Emotional strain brings Sibs back home from Hollywood

After taking Hollywood by storm with Necktie Youth filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is back home. / Yolandi Jacobzs.
After taking Hollywood by storm with Necktie Youth filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is back home. / Yolandi Jacobzs.

Auteur Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is back home after a whirlwind ride in Hollywood that led to his mental breakdown last year.

Born Sibusiso Mandla Shongwe in Johannesburg he was put on the Hollywood map at 23 after taking international cinema by storm with his debut film Necktie Youth in 2015.

Five years after its release, the cult classic is still a festival favourite and has been selected to screen at the 73rd Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland next month.

Yes, it made him an indie film darling in Tinseltown. But behind closed doors, Shongwe-La Mer has suffered overwhelming anxiety to follow-up on the masterpiece.

Being marketed as the "young black cool African" didn't help matters for the 28-year-old SA filmmaker.

After three years of sleepless nights, being overworked and travelling, his world came crashing down.

"I definitely think it was a long time coming," Shongwe-La Mer admits.

"For almost my entire 20s I had been on the road, living in different countries on my own and just really eating and breathing my work.

"Being so personally attached to what I write, I feel a lot of the time the industry makes it very hard to be you and the more success the harder it is to be you [with] voices in your camp or media informing you of what you should be."

After hitting his "emotional rock bottom" in Italy just before the Covid-19 outbreak earlier this year, Shongwe-La Mer sought medical attention first. With the help of his partner, they then packed their bags and returned to SA.

"I think there comes a time in any professional artist's life where you have to decide if you're doing it for the money or for the love.

"I had to admit at that point money was all I cared about and I had lost interest in what I do," he confesses.

Last time I spoke to Shongwe-La Mer was two years ago from his Amsterdam apartment. He was excitingly getting ready to shoot his second directorial effort The Sound of Animals Fighting in Brazil.

Shongwe-La Mer wasn't only set to helm the production, but write and star in it too.

The film had Hollywood A-listers Emile Hirsch and Alice Braga to star in it. That project has since been put on ice.

"The Brazilian political system became too fragile for our foreign investors at the time so we were forced to put it on hold, until things became more 'indie filmmaker' friendly."

Then in 2018 it was reported at the Cannes Film Festival that Shongwe-La Mer was tapped to direct Meridian that would serve as his follow-up to Necktie Youth.

Shongwe-La Mer explains that after securing that deal he spent months perfecting the script and casting for it. While closing on the lead stars for the film the Covid-19 pandemic hit and further delayed the project.

"The project is a real monster with some big names in conversation so it's one [lesson] I have learnt [that it] does take a lot of time, especially in such uncertain times as these."

He cautions aspirant local filmmakers that Hollywood is not the fantasy world that is painted out to be. He's found his nirvana back at home, and is focusing on the simple things in life, like family values.

"I don't think there is anything you can say truthfully about the film industry, completely unfiltered if you intend to continue working in it. That's the unfortunate truth and code of silence that comes with the territory," he shares. 

"So getting your voice out can be really hard unless you know how to scream over the noise."

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