Director's passion for pan-African stories

03 May 2017 | Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.
Commercials director and UCT alumnus, Sunu Gonera, talks about his passion for film and pan-African collaborations.
Commercials director and UCT alumnus, Sunu Gonera, talks about his passion for film and pan-African collaborations.

Sunu Gonera worked as a banker after he finished his studies at UCT but has managed, in a relatively short time, to make a career as a successful commercials director.

Gonera hails from the townships of Zimbabwe. His excellent sporting ability opened doors to scholarships and international travel. He completed a degree in organisational psychology at UCT and despite a promising start in banking, soon found himself drawn back to his first love, film.

“As a student, I did a lot of work in front of the camera, so even when I started banking, I saw it as a transitional step, an opportunity to learn about finance before one day going into film,” he says.

“I thought: let me go into banking so I'll know how to manage my money as a rugby player. I also just wanted to be in the finance game, which I'm glad I did. As a filmmaker you need to know your finances and it makes investors more comfortable,” says Gonera.

He knew a few directors in the film industry, thanks to his acting work as a student.

“I called Michael Middleton and said I want to direct. He thought I was mad because you know I was making really good money in banking but he convinced his business partner,” explains Gonera. “I sold my pension fund and everything and started as a production assistant. They were only offering a 10th of what I was earning but working as Michael's assistant was the best thing I ever did.”

He worked as a production assistant for two years before moving into directing. Success came fast and he began earning recognition for adverts he directed, becoming well known for his unique atmospherics and ability to convey emotion.

Within three short years, he received several prestigious directing awards for commercials such as Nike and Coca-Cola, while his short film, Riding with Sugar, based on his own full-length feature script, was screened at Cannes in 2006.

This prompted him to feel he had learnt enough and made enough money to be able to start his own company.

“Everyone thought I was mad because there had never been a black-owned production house in commercials in this country and there were only three of us black directors in the whole industry at the time,” says Gonera. “I just thought, you know what: I have to do it.”

From the day he opened the doors of his company, they shot flat out for two years non-stop.

Heading to Hollywood

He says he probably sent over 1 000 emails and letters to Hollywood directors but received rejection after rejection until one day he met Hal Sadoff, executive producer on Hotel Rwanda, and gave him his show reel. Sadoff gave Gonera's reel to an American agent, Nicole Clemens, who was blown away and signed Gonera immediately.

“She put in the reel and immediately phoned me – it was 02:00 – and said, 'I've never done this but I'm just going to take a chance' and she signed me as a director without any feature film experience. That really opened the door to go to LA,” he says.

Against all advice, he took another giant leap and headed to Hollywood with his wife and two children to pursue his movie career.

Gonera beat several more seasoned Hollywood directors to land his first full-length feature directing assignment with Lionsgate on Pride, starring Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac, Tom Arnold and Kimberley Elise. Pride tells the true story of Jim Ellis, a black swimming coach who transformed the lives of troubled youths in Philadelphia.

He returned to South Africa in 2013 after a seven-year stint in Hollywood.

“We still go back and forth. It's our other home. Hollywood was always the dream when I came into film. It was everything I dreamt of,” says Gonera. “The pace is different. The pressure is enormous. Everything is so much bigger and faster. Working with an Oscar-nominated actor also had its own challenges but it was an incredible experience.”

On his return to South Africa, he quickly picked up where he left off, directing commercials and music videos for high-profile brands such as Discovery, SA Tourism, Standard Bank, Vodacom, South African Breweries and Absolut.

Gonera has earned a reputation for his strong visual compositions, gritty surroundings and inner city backdrops. He is well known for his legendary SuperFan advert for Castle Lager and Khuli Chana's One Source music video, which was his first shot at directing a music video.

“I've been wanting to do one for years, since I started in the business … Ghana was amazing and it was a perfect project for me, because it was a pan-African collaboration and that's my big passion, panAfricanism and telling African stories,” says Gonera.

I want to tell African stories

Gonera guest lectures at The South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Life Performance (AFDA), but his biggest passion is to mentor other young filmmakers to tell African stories to the world.

“Film is best learnt on the job. … In this country, where most people cannot afford tertiary education, we can mentor young people and help them to become the best directors, writers and cinematographers.”

He dreams of having African stories with African heroes told on the big screen.

“I think it's really important to have different perspectives on the African story. One of my biggest dreams is to have a company like a Lionsgate in Africa, where we'll be making content here that sells to the rest of the world … We can tell universal stories from a different perspective.

 “I'd love to see a musical like La La Land coming out of Africa, and we can ... I want to do things that say something, that make a statement about Africa. Exploring the positive side of Africa, our passion, madness and beauty.”

This year he hopes to finish filming Riding with Sugar, the feature film he started developing in 2003.

“It's changed radically over the years, with hundreds … of rejections from financiers and actors. Half the money would come together, then it'd fall apart. It's fallen apart probably 10 to 25 times but hopefully this year we finally get to make it,” says Gonera.

But he says he is glad this has taken time because the country has changed so radically from when he first wrote the script, and the movie has now also changed thematically.

“I've always wanted to do a scene on the Jammie stairs because I spent so much time there,” says Gonera. “UCT plays a huge role with helping our lead character find his way.”

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