Before coming to NYU, South African filmmaker Talia Smith had not meditated on the makings of her relationship with her second mother, Susan. Even the term “second mother” served as a more suitable descriptor in America than it had back home, where “domestic worker” was common nomenclature. But as Smith mined her own upbringing, one that came into sharper focus against the backdrop of her time in America, a story began to emerge.
Umama is Smith’s aching portrait of a mother’s unthinkable loss, inspired by the director’s childhood recollection of Susan’s (also called Sibongile in the film) own son’s death. Even in its most harrowing moments, Umama honors Susan’s devotion and faithfulness to Smith’s family, depicted most lovingly in her promise kept to the family’s young daughter.
In a recent conversation with Smith, the filmmaker reflected on the impact and implications of apartheid on this particular story, the legacy of oppression that plagues both South Africa and America, and the complex relationships that define who we call family. Talia Smith is a recent graduate of the Tisch Undergraduate Film & TV program, and Umama is a 2020 Student Academy Award winner set to be awarded gold, silver, or bronze at a virtual ceremony on October 21. The film will screen as part of a two-film showcase on Friday, October 23.
We learn in the opening title sequence that this story is inspired by real events. In fact, Umama’s proximity to your own upbringing is extremely close. At what stage did you envision turning this story into a film?
Talia Smith: It was actually never a story that I had thought about. Once I came to NYU, I had some distance from my life back in South Africa and gained different perspectives. I started looking at my relationships differently and really examining them. Sophomore year I became kind of obsessed with mothers, [and thinking] about what a selfless thing it is to be a mother. I began thinking about Susan, who I would call my second mother. I started to really examine our relationship, and I remember the day that… I just had this very vivid image of her sitting at our house crying on the day that her son had passed. And so I decided that I was going to write this script to examine and process things for myself.
This is a story of contrasts: class disparity, nurturing one's own versus another’s, and these dueling concepts of motherhood. How do you hope for these themes to resonate universally?
TS: When I first wrote the script I was kind of nervous… What is the response going to be? Are people going to understand what I’m trying to say? When the response was positive and people were able to—especially my classmates who weren’t South African—relate to the core of the story, it pushed me to keep using that as the touchstone.
Motherhood and sacrifice—everybody can relate to that. On top of that, you have all these things that are South Africa-specific, but [those] parts are layered on top of something that’s universal. It helps people to understand and learn more about how South Africa works.
There are grave parallels between apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow laws and segregation in America. How does Umama reframe those realities for audiences?
TS: In South Africa we learn about Jim Crow and the civil rights movement along with apartheid and how South Africa came out of apartheid. When I first came to America, I was expecting something a bit different because of what we had learned in history [back home]. When I got to [America] I started to say to my friends, “It feels like South Africa is a pot that boiled and overflowed, and America’s pot… they put a lid on it and it was still boiling.” Now, with everything that’s happened, I look back at South African history and there definitely are parallels [with American history]. What I think I’m starting to see from a lot of the American viewers who are watching my film is that the lens has changed for them. But for South Africans, the lens remains the same.
Susan, growing up, she was only allowed to have an education based on domestic work. She used to tell me, “I learned how to use a coal oven.” And she learned how to sew and do all these domestic things. That was the education that she had. What was always interesting to me was that coming home [from school] she would want to learn what I was learning. She would say to me how lucky I was to get the education that I had. Her way of giving that to her children was using the education that she had—and the only thing that she could do because of apartheid—to empower her children. But that then made her an absent mother. So we still feel the legacy of apartheid today in South Africa.
Tell me a bit about your production process from the standpoint of casting and shooting?
TS: There were definitely pros and cons of working at home. It will always be my home and I have the support of my community behind me. I would post on Facebook that we’re looking for actors to play these specific roles, and people who weren’t involved in the film at all would be responding, “We maybe know someone who might know someone.” That’s a lot of how I found my actors—just constantly being in South Africa and meeting people. I keep saying this, but it’s very true: Each of them was sent—perfectly—for their roles. They came, they auditioned for the role, and it was perfect. There were no other thoughts that went through my head.
It was actually quite a crazy story for the main character, Susan, played by Connie Chiume. She was an actress in Black Panther; she’s quite a big star in South Africa. I saw someone post about her on Instagram, and I immediately went onto her instagram page, which she had just downloaded that day. In fact, her phone number was in her bio [laughs]. Because I was in New York, I couldn’t call her. So I called my mom and said, “Please mom, you have to call her and ask her if she’d be willing to speak with me.” Thank god for my mom. She has this saying, Feel the fear and do it anyway, and so I used that on her. She called her and [Connie] was willing to speak with me and she ended up doing it with us.