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The name Mahlogonolo in African origin means blessings, and anyone who has crossed paths with the Polokwane born multidisciplinary creative producer, writer, and storyteller in television, art, fashion and live-to-air productions, Mahlogonolo Manchester Mahapa – can attest to how the output of the creative work she produces lands as a blessing to those around her, and the viewers she reaches through storytelling.  

Manchester was an Assistant Creative Producer and part of the story team, on Broken Vows (Telenovela on eTV). Her writing credits include Grassroots a 1Magic (Mzansi Magic – DSTV), drama series, script advisor on Impilo: The Scam (Mzansi Magic – DSTV), dialogue editing and story development on Vutha, an SABC 2 medical drama. Currently, she is the Creator and Showrunner of iSONO, BET AFRICA’s first original daily drama.

People usually say you can’t really conclude someone’s energy and tone through text, this conversation I had with her proves that theory wrong… If you don’t believe me, scroll through this conversation we had, talking about how she uses the art of storytelling to voice out societal issues that affect us on a daily basis, her journey towards pursuing filmmaking as a career, and what it takes to create magic behind the scenes.

This is how the conversation went down…

Q. When people read out your bio, as an intro to an interview, listing your achievements, what goes through your mind? Do you ever look back at your journey and pat yourself at the back?

It used to make me nervous, thank goodness I overcame that. Now it just makes me feel like there is still so much more to do and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of my potential. I want to challenge myself and diversify my portfolio. When I look back, I am grateful for all the milestones – small or big, that brought me closer to where I am right now. When I look back it is rarely to pat myself for what I have achieved but rather to draw from those achievements in moments of doubt. Right there, is the proof that I can do more.

Q.  Let’s rewind to your childhood. How was your upbringing? Who were your biggest influences?

I was raised with love, patience, and warmth. My parents allowed me a lot of freedom to explore and make mistakes, especially when I was a teenager. I was independent and had a strong head on my shoulders thanks to the values my parents instilled in me. I suppose it helped that they were much older when they had me, so they really weren’t into helicopter parenting. That had already gotten one right. I guess they were confident too. My house was full of debates and my voice mattered; I would never settle for “because I said so.” I get that boldness from my mother and patience to make my point from my late father.

I guess my parents were the first influential gig in my life by virtue of how they loved and fed me a lot of the values I hold close to my heart. But I loved soccer from a young age because of my father, so I was obsessed with Diego Maradona and Manchester United. Then I discovered cinema at 10 years old and films also became my passion. So black love stories like Love Jones and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s – Love and Basketball influenced my love to tell stories.

Q.  We’ve seen all kinds of positive self-image campaigns, driving messages of the importance of women having a positive relationship with their bodies. You’ve mentioned that growing up, you questioned your self-image as a dark-skinned girl. Looking back at your younger self, what lessons do you draw from your experiences that form a part of the Manchester we know of today?

It’s not really that I questioned it, my parents did an incredible job making sure that I was affirmed. My complexion was not really something I was insecure about but rather something I didn’t see affirmed outside of my home. I can’t really remember people outside of my family saying I was beautiful. Being smart was more important to me than being beautiful. I accepted that I had to know that I was beautiful for myself, and that the world shouldn’t influence how I felt about myself. 

So, I focused on other things. But in my 20’s the language of words like colourism then gave me context and everything made sense about growing up outside of what society deemed beautiful. I had a round face, plump cheeks, loved playing in the sun so I was darker than I am now and always lost my earrings as a little girl. Apparently, I was about 6 years old at the grocery store with my dad, a man in front of us dropped something that I picked up. He said: “Thank you my boy.” My dad said I responded “***tsek”. That little girl is my hero, I protect her and draw from her.

Q.  So, the storytelling bug bit you from a really young age but you proceeded to studying towards a Marketing degree, why is this?

Marketing was never really the plan. I actually registered for a Bachelor of Economic Science in my first year because I wanted to be an economist. Hated Maths in first year so I converted to a Bachelor of Commerce and majored in Marketing and Insurance instead. I really just wanted to do the thing to fall back on, as the deal I made with my parents – that they would let me study film after, which they did.

Q. You then took an opportunity to study towards your dream in filmmaking, in Czech Republic. Before you talk us through that journey, did you experience any culture shock? What were some of those experiences?

Prague was really home away from home. I had never picked up a recording camera, never gone to the theatre, never read a TV/Film script or knew anyone personally who was in the Arts. I was only armed with years and years of binge-watching rented films and TV shows. Then I met incredible like-minded individuals who loved filmmaking as much as I did, and they were patient because I really knew very little compared to them. Czech Republic was the second time ever that I had gone beyond the borders of South Africa. 

The biggest shock really was the weather. I couldn’t believe it was that cold or that one could go for months without seeing the sun. It would go down to -15 degrees. Like a Katt Williams skit, “I had to buy the jacket from there for there” and appropriate shoes because wow, I fell so many times running for the tram in shoes not meant for their cobblestone pavements on a day with snow. Worse, I had a mohawk, it was like the cold was seeping into my brain the whole time. It was such a life changing experience with friends I will cherish for a lifetime.

Q. Okay, now you can talk us through your schooling journey. How different would you say studying film in Czech Republic was different from studying in SA?

It was an accelerated practical program so all we did was make films. Recording sound, shooting, editing, directing, producing, and writing them ourselves with tight deadlines. It was a baptism of fire for me. So, the pace was much different to when I did my Honours in film at Wits. More theory and less shooting films. Wits is an academic program and Film School was a practical hands-on learning experience.

Q. The film industry requires a lot of collaborative efforts to execute a set vision. Throughout your experience in the industry. What would you say is the formula to choosing the right skillset, attitude, and culture to successfully execute a desired outcome?

Working in television or making a film is a never-ending group project. You have to be a team player and have great respect for everyone in your team. You learn a lot from each other. From the props standby to the final mix engineer, everybody matters. You need each member of your team to bring their A game for a project to be successful. When the energies are aligned, creativity is in synergy it will show through the work. Patience, respect, a collaborative and teachable spirit, listening and a constant learning attitude will help you go further than being an arrogant person.

Q. There’s been several conversations addressing issues of gender inequality, sexism, sexual harassment, and other injustices women face in the film industry. As a creative in the industry itself and as an activist, how do you use your voice and creativity to address this?

I am cognisant of my responsibility when in a room or position of decision making. Ensuring that the team I work with is reflective of where we live and is diverse. Being someone that vouches for others in key spaces is also important for me so that more of us get to the other side. Being someone who is constantly learning to better myself is also something I apply and commit to in how I work with people. Learning when to pass the mic is also key.

Q.   As a society, there’s a lot of learning, relearning, and unlearning that we constantly must engage in to become better as a people. How do you use storytelling to amplify the voices of the marginalised in society?

I draw and reflect on society. With storytelling, I try to challenge my own perspective of how I see the world and elevate what I feel is underrepresented or unearth what may be deliberately silenced. I want people to see themselves in the characters that I create but ultimately, I believe that when we see ourselves reflected, then we also feel that we belong.  

That is what society is and that is what television means to people long after the credits roll. Entertainment is important of course but resonating with the stories also matters. Film and Television is also a pedagogical tool for society. So, it is important to tell the stories that show our shared humanity. To be seen is “to exist”, to exist is to be afforded dignity in how we are represented. So being authentic to those lived experiences. Sometimes, I get to be the vehicle and I allow myself to be surrounded by the authentic voices. Creating space for them to tell the stories. I can only hope that when we see each other as people who all want to be affirmed, loved, and accepted that we see our humanity and all that is beautiful that connects us.

Q. Storytelling and filmmaking isn’t just about creating imaginary scenes, it is also about educating, addressing social ills, and calling society’s bluff when it comes to issues – we prefer to sweep under the carpet. We’ve seen political unrest sweeping through the country recently. Television and media have a huge influence in reflecting the dire state of society. Do you think we should be seeing more of these storylines on our screens?

Definitely! My answer above alludes to this. We need to see diverse stories of society. Intersectional struggles, human triumphs, political awareness, etc. We just need to tell more stories and don’t get me wrong; we are already doing that. Sometimes we are too safe, I find. But yes, we need to also reflect the times and we need the balance of escapism and to breathe from our reality. Even in that escape, we still create characters and stories with universal themes that we can connect with. One of my favourite filmmakers is Asghar Farhadi, he gets this so right. Korean dramas are also doing something special here. Different formats of storytelling allow us to do all this.

Q.   What are you currently working on? Where can we catch your latest TV shows?

I am running a show I created, BET Africa’s first original daily drama, iSONO. It plays Monday – Thursday at 21:30 on BET Africa channel 129 on DSTV.

I surely got the answers I needed through our conversation, and I should say, they were intentional in making the points Mahlogonolo wanted to make (like a storyteller) and inspiring to not just note a woman taking up space, but one who is comfortable in leading narratives to be visually experienced across Africa.