The South African director beating Hollywood with local stories
Twenty months ago the South African film industry changed for good. In February 2016, the much-anticipated Thabang Moleya film, Happiness is a Four-letter Word, premiered to an opening-weekend audience that overshadowed receptions for the Hollywood blockbusters beside it. Come Sunday, the romantic drama had been watched by over 45 000 South Africans for ticket sales worth over R2 million, a number which would surpass R5 million within the week. In the course of a weekend, Moleya went from promising talent to superstar.
Growing up in Tembisa township, the director’s first break in the film industry saw him step in front of the lens rather than behind it – he was selected as a KTV presenter shortly after starting high school. Though Moleya dabbled in creating his own content behind the scenes, he took a gap year after school to pursue presenting before deciding to move to Cape Town to study film at City Varsity. His ability was clear from the outset and Moleya collected a host of awards for his work at the institution. But he truly announced himself as a major player in the final year of his course when he was given the opportunity to direct four episodes for the local television series, The Interrogation Room.
“We do have a South African audience… an audience that is very supportive of local content,” Moleya reflects. “Our audience is also very critical. They want good stories told at a high production value.” But it’s not just about budget. “You don’t need a lot of money to make your ideas happen,” he says, insisting that South Africa inspires narratives gripping enough to carry a production. “A lot of the time in my own journey I’ve been my own obstacle.” The key is mindset. Self-belief. Hard work. All things that we as a people are familiar with, traits ingrained deep within us all. And Moleya is shouting it to the rest of the world from the top of Hollywood Hill.