Hailing from the townships of Zimbabwe during the time of the Civil War, Sunu has managed in a very short space of time to carve out a career which sounds less like a real life and more like a movie. Actor Spaces had the honour of taking a Coffee Break with the acclaimed filmmaker Sunu Gonera, chatting about his new exciting project Netflix’s Riding With Sugar.
Q: What is your view or thinking around black people telling our black stories?
A: Three things; identity, belonging, family and I’ve always felt very strongly that we need to tell our stories in our own voices, you watch a movie and you don’t identify with it and it’s African that’s because it comes back to you feeling seen. Joshua in Riding with Sugar goes through this very thing as an outsider coming to South Africa, where he is this outsider looking in, as African filmmakers we’ve always been outsiders looking in into our own stories and being told that this is who we are, so for me, I am extremely excited that we have a platform with Netflix where we are able to tell our stories in our way. For me Riding with Sugar has been amazing, I feel heard, I feel like I have a family, a family you choose, rather then you’re born into and as a storyteller I feel I’m in a family where my thoughts matter, my stories matter and my feelings matter, all those things matter, Joshua says that, we all matter. Everybody has a story to tell and Riding with Sugar really is a story of hope and the people around this young man Joshua in Riding with Sugar looking to be family and belonging just like I have in trying to tell Riding with Sugar and it’s been a journey.
Q: Is Riding with Sugar somewhat a way of you giving us a piece of yourself ?
A: It’s very much a piece of myself, I don’t know if I could ever tell a story without bringing myself into it and that’s where us as Africans I think we’ve never been able to bring ourselves into the stories. I grew up in the townships in Zim and we moved out of the townships, I did get an education in a private school and that’s where you see the other side of Olivia, so when you’re living between worlds, got a scholarship to UCT being an outsider looking in again and also those things we went through as kids, they were terrifying times and I’ve being able to talk about these things with my mom and my dad before he passed away, because we grew up very unsettled – . where do I belong? Do I belong here? I could get taken out anytime. Identity, you’re told you’re from the township you’re this and this but you move somewhere else, to a new school and you start questioning yourself asking if you belong here and even in your own family you’re looking at it with the same the question but now you’ve got your school family, your university family, your work family, it’s the constant search for identity that I’ve gone through, I think we’ve all gone through. I’ve had big dreams and there wasn’t one place I felt comfortable and Joshua goes through the same journey in Riding with Sugar, searching for a place to plant his dreams so they can bloom but then life throws at you curve balls just like I have had curve balls in my life but I’m glad I’m sitting in South Africa getting to share Riding with Sugar on a Netflix platform on the 27th of November that’s big for me and my journey coming all the way back home to get our story out there, it’s as much your story too.
Q: What is the symbolism behind the colour grade in Riding with Sugar and why?
A: I’ve always hated watching Africa in just monochromatic brown and I’ve travelled and shot across Africa a lot! And I’ve always wanted to capture our vibrancy because that’s part of us, I mean look at you right now and that’s what I love about us, and where people have said “oh you’re so loud”, No we’re not loud this is who we are, just because you are muted in your colour, so for me that’s a key part of it, always wanting to capture the vibrancy and then I also played with the colours blue and red, they were key colours for me in terms of playing with this thing of good and evil, I did that very deliberately, how I played with the colours and for me to try and give and capture that African identity, that magic realism. Even in the mist of the grit and underbelly there’s hope and that’s what I wanted Riding with Sugar to really capture, the vibrancy of hope and colour is a huge part of it.
Q: Why is it so important for a director and an actor to have a strong relationship?
A: As a director you provide the vision and the road map, and I was fortunate because I wrote the script and understand the world but the actor is the person who brings the words and the descriptions to life, so you have to have a simpatico relationship with the actor because you are also leading the ship, for me as a director I might be the person that holds the vision and see the edit in my head, I know what I was thinking when I was writing but the trust factor is so huge because the way I come into directing, I’ve written the words, I’ve planned the shots but when I’m blocking the scenes and thinking them out I come back to those themes and always coming back to the needs of the actor when I was writing the story, so identity, belonging, family, feeling like an outsider, hope, those things are important and for the actor to understand. I give them the space when they start bringing the character to life, I the give them the space to play because in a way we’re rewriting again, when we’re shooting we’re rewriting because you think the actor might do this and they do something totally unexpected because you give them the space and freedom to try things, or you see something you don’t agree with but you like this about it or let’s go more in that direction, so there’s this trust between director and actor that is super critical for the story to come to life. Also with the relationship with crew, to create a family environment where everyone feels like they belong because they are a part of this family and they are an identity on set that’s why it’s important, to bring a story to life it takes a village.
Q: What does courage mean for a director?
A: To me it’s one word, vulnerability, being vulnerable. You have a vision and for me I carried this vision for eighteen years over a thousand rejections but courage means being rooted in your identity, knowing that you’ve built this family for a reason, you’ve chosen certain directors, certain crew members and in this case I had the chance to choose the distributor too, with Netflix and Riding with Sugar the dates, 27th of November all that stuff requires courage to let go, so you need to be vulnerable and trust that other people are there to help you bring this child to life, or actually its more that you brought it to life but it’s them schooling the child and nurturing and encouraging and guiding, for me courage is vulnerability, you don’t know everything and everyone has a story to tell, listen to everyone that’s courage. Be vulnerable and listen.
Q: Why did you choose a pan-African score and soundtrack?
A: Because that’s what the film is about; identity, family and belonging and for me this idea of music from across the continent, our different voices, is what I wanted to be reflected in the score because music tells its own story to enhance the main the story and also partnering different people, a young musician that’s starting out with Zolani and taking Patty Monroe and partnering her up with young kids and for this thing of closing the gap I think was important and music has this incredible ability to bridge the gap and I wanted our voice! Because everybody has a story to tell. Music also speaks to our identity, it speaks to the things that we identify with, it speaks to the things that we feel touch on those universal emotions of love and loss and sacrifice and I wanted a soundtrack that can travel the world where people can hear our voices in our own way.
Q: Why is culture and outlining tribes so important in Riding with sugar?
A: Because I am African, I am part of an African tribe and our culture for me is something that has been exploited around the world, our story have been told by other people and where we haven’t had a voice, so for me it was important to explore the nuances of family and culture and what does that mean, what does that look like? What does family look like? The family that you choose when your forced into certain circumstances so for me it’s a key part of African life, when I think of South Africa there’s so many people in Cape Town, Riding with Sugar is a microcosm of this melting pot of humanity and you have kids from all parts of Africa and you also have people from other parts of the world, so for me I wanted to capture that, to show also families that were on the fringes of society but have needs just like anyone else, a need for identity, a need for belonging, a need for family, a need for love, a need for safety, a place to make your dreams shine and how we approach them is different as Africans. Our culture has been exploited around the world and I want for us to have a chance to export our culture, ourselves with our own voices. We are saying this is who we are, there is so many sides to who we are and we are complicated, we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we’re highly educated, we’re loving, we are vibrant, we are colourful. There’s surreal moments in Riding with Sugar, Africa has got this madness about it and that’s part of the beauty and creativity. To me culture is really important and a key part to who we are as Africans.
Q: Why the juxtaposition of villages at war versus the modern war that we are experiencing?
A: He’s going through a war himself really of trying to find his identity and a home, a place to belong and having a family, for me I think it’s important to understand where people come from. Everybody has a story to tell, don’t judge a book by its cover and that you get to see more of Joshua’s story today and the decisions he makes today. You see where Joshua is coming from, something in the present triggering a memory from the past, you start to see what shaped his life and for me it’s almost like life repeating itself but the bigger thing for me is that I came through this and this and that and I still have hope, still I rise. We have a song in the opening of the film called We rise and I really wanted to capture that juxtaposition of the past and the present because that’s what afro-futurism to me is, understanding where you are today in context to your past so that you can go into the future with hope, that’s why it was important for me to juxtapose the past and the present. You need to understand your past to know where you’re going.
Q: Why is the reference of a library as a home so important?
A: Education has been a strong pillar for Africa in terms of freedom, understanding the greater world but I also feel it is one of the keys that we need, to be able to progress in life but not just a library in a sense of a physical place but a library of knowledge from different parts of Africa. There are so many different ways of doing things and that’s why the whole tribe with the kids and the idea for me also with the library is that the things that you put inside your heart, your mind and your spirit, no one can take that away, if you lose everything that you have, you can start again using that knowledge. The library really to me represented a safe space but it’s also a place where there are kids, they’ve helped build that house and shape it and learn. It represented a playground for the future, where the young people can explore with their minds but also in a place that is safe as they explore their identity and feel they belong and their family and also they get to travel the world through books and see that there’s horizons to be conquered, land to be conquered and books allow you to do that and that’s why the library is important.
Q: With Mambo taking in the boys, we see the brotherhood of Joshua joining in and being accepted and loved by these boys, why was it important for you to establish and lead with the brotherhood especially in this time where people are pushing the sisterhood?
A: I’m always drawing from my own personal experiences and what I’ve been through as an outsider looking for identity, looking for belonging, looking for family because that was important for me. I grew up in a big family so having that and going to boarding school and how that impacted my life, also having a lot of fatherless friends and looking at Africa, a lot of fatherless young boys and the things I needed in my life, my father was there but I also had a lot of amazing mentors, so really I was touching on family and belonging. Not family that you are born into but the family that you choose, where you can thrive and you get to make choices, where your excuses are taken away but more importantly the African family, coming together there’s more power because our resources have been plundered. So by bringing our loaves and fishes together, suddenly we’ve got this massive opportunity to do something bigger than when it’s just myself, so that was important to establish, the humanity and the emotional needs of all these characters brings a totally different side and his grandmother brings a totally different side, seeing someone who has respect for women and who has been nurtured by a beautiful grandmother, I felt that was really important and the loving father and I think that was important with Mambo too. It’s the need for family, identity and belonging.
Q: Mambo’s choices are understandable and relatable, why did you place him this way? We can see how he loves, cares and mentors the boys and as a viewer you start falling in love with him. Why did you place him this way?
A: We’ve all grown up with complex characters and I feel like Africans are too often portrayed one dimensional, you’re a good guy, you’re a bad guy or too much of a saint and I grew up with complicated people in the township everywhere I’ve gone, there are people you meet that you’re like oh I never thought you to do this or that, so it’s the complexities of character but also someone who is struggling with things but trying to stay in the light, to give light to the next generation and shining the light on the minds of the future, which is what Mambo says, that’s really what is called passion and he loves the boys. We all have wounds and all the characters Mambo, Joshua, Olivia, Rusty, everyone has a wound just like you and I, we all have wounds and I think it’s important to show multi-dimensional characters and the complexities of Africa. Who is good? Who is bad? It is sometimes relative and things are not always black and white and I think that is important in showing Africa and African characters.
Q: What do you want the viewer to think, feel and do after watching Riding with Sugar on Netflix 27th November?
A: I think the most important thing is, number one, entertainment, number two, to see themselves especially Africans and I’m grateful that the film releases in Africa first on Netflix on the 27th of November. My hope is that Africans own this film, it is no longer my film, this is ours, this is my love letter to my continent and for them to own it and hopefully they see themselves in it, and see a side of their story but more than that also see other people and say I never thought of a fellow African like that, whether you’re white, black or whatever your race may be as an African but also a global audience you get to see this video and say I can identify and I do have family around me and I do belong and I’d like them to share Joshua’s story with everybody else, point everyone else to Riding with Sugar on Netflix because I think it’s all our story. We’re all looking for some form of identity, we’re all looking for belonging, we’re all looking for family and a place to make our dreams come true, we’re looking for safety and love and above all else, I hope it gives the viewer hope about the African continent, about African stories, African culture, African soul about who we are as Africans and that we have everything we need in our hands and that our stories matter. This becomes something that Africans start demanding more stories like this and they can share Riding with Sugar, it can show the world how our stories matter and that’s what I’d love them to do.
Look out for it on the 27th of the November on Netflix. Netflix license original, very exciting times.