British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have described award winning film director Lehlohonolo "Shaft" Moropane as "a mystery wrapped inside an enigma". That wouldn’t have been far from the truth as Shaft, the township boy who played most of the sports that characterise township folk has evolved into exactly that.
From taking part in Shell Road to Fame as an aspiring singer, taking free train rides to college at AFDA to illegally sneaking into Rand Afrikaans University computer lab to write his film school assignments, Shaft’s life symbolizes an ultimate triumph of the human spirit, an against all odds mentality and a victory over adversity all catapulted into one. Today Shaft is home in Melville (below) where he is as busy as a bee. When it's time to reflect he always finds a way of going back to where it all started, Bushbuckridge. In Bushbuckridge Shaft becomes the guy who plays soccer with the non-ranked team at Serisha High School, exercises at makeshift gyms and still gets time to hang with the same crew he used to share his dreams with. It's important; they say at the end of everybody's days they will need the people who were there in the beginning. The folks who knew them before the fame and the success. The ordinary boys who can look you in the eye and tell you when you are losing it. Shaft has kept that contact (below right).
Born 29 years ago into a large non-nuclear family, today Shaft likes to say he’s "the embodiment of the South African dream". Three years ago some of his friends used to call him "the 50 cent of the film industry".Around the same time Reel Times, Newsletter of the 25th Durban International Film Festival wrote, "Shaft Moropane is a yet-to-be-developed script about a young talent just unleashed". One wonders what they'll write now after his directing of Tsha-Tsha IV (Curious Pictures), 91 Plein Street and many other entertainment orientated programmes like Ses'khona and SAMA Awards. He has also directed scores of TV commercials, corporate videos and short films.
To realise his full potential Shaft was unleashed by his late grandfather who, out of love, freed then 19-year-old budding musician to go and discover himself in the Jo’burg glitz. Leaving a place like Bushbuckridge, where the repercussions of Verwoed’s experiment are reflected on the eyes of every resident wasn’t going to be easy. Jo’burg offered a promise, but even Shaft knew there were people in Jo’burg who were still queuing for their piece of the pie - worse, they arrived there fifteen years before him. He was however still determined not to get to the back of the line but to rise to the top like cream in a mug of cappuccino.
"Back in 1999 while in Dobsonville I was on my way to the library when 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. That afternoon I went for an interview with Tshepo Maswabi Lekgwale who later became my father figure. He believed I could make it as an actor" Shaft recalls.
Immediately after joining Dobsonville Arts Association he was casted as lead actor in Voices of the Conscience. He says he found himself performing at the Market Theatre during its annual arts festival. It was followed by supporting lead in The Promise. "Again we took the show to the Market Theatre and got excellent reviews" he fondly recalls.
The same year Shaft went to the annual Grahamstown Arts Festival to perform both plays. He smiles when he reminisces about that stage of his life and the reviews they got at the prestigious festival where only real stars shine. Grahamstown can be very hostile if you don't know your story. He later starred in many plays at different theatres, amongst them Windybrow and Hillbrow, until, as he says he was promoted to Assistant Director at DAA.
In 2000 he moved to FUBA School of Dramatic Arts to do a Diploma in Drama and Theatre. "This is where I met many good people who taught me most of the things I know today. There I was lectured by Biza Motaung (Steve Biko Foundation) and the late Sipho Mzobe (Gaz’lam). These are some of the people who believed in me when nobody else did. There was a time when Napo Masheane was directing a play called The Gods Are not to be Blamed" he reminisces.
From here Shaft’s story sound like a cliché and you won't be blamed for thinking you've heard this line one million times before. He says one day the lead actor was absent, he was roped in to play the part and it was permanently offered to him. Unbelievable? We thought so as well.
Shaft says he always wanted to do film but in an interview he gave to Radio Bushbuckridge in 1997 he said he wanted to be a doctor who is into hip-hop. But not like Dr Dre, but a real medical with an IPod. The interviewer commented that he couldn’t imagine him in a white coat bopping his head to a funky beat. Shaft laughed and said he intended doing just that.
He however got into film through the front door. "I started off as an extra in dramas like Soul City and the Sergeant Kokobela story. 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 I got to know about a film school called AFDA. I applied, went for an interview and got admitted," he says.
Shaft’s problem was one and big, he did not have money for tuition. He approached the National Film and Video Foundation, which he says, gave him half of the bursary he requested. "I had to make ends meet. I started doing odd jobs as a runner with Devereaux Harris Films, sometimes working for free, just to make small money to pay my fees. And since I never fell from heaven I got support from my sister Antionette which I’m grateful for" he blushes.
He remembers that he wanted to be a doctor, "I’m a doctor since I am telling stories and healing people at the same time with my stories". Arguable.
The director says arriving at AFDA 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 (The Suit) and writing poetry. From then on I was always glued on TV, I love movies and feel that for me it was more of a calling. I used to rap and sing, but I feel that sometimes your path chooses you. I was chosen, I used to play softball, basketball and soccer. Film chose me"
Shaft had to take a train from Soweto to AFDA and confesses that he was once detained for taking free rides. He says he got down on his knees and begged the security guard to pardon him as he had a test to write. "The train is very much like the ghetto, it’s actually 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".
He’s not romantic about ghetto living. He doesn’t believe poverty deserves ceremony. "At AFDA us black cats came from this background where we didn’t have computers, cars and other necessities that whites had. We had to sneak at RAU to type, sometimes for the whole night. AFDA is Boot Camp, you become a soldier, and the English is mostly jargon. First week it was jazz for me, remember we used pidgin English at school".
His first project was a two-minute film Mind, Body and Soul. He later did other film projects, which increased and became stressing on his second year. Between books he directed Robbie Malinga’s Mpompe and other corporate videos.
His first short film was Victim of Circumstance. "On the third year I was the only black director left in the class. It was hectic. There were times when I was walking downtown Jozi and felt the world could just swallow me. I had to watch many films, so I went to Carlton and Good Hope Centre because I could pay R12 for two films. I waited for the eZone on TV since I never had a satellite dish" he laughs. That's before the nowadays weekend late night films on e.
It’s ironic that people needed a dish to watch his award winning short film Ivory Mask (Idia), which is an M.Net New Directions production. Shaft likes to say that he’s paid his dues to the industry and he’s finally arrived. It sounds arrogant, but before he graduated with a degree in motion picture in 2003 he had to complete an experimental film, Prodigal Son that starred Israel Makwe (Yizo Yizo, Gaz’lam) and the acclaimed Small Street that starred amongst others Nomthi Vithi, Henna Sisanda, Thapelo Mokoena and a rapper called Maggz. Small Steet is one of the few student movies to have been screened by the public broadcaster. "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" he says.
Shaft is very fond of Phakathi who he can pile praise for hours on end. He’s got so much respect for the guy he recalls Phakathi telling him when cynics doubted his ability to pull off Ivory Mask, "fuck experience, go out there and enjoy yourself". You can’t write about Shaft and Ivory Mask without mentioning Phakathi (Producer) Bongiwe Selane (Commissioning Editor), Vanessa Jansen (Line Producer) and his own family, Victor (Brother), Antionette (Sister) and many others. Shaft also provided kwaito star Mandoza with his acting debut in Ivory Mask. Years later he later, more established and comfortable he directed Mandoza's Mama video.
As they say, "the rest is history", Shaft, for the first time in his life flew to the Durban International Film Festival for the screening of his two films. He also conducted some lectures at the University of Natal, interacted with veterans like Teboho Mahlatsi and as he told SABC 1’s Take 5, "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 later that year.
He’s got a list of people to thank but will keep it for the Academy Award. He’s in-too-deep there’s no way the history of SA Film can be written without his name in the Index. He does not even mention his involvement in Mzekezeke's video or his work with Wikid, MXO, HHP and lots of the current crop of kwaito stars. Last year he was invited to Netherlands for the Shoot Me Film Festival where he took his fresh approach to filmmaking and shared it with the world. With most support for this hustler coming from his colleagues in Soul Rebelz Films, Sizwe Mzolo (producer) and Ntobeko Dlamini (cinematographer), (pictured)and not forgetting the Gauteng Film Office.
Shaft is an unabridged portrait of a ghetto boy who made good. A prototype of what every young person can become if they start believing in the beauty of their dreams. Very few people gave him half a chance. He’s one of the few self-made people around. He made himself, with a little help from a few loyal people who believed in a dream called Shaft.