of a mastery or expertise in various different parts of the machine called filmmaking can only aid one in communicating and getting your idea across and having some kind of ability to finesse and guide the project to where it needs to be. So, I was motivated by that – I didn’t want to get stuck in a course where I was learning only directing and not able to learn about other facets. Also, the kinds of films that I’m interested in, and was at the time, were things where it wasn’t so segmented as the professional studio systems are, where everyone has their place and they bow and kneel to the hierarchy. It was a different kind of approach – a bit more fluid. For me, LFS provided that opportunity for some kind of holistic understanding and that was predominantly why I chose it. I was also interested in world cinema and it was an international school, so it was a better fit than some other places.

S.M: What would you say was the most important thing that you gained from your time at LFS and in London?

J.M: Aside from meeting from my wife, who is the light of my life, it was probably the companionship of the people in my cohort. When you come to a school of any kind, a lot of people will be not for you, but some hopefully will be as motivated as you are and have similar ideas about what they want to do, and hopefully, you can be friendly enough and push each other on. I think I was really fortunate that, when I was at the school, I found some like-minded people, interested in working in similar veins as I was, and we became close and pushed each other a lot. We encouraged each other, more than anything, and that was extremely valuable. When you have so many people, all curious, that’s the thing that’s most important – finding new films, finding different ways of working, finding out different things about themselves and life. It’s a very fertile place, to grow yourself and to learn things. So, I think it was that idea of a cohort of like-minded, curious, motivated individuals that was really important.

S.M: Have you carried on working with the people that you met there?

J.M: Yes, most certainly. We’re all still in touch and meet up a lot and are consistently trying to get together to do things and make things happen. The other aspect that comes to mind which was a hugely galvanising thing for me and many of the people who I was friends with was the exposure to world cinema at LFS. That was like thousands of light bulbs firing off in my head. It was very eye-opening, and it was exciting because suddenly the paradigm shifts, and you realise the possibility of cinema can be so much more than you could ever have thought. I’d watched a bit of world cinema before but I’d never seen films from Turkey or Iran before, and I hadn’t seen much Chinese cinema. It was this whole new world that opened up, in that from there I’ve really been trying to search out and find things continually. It’s an ever-deepening path, so that was very exciting.

S.M: Can you tell me about your graduation film, ‘We Are Thankful’ (Siyabonga)? I don’t think many people graduate with a feature film.

J.M: I don’t think they do, and it was a very difficult process. I had wanted to work in long-form much more than I did the short film, so it was a more natural decision to make. In the way that I was working and shooting the film, we had a lot of economies of scale, which were favourable so that we could make a long-form project in a very contained budget. So, it was achievable, it was more about the investment of time. A shit-load of time from the individuals who were involved! (laughs) Luckily, we had the time and we could work on it, but it was a very long and difficult process, and it’s still ongoing with festivals and these kinds of things. We had our world premiere last August at Locarno. The festival run is going really well – we have a very nice screening planned for London soon which will be really exciting. Then we have a couple more in Spain and Morocco – it’s a constant thing. It’s important for us because we believe in the film a lot and we just want to get it out there. We’re under no illusions – it’s a small project but it’s important to make sure that it finds the eyeballs of people.

S.M: What makes the story so important to you?

J.M: I had gone to South Africa, not sure what I was doing, and I was planning to shoot another film. While I was doing this, I was running these workshops for acting and performance. They were open doors, free of charge, and I was encouraging anyone and everyone to come – people from rich neighbourhoods, poor neighbourhoods - we wanted to get a real rich demographic. My idea was not only to transfer some skills but maybe also meet some people who could be good players for the film. One day, I get this email from this anonymous, strange company email. It turns out to be from this guy, Siyabonga Majola. He has borrowed the email account of this charity group he volunteers at, and he's this guy who's writing theatre plays in this township neighbourhood and trying whatever he can to put them on there. He says to me, “I'll do whatever I can, I read this article that you’re making a film in this area and I'll do anything you want. I just want to be a part of this film." So, we agreed to meet a few days later. I was waiting for him to arrive, and he comes in dressed to the nines – his shirt crisp white, his shoes are polished - and I know the area he comes from. It's a low- income neighbourhood, and getting from there to where I was, dressed like that, he would have had many gazes of aspersion cast upon him. It was incredible to feel the determination of this guy who wanted so badly to be a part of this project and would stop at nothing. He revealed these very strong events from his past to me, and the overwhelming effect that it had on me was, wow, this person is really committed to finding a way to better his situation. So that night I was overcome with emotion, brought to tears by this encounter, and I threw away all of the notes that I had written and decided then and there to make a film about this guy. I’m going to make a film about this exact meeting that we had, use all the people from his life and him, and recreate this moment.

S.M: What was his reaction when you told him?

J.M: He was excited, obviously! He was overjoyed. It was a very nice process.

S.M: Has he been able to come to any of the film’s screenings?

J.M: Yes, we managed to bring him to Locarno, which was amazing. It was the first time he’d ever been on an aeroplane and out of this part of this world. It was so sweet because he said the one thing he wanted was a window seat, to see the world from the top. He wanted to know how the birds saw the world. It gives me goosebumps to this day. It was tremendous, and really an unforgettable moment in my life to be there, at this festival, with this guy and to know that physically being there was this insurmountable dream of his that had come to reality. I think that was the ethos of the film, this two-fold statement: that cinema is possible anywhere, and by proxy, anything is possible for people. If cinema can be possible for this guy in this place, then we shouldn’t doubt the possibility of humans.

S.M: Congratulations on being accepted for Berlinale Talents, which you applied for with an extract from ‘Siyabonga’. How did it feel to be chosen?

J.M: I had a few friends and acquaintances who had been selected before but I didn’t know that much about it, other than that it was a program with a lot of prestige and weight and one which is very useful once you’re there, and that connected you with this very powerful network of fellow practitioners and put you within the loop. It can be quite intimidating when you’re not within this flow of festivals and grants and labs, so it felt like a step within that space. I didn’t know what to expect from the application – they ask a lot of questions! There are a few curveballs in there – I think they want to make sure you take it seriously and think independently. I was very excited to hear I’d been accepted – I know that it’s a significant thing. A lot of the filmmakers who I admire or who are starting to break out and have careers have all been part of this Talents programme. I was relieved because it was a goal of mine to get in this year. I was very happy – it’s always nice to be recognised, to show your grandmother that you’re officially talented! (laughs)

S.M: What are your plans for your time in Berlin?

J.M: I’m leaving for Slamdance Film Festival in Utah where the film has its American premiere (as we go to press, Joshua has just announced that Siyabonga Majola won the Best Performance award at the festival) and then going straight from there to Berlin. The Talents program lasts a week and they provide accommodation and some meals. Berlin’s a great city. As part of Talents you have accreditation and are able to go to events and screenings at the Berlinale and I know most of the other LFS students who are attending, so it should be great.

S.M: Are you finding the time to work on any other projects at the moment? 

J.M: You actually caught me as I was writing. I’m just finishing off and am in the development stages of a new feature, which is going to be quite epic in scope but small in detail. It’s called Sea Within a Sea and it’s set in North Africa in Mali, Morocco and Melilla.

S.M: Do you have any advice that you would give to students, both about to come to LFS and those who have just graduated?

J.M: I would encourage them to not listen to me! (laughs) But if they decide to ignore that, my second advice would be to really not care about failure, at all. There will always be another project, and at this time in their careers, they don’t have people on their backs with much expectation.  You can only succeed – even if you fail, you’ll learn a lot. They should try everything – be very ambitious and focus on exhausting all the ideas that they want to do. Don’t be afraid of failing. When you enter LFS, don’t play it safe. Even if you make a total shit-show of a fifth term film, you’ll learn so much more from that than from making something mediocre where you risked nothing and just did things that you knew you could do. Don’t play it safe at all, and go to the cinema a lot. Go every day!

‘We Are Thankful’ will have its UK premiere at the Barbican on March 24th as the closing film of the Barbican’s Chronic Youth Festival. The film will be followed by a screen talk with Joshua Magor – tickets are available

Congratulations to all the team and we can’t wait to see where this fantastic story takes you next!

Photo Credit: TJ Collanto

Written by Sophie McVeigh