She’s a filmmaker, a mom, a world traveller, an entrepreneur and a passionate South African. To many of us at CN&CO, she’s also a dear friend. I am talking, of course, about the inimitable Lisa Henry, co-founder of the Jozi Film Festival and creator of much on-screen magic.
After graduating from Wits in the early 90s with a BA in English and film, Lisa headed off to London for two years, from where she planned to see the world and make lots of money.
“I ended up working in a bar opposite Lloyd’s of London, right in the heart of the City,” she says. “And although I met many wonderful people there, those two years taught me that I definitely didn’t want to work in a bar forever!”
Lisa’s first job back in South Africa was with an established film producer, making a travel, food and wine show for SABC 3.
“It was advertising-funded, so I learnt a lot about commercial production – lessons I have carried with me throughout my career. The producer was very quirky, though. She used to hold morning meetings in her bed, with us gathered around her taking notes.”
Lisa spent six months there before heading back to London, where she landed a job in the newsroom of Associated Press.
“It was exciting to work in a real newsroom that ran 24 hours a day,” she says. “Somehow I got away with about 18 months of never working a night shift. And then opened my big mouth and they changed that rapidly.
“But I was there when 9/11 happened, and for the Concorde crash. I worked on some amazing stories in real time. It was a great experience with some incredible opportunities.”
During her time at AP, Lisa fell pregnant with her son, Jack.
“A year after he was born I came back to South Africa to my family and friends,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anyone in London who had kids and I found it really difficult there being a mom and having to work. So I came home.
“I stayed at home with Jack for a couple of years then started climbing the walls. I decided to make my first film. It was initially intended to be a one-hour film, but ended up being an eight-part series about Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital called Saving Soweto. It aired on Al Jazeera English.
“It was my first time ever directing and producing, and I had to learn as I went along. But it turned out to be a great success, winning a bronze in the 2010 New York Festival’s International Television and Film Awards.”
The series will soon be screened again on Al Jazeera English’s REWIND segment, so keep an eye out for it. Here’s the first episode on YouTube:
Lisa made Saving Soweto with Shareen Anderson, who around the same time introduced her to local community activist Brendon Burmeister.
“Brendon lived in Kensington and would organise community walks through the streets in the evenings to reclaim the neighbourhood,” she recalls. “We made a film together on various community responses to crime within the greater Joburg area.”
One day Shareen and Brendon approached Lisa with an idea to start an event in Kensington with film and markets and entertainment.
“We explored and shaped the idea and eventually it ended up morphing into the Jozi Film Festival, first screened at The Bioscope,” says Lisa. “We had a budget of zero and we had a shortfall to cover our food and drinks at the closing event. Carel came to the rescue and sponsored the bill for us – and has been involved ever since. Without his support, we couldn’t have survived as long as we have.”
So that was year one… and this is year eight!
“We’ve seen a host of venues over the years, including Kensington, Maboneng, Killarney, Alexandra, Rosebank, Kliptown, Mofolo… and now we’re set to host the opening night of the 2019 festival at Hyde Park Nu-Metro on 3 October.”
Lisa says her favourite part of the Jozi Film Festival is awards night.
“That’s when all the work is done and we get the see the results of our efforts. This is the time when the people get acknowledged for their talent and industriousness in this exciting industry. These are people who make films out of passion, who make films on a small budget – or a big budget. But the festival gives people the chance to be recognised for creating something amazing and it’s a really great vibe on that last night. It feels fantastic to be able to do something positive for the industry and for Joburg.”
Lisa says the biggest challenge for the festival is financial.
“Because we are all volunteers doing other jobs we don’t have time to go and look for funding,” she explains. “The festival rolls around really quickly each year! In that regard Carel and the CN&CO team have been a great help, especially this year having helped to secure a lot of funding from various sources.
“But it would be great to have a lot more money, mainly so that we could hire people for a few months around the festival. I believe with more hands on deck we could present an even smoother event and generate a lot more publicity. It would also be less stressful for us working behind the scenes.
“That being said, there are always plenty of good people who put their hands up every year to keep it going.”
But what does Lisa do when she is not busy with the Jozi Film Festival.
“Every year is different in the life of a freelance filmmaker,” she says. “Some years are busy, some are quiet. This year has thankfully been very busy. I am doing a job at the moment that takes me to five African countries – Benin, Ghana, Senegal, Uganda and Kenya. It’s a project working with academics on evidence-based case studies in Africa, which is stretching my brain and teaching me a lot. It’s a tool that will be used to teach policy makers on the continent.
“I am at a stage now where I don’t think I could tell another story like Saving Soweto because I feel like those stories are no longer mine to tell. I’m more in a space where I want to do NGO work, which is more meaningful to me. It means I don’t get broadcast, but that’s okay. Being broadcast has never been a major motivator for me.”
As for the future of the Jozi Film Festival…
“My hope is that the festival remains the same four-day event with the same criteria and open to everyone,” Lisa says. “We don’t curate our festival; filmmakers simply enter to have a chance. So you can be a huge filmmaker, like Akin Omatoso, or an emerging filmmaker from Kliptown and you get the same opportunity to get your film screened if it’s good enough.
“I would like the festival to stay true to itself into the future. I would it to retain its ethos of ‘we love Jozi, we love film’. We’re passionate about this crazy place that we live in and about the film industry. It has its heart in the right place. With additional resources we could enlarge our footprint and advertise more widely to get more bums in seats.”
Why would I want to come and watch a film at the festival?
“The Jozi Film Festival gives you the chance to see films you wouldn’t see anywhere else and to support our local filmmakers,” says Lisa. “A lot of the time we have the filmmakers in the screenings for a Q&A afterwards, which means audiences get to meet them, talk to them, find out why they made their films. It’s also an opportunity to experience films of different genres – short films, documentaries, features – and this year we have included music videos for the first time. We’ve also introduced a new award category this year for best director.
“So it’s growing. In year one we had four categories and this year we have 11.
“We’ve also got an ongoing partnership with the Discovery network. This year we’re working with the Real Time channel, which goes into around 2 million households in Africa. The call is for three- to five-minute films from across the continent that tell ‘Real Stories by Real People about Real Lives’. This is a great opportunity for filmmakers to be showcased on the Real Time channel and possibly win some cash.”
The Jozi Film Festival is tremendously grateful to its sponsors, particularly Chubb Insurance who came on board this year as the main sponsor of the festival.
“Chubb has an amazing film insurance product which they are leveraging through their sponsorship of this year’s festival and they have really come on board to support us in a big way.
“Of course we are as grateful to our other sponsors and partners for all the support – Left Hand Films, Business and Arts South Africa, CN&CO, Discovery Channel, EasyEquities, The Bioscope, AVM, Hello Square, Lemon Sawdust and Real Time channel. We couldn’t do it without you!”
The Jozi Film Festival runs from 3 to 6 October at various venues around Joburg, including Hyde Park Nu-Metro, The Bioscope and the Delta Park open air cinema. Tickets will be available on www.jozifilmfestival.co.za from the beginning of September. Keep an eye on JFF and CN&CO social media for more details.