Shaft relaxing at his Melville crib after yet another tough day on set
Very few, if any South African film directors have such an impressive Curriculum Vitae just fresh out of college. Lehlohonolo “Shaft” Moropane (28) not only walked out to land a R500 000 M-Net (South African based pay channel) New Directions film to direct, he even went ahead to win Best South African Short Film award at the Durban International Film Festival in June.

That’s an achievement that would even unsettle quite a few experienced filmmakers and ruffle feathers in the industry. Add to that, even his student film Small Street is being considered for commercial screening.

Rewind it back to 1999 when Moropane had just arrived in Johannesburg as a budding RnB singer armed only with his killer instinct and an ambition to be a model. “Back in 1999 while in Dobsonville (Soweto) I saw this place called Kopanong where they said they did music, which I had a fascination for. I went in and was told that the music teacher was away but could still audition for other arts. I went for an interview with Tshepo Maswabi Lekgwale who later became my mentor. He believed I could make it as an actor” Moropane recalls.

Dobsonville Arts Association became his first stop as he was soon casted as lead actor in Voices of the Conscience. It was followed by supporting lead role in The Promise. “We took the shows to the Market Theatre and got excellent reviews” he fondly recalls.

Grahamstown Arts Festival was calling as well. He reminisces about that stage of his life and the reviews they got at the prestigious festival. Windybrow and Hillbrow theatres became his next destination. He says he was soon promoted to Assistant Director at DAA.

2000 was the turn of FUBA School of Dramatic Arts where he did a Diploma in Drama and Theatre. “I met many good people there who taught me most of the things I know today. I was lectured by Biza Motaung of the Steve Biko Foundation and the late Sipho Mzobe of Gaz’lam (acclaimed television series). These are some of the people who believed in me when nobody else did”

One of those who believed was Napo Masheane of the once infamous Feel A Sistah poetry ensemble who was directing a play called The Gods Are not to be Blamed. This part of Moropane’s story sound like a cliché. He says one day the lead actor was absent, he was roped in to play the part and it was permanently offered to him.

Apparently Moropane never knew exactly what he wanted to do in life. In a radio interview he gave seven year ago in his rural Bushbuckridge hometown he said he wanted to be a doctor who is into hip-hop. The DJ commented that he couldn’t imagine him in a white coat bopping his head to a funky beat. Moropane said he intended doing just that.

The award-winning director got into film through the front door. “I started off as an extra in television dramas. I was a hustler of serious note. One day I went to audition for Norman Maake’s Soldiers of the Rock where I got a small part as a mineworker”. On the set of the film that’s where he came to know about a film school called AFDA. “I applied, went for an interview and got admitted,” he recalls.

He approached the National Film and Video Foundation, which gave him half of the bursary he requested. “I started doing odd jobs as a runner with Devereaux Harris Films, sometimes working for free, just to make small money to supplement my fees. And since I never fell from heaven I also had support from my sister” he blushes.

AFDA, a multiracial private university in Aucklandpark (Johannesburg) was a culture shock for him. “I’m a product of Bantu Education and had to learn proper English and integrate fast, that I did by listening to hip hop, reading authors like Can Themba and writing poetry. I was chosen, I used to play softball, basketball and soccer. Film chose me”

Moropane’s hardships made him a social scientist of serious note. Taking the daily train from Soweto to town irked him. “The train is actually a ghetto. We stacked like sardines, you can’t spit sometimes. They put you there to look at each other’s failures every morning and afternoon”.

His first project as a student was a two-minute film Mind, Body and Soul. His second year film projects became more and stressing. Between studies he directed music and corporate videos.

The next student film was Victim of Circumstance. “On the third year I was the only black director left in the class. It was hectic,” he laughs.

That paid off as his award winning short film Ivory Mask (Idia), which is an M.Net New Directions production is scheduled to be screened in September. Moropane has already paid his dues to the industry. Before graduating with a degree in motion picture early this year he completed an experimental film, Prodigal Son and the acclaimed Small Street “The teachers dissed the film but Garth Holmes (AFDA honcho) liked it and send it to film festivals. It was my graduation film, which is also how I came to meet filmmaker Dumisani Phakathi. He was impressed with Small Street that he offered me to do Ivory Mask, my first big budget film” Moropane says.

He’s got so much respect for Phakathi, he told Reel Times Newsletter, “it was a baptism of fire, but Dumisani said to me: ‘Just go out there and have fun’”. Cynics doubted his ability to pull off Ivory Mask.

For the first time in his life Moropane flew to the Durban International Film Festival for the screening of his two films. He also interacted with veterans like Teboho Mahlatsi. He later told SABC’s Take 5 presenter Kim Engelbrecht, “I went there as an underdog but came back a star”. He won the Best South African Short Film award for Ivory Mask, which together with Small Street also premiered at the Zanzibar Film Festival.

Next is a film called Karma. He’s so in-too-deep he has become an ideal which’s hour has come. A candle that has to burn to the end and provide light for all those still in the townships without hope.

Moropane is an undiluted ghetto boy who made good. He’s what every young South African can become if they start believing in the beauty of their dreams.

Today, nobody knows exactly what happened to that medical dream. Nobody can tell if it really died since there’s no grave or tombstone with epitaph engraved for it. Even Moropane can’t tell if flags were flown at half-mast when he realized he was on a one-way ticket to make-believe. He got lost from a path to medicine to a surreal idealism of lights-camera- action and cut.

Shaft has since directed 13 episodes of Tsha-Tsha and many other film projects for both corporates and public broadcaster.

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