In such a small snapshot of unforgettable violence and horrific acts shockingly common of the time, When the Sun Sets (Lakutshon’ Ilanga) manages to perfectly contain the horror of apartheid through the telling of one family’s story. Set to a song by Miriam Makeba whose lyrics perfectly encapsulate the themes of the film, Phumi Morare’s Chapman University thesis live action short follows a young black nurse as she faces her worst fears when her brother fails to return home from school. Morare’s film has received many well-deserved accolades including landing on the shortlist for the 2022 Academy Awards in the Live Action Short Film category and being one of only two black filmmakers to win a 2021 Student Academy Award. We were lucky enough to talk to the young writer/director about the sheer weight of telling such a personal tale and the inspiration behind the poignant gaze given to her female lead which brings to life the horror faced by her own mother.
Where did this emotionally devastating story originate and how did you start to put it all together?
The film is inspired by a day in my mother’s life when she had to find a way to save her younger brother from police abduction. When my mother told me this story, I was in awe of her courage and I was amazed that the woman standing in front of me was the same woman who had that heroism. It also haunted me because I thought of all of the things that could’ve happened to her and my uncle. The role of the nurse in the film is inspired by my grandmother, and a lot of the lead character’s journey is inspired by my own journey to find my own voice.
I also had to determine how to authentically represent a time period I didn’t fully experience because I was a small child when apartheid ended. I interviewed people from older generations who had lived through that time, and I poured through a lot of archival footage, photography, news clippings and writings to immerse myself in that world. I also spoke to my mother, uncle and grandmother about their experiences during that time.
I wanted to find a way to capture the story of the plight of an ordinary woman in a broader political and social context in an intimate way. Films like Ida, Mother of George and Bicycle Thieves inspired me. Ida and Mother of George particularly inspired me in their use of framing and lighting to immerse you into the protagonist’s point of view. Although the lead character is oppressed it was important to show her with dignity, and that was something I discussed at length with cinematographer Sherry Qian and stunt coordinator Zak Thekiso.
To pull off the historic look I did a lot of research and poured through many reference images with my key creatives including the production designer Waldemar Coetsee, and the key costumier Sindi Magidla-Matiwana, to get the costumes, set design and cinematography right, while also adding my own artistic imprint. We also shot with an Arri Alexa classic camera from the local film school, Zeiss Super Speed Prime Lenses, and a Canon 30-300MM zoom lens with the looming threats of the country shutting down any moment because the pandemic had just hit South Africa.
So much of me is infused in this character’s journey, too. I wrote it when I was at a place in my life when I was learning to find my own voice, and have the courage to use it.
The script took about six months to develop during a class at my film school, and then it took a year for us to raise the funding and organise logistics of an international student shoot. Principal photography was 7.5 days and post production was delayed by the pandemic and took about seven months to complete everything including sound design, film score composition and color design.
The sister/nurse role of Lerato comes across so powerfully, why did you feel compelled to tell the story from her perspective?
Thank you. It just came naturally because the story was inspired by the women in my family, and I was curious about the ordinary lives of these women during that time. I was curious about how they navigated it. It was also natural to me as a Black woman. So much of me is infused in this character’s journey, too. I wrote it when I was at a place in my life when I was learning to find my own voice, and have the courage to use it. I was interested that by my mother finding her voice and using it to save her brother, it resulted in something so empowering that set them both free and allowed them to transcend their oppression.
Together with my editor Mojtaba Mirshekari, our artistic focus was on ensuring that we always were in our lead character’s point of view and that the female gaze was very present throughout. We also ensured we gave room to breathe and be with her intimately.
Did you come across any particular obstacles creating a story so personal to you and how do you feel that proximity affected your telling of it?
There was definitely a weight on my shoulders to portray my family’s story in a way that honoured them and that was authentic. I also felt the pressure to represent a time I didn’t really live through, with authenticity. I spoke to my mom, uncle and grandmother a lot about their lives, and I shared the script with them to get their feedback. I used to imagine the various scenarios that could’ve played out to result in a different outcome and that haunted me. Writing it was also a way for me to process all the feelings I had about the story, and the different ways that it haunted me. When we went into pre-production I allowed it to take a life of its own. I had to separate the film from the idea that it was my mother’s story so that I wouldn’t allow that pressure to loom over the actors or the crew so that they were empowered to bring fresh ideas and elevate it.
It was also something that we couldn’t shy away from because it was the truth.
The violence is truly gut-wrenching, yet I feel appropriate for the story. I have read a couple of articles where they have questioned your choice – why did you feel the need to almost hurt the audience?
It is a delicate balance when you are portraying violence on screen. It was something I was aware of treating with care. It was also something that we couldn’t shy away from because it was the truth. Being honest about that reality also helps us to understand the gravity of the protagonist’s heroic act and to understand the ferocity of her love. That is how I saw my mother. As this unsung heroine who had overcome the aggression of militant apartheid police. After all these years it still amazes me. It was also important to me that although we are portraying a woman in an oppressed situation throughout the film, I wanted her to maintain her dignity throughout. I spoke at length with the cinematographer, editor and stunt coordinator about focussing on her point of view, her tenacity and her heroism in that scene. I was also inspired by the photography of Roy DeCarava who portrayed the Black family in 1960s Harlem with humanity and poetry.
How do you feel about the incredible reception to When the Sun Sets and what do you wish for it moving forward?
It’s been beyond my wildest dreams and I’m so amazed that the film has resonated with global audiences to this extent. For me, this is a film that explores my family history, and issues that I’m personally interested in, so to think that others resonate with this, is mind-blowing. I feel deeply honoured and grateful. The film was also my thesis project for my Masters at Chapman University, so it’s amazing to see a student film reaching this type of accolade. Going forward, I hope that the film is used in educational settings and starts intellectual discourse. For South Africans, I hope that it allows younger generations to have another window into our history that helps us understand where we come from and be grateful for where we are today and all our parents did to help us thrive.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently developing my first feature film and I’m about to shoot a naturalist fantasy short film inspired by an African folktale this year. I’m passionate about stories about women, the Black community and ordinary heroes. I also really love history and mythology because it helps us make sense of who we are.
When the Sun Sets is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.