I am Woman: Leap of Faith. A powerful title for a powerful series. Two episodes into the 26-parter being screened on SABC3, and South Africans are riveted to the inspiring stories of women who have had to, for one reason or another, take a ‘leap of faith’. TheMediaOnline caught up with producer Lauren Groenewald of Plexus Films, who is part of a collective of women – and men – involved in making these South Africa stories. Each episode takes viewers on the subject’s life-changing experience, and how they faced their greatest challenges.
- How did you find these extraordinary women? And once found, how did you sift through the stories and select them?
Lisa (Chait, the presenter) has been keeping eyes and ears to the ground sniffing out amazing stories for the past few months on the ground and online. We had also found a number of women when we first pitched the series to the SABC almost three years ago and we have kept up with them. Lisa’s years in radio and people she has crossed paths with also offered us some really good women to explore. Lisa and Antoinette Engel, our research assistant, have strong networks, so the word was put out online and through personal visits to organisations and women’s networks by Lisa. When people hear what we are doing they always say “oh you have to contact so and so”….and we do.
- I know I received an email from someone telling me about the series, and asking me if I knew suitable women. Was crowd-sourcing an element of the search for stories?
The only crowd sourcing we did – of a type – was using group emails, Facebook and social media networks to get the word out. It worked amazingly for us. People sent our request out through their networks because they love the project and what it is exploring about life’s journey. It’s such a great feeling to know that there were so many people supporting the search. We used networks like the Fine Women BusinessNetwork.
- What kind of stories are you telling?
The profiles feature every day women who have handled a situation of crisis in an extraordinary way; taking a LEAP OF FAITH to create a new reality. The women we feature are of course strong women with remarkable stories but the telling is as important as the story. We are trying to uncover the source of the strength of these women and trying to understand their LEAP OF FAITH. There are some giant leaps like the story of Diana Motsitsi who has to say goodbye to her daughter and hello to her son, as her daughter Mbali transitions from being a women to a man called Themba. All her life, nurse Diana Motsisi, the woman known as South Africa’s Lady Di, had wanted a baby girl. She certainly loved her three strapping sons but still, each night, prayed that she’d be blessed with a child whom she could dress up in girlie clothing and gift with dolls.
Sure enough, baby Mbali eventually entered her shining, hopeful world. So began a journey that saw Diana’s transformation from that which she had always wanted to that which she eventually chose to accept. When she received a letter from teenage Mbali to say that she was not a girl but a boy trapped in a woman’s body Diana reeled. Mbali, vice head girl of her school and a popular child who had always been a tomboy, told Diana that if she could not accept this she would take her life. There was no turning back and Diana and Mbail’s lives began to change forever. With a courage born from a deep love for her child, and facing community and family scorn, Diana said goodbye to her daughter and welcomed home a son, openly supporting Mbali’s efforts to realign her gender and transform into Themba. This beautiful story illustrates the power of a mothers love for her child and the magnificence of her refusal to abandon him. Diana’s journey of acceptance and personal transformation will leave you deeply moved. In this episode you’ll also discover how Diana’s wish for a daughter finally did come true.
- Do they relate to women across the spectrum of SA society? In which ways?
We journey with women from all over South Africa – our characters range in spiritual conviction and in age – we meet amongst others: a middle class nurse from Kew in Johannesburg who’s daughter transitions and becomes a man, an ex-policewoman and community leader from Mitchells Plein who leaves her day job to help domestic workers, a young South African free diving champion who has lived in Sweden for nearly a decade and returns home to do conservation work in SA; a loud and proud black lesbian activist from Khayaletsha and a poet, writer, gender activist and spiritual healer from Limpopo.
In the first episode, Tracey Derrick (self portrait below) discovers she has breast cancer. The “free spirit and acclaimed South African photographer’s life is turned upside down and a she has two life changing Leaps of Faith. Our story explores Tracey’s deepest instincts of natural healing and her decision to have chemotherapy. Then Tracey decides to become her own subject, placing herself in front of the camera and powerfully chronicling her experiences.
- Lisa Chait is best known for her radio persona. Is this a leap of faith for her, doing television?
It’s not so much as a leap for Lisa but rather an opportunity to be involved with a new medium, which she was very eager to learn. Lisa tells me the biggest leap has been keeping the faith that the series would actually happen and also learning to sit quietly while our women are sharing their stories to camera. It’s different to radio where there is more real time engagement.
- What were the challenges you faced in shooting the series?
Budget as always. Our research has been very thorough to allow for the limited two days we have in the field with each woman. We are dealing with intimate and personal content and would ideally have like more time with our characters. We then only have five or six days in the edit suite and the directors and the editor have had to have a really clear understanding of each story and each leap before going on location and into the cut. People have been incredibly generous with their very personal journeys.
- Any men on the team?
Of course – we love working across the gender divide – our post-production manager is Tinashe Makwande. Director Llewelyn Roderick has been instrumental in shaping the feel and philosophy of the series. Our soundman is Jabu Msomi and we have also had the pleasure of working with President Kapa in Jozi and we also work with the very talented Tim Wege on camera. Karen Landsberg is our chief camerawoman, my co-producers are Miki Redelinghuys and Lisa Chait. Antoinette Engel is heading up production and also helping with research and Tanja Hagen is our very accomplished editor; her background is in drama and she is bringing a rich perspective to the constructing of the narrative. Izette Mostert and Benitha Vlok are the other two directors on the show.
- How did this concept come about and why is it important?
Lisa Chait brought the idea to Plexus Films after responding to a SABC brief and Miki Redelinghuys and Lisa developed the first draft of the concept. Once we were commissioned the concept developed further and we set out to do a series that does more than profiling women but that rather tries to understand how these women deal with change, struggle and success
- I see SABC 3 is flighting the series. They’ve come in for much criticism from SA producers. What was your experience in persuading the SABC that this was something they needed to show?
The SABC I think are well aware of the difficulties that producers have faced in their dealings with the broadcaster, which range from long waiting periods for contracts to the moratorium on co-productions. One of the main issues over past three years has been the lack of local content being commissioned which has nearly killed the independent industry. We are happy to see some new projects being commissioned as it is part of the SABC’s mandate to help grow the industry as well as reflect local stories. This series has been commissioned and paid for by the Broadcaster.
- Have you a sponsor or how are you financing the series? Costs must be quite high as I imagine there’s travel involved?
This is a straight SABC commission and the budget is tight, but we have a talented and invested team on board.
- Have you a digital strategy?
We are currently setting up our website IAMWOMANSERIES.COM which will be interactive. We are also using social media networks such Facebook. Lisa is also doing her own video blog, which is great because we get to meet the crew and hear from the directors what their thinking is around an episode. We also have a YouTube channel as does the SABC so content will be available online and also long after the first series ends.
I AM WOMAN LEAP OF FAITH is screened on SABC 3 at 9am on Sundays and Mondays.
PHOTO: Hanli Prinsloo, photographed by Jeanne-Marie Ghislaine. This episode explores the life journey of Hanli Prinsloo, 11-times South African freediving record holder and founder of the I Am Water Trust. Join us as we travel deep into the ocean watching Hanli as she swims like a mermaid holding her breath for more than six minutes and diving a record 65m.