'I almost died fighting Satan in my soul' - filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer

Sibs Shongwe-La Mer
Image: Jenna Hiscock

A brush with death that saw South African filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer clinging for life while in Brazil inspired his new project The Sound of Animals Fighting.

Born Sibusiso Mandla Shongwe in Johannesburg, the 27-year-old auteur writes to me from his Amsterdam apartment after a gym session. He points out that he's watching the light defrost from the rooftop of his studio window.

“After Necktie Youth came out I was really traumatised by having to stay in that space for a decade. I had lived that narrative for so long in my soul that I had killed off a lot of who I was to make it. I didn't do normal young people things,” he recounts.

“It was a nightmare. I felt completely drained... during the world tour, I had two near death suicide attempts and a lot of near death encounters. I used substances to try to die and not have a good time or party.

“I almost died in Brazil fighting Satan in my soul, burnt myself trying to reach the heavens… and in the fire that became my life I learnt that love and the people I have are all I have… so I wrote The Sound of Animals Fighting.”

Shongwe-La Mer will star in, write and direct his much-awaited follow-up to his critically-acclaimed and award-winning 2015 first feature film Necktie Youth. The Sound of Animals Fighting already has Hollywood actors Emile Hirsch and Alice Braga attached to star in it.

Principal photography will begin in the third quarter of the year and Shongwe-La Mer shares that he will shoot for two weeks in Johannesburg; before heading to, Sao Paolo, Brazil for two months.

“I can at this stage only confirm that I will be in it and one or two faces from my first picture will definitely make an appearance,” he says.

“It’s very important to me that I use this and other opportunities I get to really actively put South Africans on the global stage and create jobs and avenues of empowering South Africa. So people really don’t need to stress about me going Gavin Hood or whatever.”

Sibs Shongwe-La Mer
Image: Jenna Hiscock

Starring Bonko Cosmo Khoza, Shongwe-La Mer and Colleen Balchin; Necktie Youth screened at major international film festivals such as Berlin International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival. It won big at the 2015 Durban International Film Festival and 2016 South African Film and Television Awards.

“When I was 14 my first girlfriend video taped her suicide and art was really the only way I could survive where that took me. So it was never like ‘I’m going to be this big star’ it was like ‘If I die soon, I hope they know I was here’. That became Necktie Youth. Then I got very lost promoting that film and reliving that darkness,” he explains.

Amsterdam has been home for Shongwe-La Mer for a while now. He tried living in Los Angeles, but decided after four months that it wasn’t for him.

“Talking about my time up to now in Hollywood is way too much to even start but needless to say things went really bad in the beginning,” he shares.

“I was totally spiritually bankrupt and in no position to be out there in the centre of ego, lust, drugs, money and other evils.

“The Dutch are very supportive of my work and have offered me incredible opportunities for me and my work on the condition that I live here.

“Honestly though, it’s because South Africa hasn’t ever really been behind what I’m about in a way that I can feed my family and create art at the level I need to.

“So I realize the best thing I can do for me and my country is to live abroad and set up global infrastructures that South Africa can plug into financially and culturally.”

Shongwe-La Mer has made some big changes to his lifestyle. He doesn’t go out to bars, clubs or parties. He’s very religious and a complete vegan. He jokes that at the moment he’s listening “to a crazy amount of Drake”.