This body-swap film exploring big themes was made on the smallest of budgets
Jenna Bass does it all. The writer, filmmaker, lecturer, editor and former magician has a rap-sheet that reads like an old-age-person's – despite only being in her early 30s.
Her debut feature Love The One You Love ushered in a new wave of South African cinema; she's published her pulp literary magazine for African fiction Jungle Jim since 2011; was shortlisted for Africa's leading literary award, the Caine Prize, and is currently busy with a fantasy animation feature screenplay for Sanusi Chronicles.
However, it's her second feature film, the body-swap satire High Fantasy, which she made working with a small, predominantly women team and shot entirely on the iPhone 7 for a miniscule budget, that had us reach out to Jenna to talk about her new film, how our phones are making us more creative and privilege.
You do it all: writer, filmmaker, lecturer, editor, magician… are you the ultimate slashie?
I'd probably have liked to think so when I was, like, eighteen. Now it feels like most people are doing multiple things at once – especially in creative fields, you have to. I've also been lucky enough to indulge and develop interests… which was partly what drew me to film, that fact that you get to investigate EVERYTHING, you get to be a scientist of life. So I think filmmaking especially draws people with a lot of interests to begin with: It allows you to keep those things alive, and develop new ones as well.
What time do you wake up, do you not weekend, how do you manage to do everything that you're doing?
I don't think I work harder than most people. It's just that a lot of the things I enjoy or do for fun somehow feed back into what I'm working on. So it's possible to be very productive. Another thing that helps is that I work for myself from home, and manage my own time and schedule. I'm thankful for that pretty much every day!
For High Fantasy you wrote, directed, produced and did wardrobe for the film. Are you an auteur, under-resourced or some sort of control freak?
I really hope I'm not a control freak. I probably was when I started making films and I definitely believed in auteurism. It took a while for me to realise that the work got better and more enjoyable when I involved other people in the decision-making. At the same time, I just really enjoy all the different departments of filmmaking, so I like to get involved. I also learnt that if you're waiting to find the perfect collaborator, you may end up never making anything. So the more skills you know, the more in charge you are of your own destiny.
We've seen this plotline before. Why was it the perfect platform to get your message across?
Have you? I don't know if I've really seen a plot line quite like this – especially where it ends up! Part of what drew me to making a body-swap film was the fact that I found the idea so interesting, but didn't really like most films in the genre. Or when they were good, they were great farces, but not much more. I thought there was a lot more to the concept of swapping bodies… things that were scary, profound, gross or erotic. At the same time, I was looking for a way to tell a story about the intersectional politics that were becoming such a force of conversation among people I knew. I realised that the body-swap genre really lent itself well to exploring multiple issues – gender, race, class, sexuality, land...
On a scale of Big to Freaky Friday, where does High Fantasy fit?
I've seen those movies, but I don't know if I really understand that scale! I think the main thing that makes High Fantasy different from other films in the genre, is that while most body-swap movies take the theme of 'Walking a mile in someone else's shoes', almost all of them resolve with the two characters who've swapped understanding each other better and living happily ever after as a result of being forced to see through the other's eyes for a time. That's convenient storytelling, but it reminds me of the Rainbow Nation idea: A wand is waved, some laws are changed, everything is forgiven and we're all chilled. It seems it's harder than that. And more traumatic. Our film had to reflect this.
This is low resource film making at its best. Just how small was your budget and what are your tips for doing more with less?
Our production budget – to shoot the actual film – was really small. But I made sure that everyone on-set was paid a weekly rate, and everyone was paid the same rate, regardless of experience or role. Other than fees, I prioritise the hard, non-negotiable costs: No one gives you petrol, airtime, data, insurance or food for three weeks for free. Once that's in the budget, I see what is left. What we need but can't afford, we figure out a way to borrow, steal from my mother's wardrobe, DIY/craft ourselves or otherwise creatively work around. White privilege certainly played a big part in making this film. So did working with other people who were also super passionate about making the film.
You shot the entire feature on an iPhone. How can our audience use your learnings from this movie to create better content on their channels?
I think just the constant practice we get through using our phones every day to capture content makes people more skilled. Taking photos, consciously, every day, is a workout for your eyes and your brain and means that when there's actually something really important you want to capture things like composition, lighting, visual language, they all come so much easier. Also: research useful apps. There are a LOT. And many are free. At the same time, don't get hung up on those things. Just make what you need to make.