Ungovernable: Mmabatho Montsho

Mmabatho Montsho’s career trajectory has gone from budding fashion designer and promising young actor to well over a decade later to entrenchment as a multi-disciplinary creator that moves from visual art to writing and film directing. Her subject matter – whether celluloid, on the page or at the easel – centres an innately Feminist view of black womanhood. The award-winning filmmaker spoke to us about learning, resisting, Mam’ Winnie and other radical women.

noted.man: In a sentence, who is Mmabatho Montsho?

Mmabatho Montsho: An artist, a lover and a fighter.

NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?

MM: I can’t remember how old I was, but some time in primary school I was telling my older brother that one day I want to play for Bafana Bafana. That’s when he told me I’m a girl. Before that it had not crossed my mind that there were things one could or couldn’t do based on their sex.

NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?

MM: I have never felt, officially like a woman. Identifying as “woman” has always been a deliberate and political choice – never a feeling. It was a choice to identify with the  parts of me that were oppressed, because it gave me tools to resist as part of a collective.

NM: How did you grow into your commitment to social justice?

MM: In my case the process happens more like a novel than it would happen a movie. In a traditional movie you can almost always point to the specific events where a character changes in a particular direction – we call them Major Turning Points. In a novel the process is so gradual, you only realise something has happened long, long after it started happening. It’s an ongoing commitment. It’s not something you can say, “I have arrived” about. Hopefully I will always be growing into it.

Identifying as ‘woman’ has always been a deliberate and political choice – never a feeling. It was a choice to identify with the  parts of me that were oppressed, because it gave me tools to resist as part of a collective.

NM: How difficult is it to have strong political views – that are contrary to the normative narrative – in your line of work?

MM: I find it freeing, because it helps one know what is at stake and where to focus energies. Our work plays a big role in influencing and even shaping perceptions, so it helps to know what you stand for and believe in. What is difficult is when you don’t know where you stand.

NM: What is the most important thing you’ve had to unlearn?

MM: I struggle to conceptualise ‘unlearning’. My approach is to replace what doesn’t work with what works better, and I experience that process as learning.

NM: In a world that is hell-bent on hating black women, self-love is crucial. How do you practice self-love?

MM: I experience a lot of love, particularly as somebody who does creative work that is subject to public consumption and scrutiny.  I experience a lot of love, support, audience and affirmation from hundreds and thousands of complete strangers, sometimes millions. To make a film and people watch;  to create an artwork that ends up on a wall in someone’s home. It is the same love that gave me access into what is now my livelihood in the first place. It means a lot to me. Keeping sight of that is a reminder to share the love.

NM: What is the most beautiful part of black womanhood?

MM: When I think of Toni Morrison and Bessie Head I would say it’s the ability to bring black people alive in a world that tries to render us dead. When I think of Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Simphiwe Dana I think it is their embrace. When I think of my sister and mother, I think “certainty” and the ability to inspire faith, trust and courage. When I see the comments on an Instagram post I think ‘solidarity’. We are a immense eternity of beautiful parts and wholes. s

I struggle to conceptualise ‘unlearning’. My approach is to replace what doesn’t work with what works better, and I experience that process as learning.

NM: What is the biggest threat to black womanhood?

MM: The usual suspects: racism and sexism.

NM: Are there any essential traits that an ‘ungovernable’ woman must necessarily exhibit?

MM: I prefer to describe the women who inspire me as “radical”. The traits that inspire me in radical women are their love for justice and their public-spiritedness. I’m inspired by women whose rebellion is focused on a greater good; militant women who function reliably in a collective.

NM: Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?

MM: Once again, I prefer to use the word “radical” to describe my iconic women. I will count Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Bessie Head, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, Rihanna, Toni Morrison, Frida Kahlo, Gaopie Kabe, my mother and my sister.

NM: What was your favourite literary discovery this year?

MM: Unfortunately I don’t have a new one this year, but I do rediscover Toni Morrison whenever I start a new book. She is a genius.

The actual events and relationships may be different, but like most storytellers, the themes and motifs I use almost always speak to my personal experiences.

NM: What aspects of the story of your film Joko Ya Hao speak to your own experience?

MM: All writing, whether the writer cares to admit it or not, is some form of confession. The actual events and relationships may be different, but like most storytellers, the themes and motifs I use almost always speak to my personal experiences.

NM: If you had only 5 minutes to talk to Mama Winnie, what would you tell her?

MM: I’m fortunate to have had those 5 mins. If I had another I would tell her we love her.

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