Nosipho Dumisa wanted to run with the premise of a film she loved, but as a reflection of the claustrophobic, down-and-out neighborhoods of South Africa.
Director Nosipho Dumisa grew up secretly binging on horror and thriller movies while her parents were asleep. For her first feature, she wanted to take the idea of a film she loved, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, and apply her own sensibilities to create something new. The result? Number 37, a film featuring a wheelchair-bound character, stuck in a hot, overwhelmingly red and claustrophobic room, navigating blackmail, a criminal outfit, and a sadistic loan shark...with only a pair of binoculars.
“I loved Rear Window conceptually and I loved it as a film,” Dumisa told No Film School. “But Rear Window is is nothing like the world of the Cape Flats. This was how I re-imagined it.” Dumisa designed the fictional New Haven area of Cape Flats in Number 37 to be a combination of several real neighborhoods in Cape Town, originally constructed during apartheid times to keep different racial groups from leaving the area.
Today, predominantly low-income people of color live in those same buildings, and while they’re not legally required to stay there, economically, they can still feel like a prison.For that reason, this is where Dumisa chose to set her story of claustrophobia and voyeurism.
Dumisa sat down with No Film School after her SXSW premiere to talk about shooting in confined spaces, using light to create tension, and why you should make the kinds of films you want to make, regardless of the filmmaking box that some people in the industry might want to put you in.
NFS: Voyeurism is a big part of the film, with that aesthetic of seeing through binoculars being an obvious component. But beyond that, there are other strong visual strategies in Number 37. Can you speak to us about your overall visual approach?
Dumisa: From the beginning, every discussion I had with each member of the team (especially with my DP and my editor) was that this film needed to be accessible to the audience via Randall's emotional state, as opposed to what Randall is actually, physically doing. When we meet Randall, after the film's prologue, he's just gone from being a man whose fit and tough to being in a wheelchair. For him, that's completely demeaning. And in his head, in his life, he feels like, "This is it. I've got these walls around me and that's it." It was important to say "Okay, visually, how do you show that? How do we construct a space where we feel stuck?"
One of the rules I had was that we couldn't leave the apartment unless Randall left that apartment. That was a key strategy in my mind. Then, when he gets the binoculars, they become a re-invigoration, creating a sense of access and a sense of control.
"As he moves, we as the camera can move. Instead of observing him, we are coming into his space and gaining control."
As that happens, our visual style changes and we can allow him to dictate our movements. As he moves, we as the camera can move. Instead of observing him, we are coming into his space and gaining control. We go from all of these high angles and wides to tighter shots, where we're in his face and almost in his mind.
As his plans derail and completely fall apart, there's chaos introduced. We become a little more visually erratic, as well as in our pacing and building. It’s difficult to do when you're in the same space the whole time. How do you change it without it looking like, "Oh, I'm trying to communicate something now."
Throughout all of those things, I stuck to the wish to communicate where he's at emotionally and in relation to his environment at all times. One of the other key things we did was work with reflections. We worked a lot of reflections in because for me it was about, again with this idea of us watching him, him watching others.
NFS: I was very drawn to these mirrors and reflections in the film, and at the same time as a filmmaker I was also thinking about this small space you were in. From a logistical standpoint, what was it like to have your production in this small room?
Dumisa: It was incredibly claustrophobic because the apartment looks much bigger on screen than it was, to be honest. It's tiny, tiny, tiny. Add a camera with the huge lens on it, and you are...incredibly confined. There's nothing glamorous about filming on location in South Africa unless you've got massive budgets, which we independent filmmakers just don't. And I think that's true around the world, really.
It was incredibly claustrophobic. The actors were frustrated. The crew was frustrated, but somehow all of that fed into this tension on screen, which worked beautifully. And the biggest challenge for myself was how do we keep coming back to the same space, and yet each time see it in a different way? As difficult and claustrophobic and intense as it was (both on screen and off), it all ended up working to make the film exactly what it is.
"The actors were frustrated. The crew was frustrated, but somehow all of that fed into this tension on screen, which worked beautifully."
NFS: The sweat and frustration translates from the air to the screen.
Dumisa: Exactly. Anyone who knows anything about being on a set knows that you have a gazillion different people in that space and you have to somehow move. You have to somehow do it.
I think it also made us focus on what we needed, as opposed to, "Oh, let's just play with this, and let's just play with that." We needed to really focus on what does the story need for us to tell it in the way it needed to be told, and leave everything else. It doesn't really matter because you're limited in your space, but your mind has to be a little bit bigger. You need to almost be more creative in how you approach the storytelling.
NFS: What were you shooting on? Were there tools that you and your DP agreed on for maximizing the look and feel of the film while dealing with this smaller space?
Dumisa: We both knew that needed a relatively smaller-sized camera, so we shot on the ALEXA Mini. We needed to do it that way. We divided the film into acts according to Randall's journey, and decided that our lensing would change with each.
I knew that starting out, I wanted to be wider. I wanted Randall to be a smaller person in an environment because he's a big guy. Actually, physically, if you meet him, he's very tough, but I needed him to feel small in this space. And a lot of that was about lensing and what we chose to use, and about stillness. Even in our movement, we needed to be very selective about how we moved and why.
As the film went on, we let go of all the nice, beautiful gear, and it became hand-held. The lighting was very important. There's a darkness in this film and not because of the genre itself, but because the world demands it. Randall's headspace demands it. The feeling that I wanted the audience to get, the more shadows there are, the more tension it would create. It helped that my DP Zenn van Zyl shot the short film as well, and he’s shot almost everything I've ever done. We have a really good relationship. We just get each other.
"It’s important that you stay true to what your vision is."
NFS: What would be your advice to other filmmakers?
Dumisa: I'd love to speak especially to female directors. I think it's important that we stay true to whatever our vision is, and whatever our voice demands. I think that as a female filmmaker, there were a lot of people who tried to push me into making romantic comedies or doing dramas.
While there’s nothing wrong with making those films, that's not really my interest. It’s important that you stay true to what your vision is. Sometimes it means it's going to take longer, but in any genre, in any aspect of filmmaking, everyone has that unique voice, and it would be so sad to lose out on some of it simply because we needed to streamline ourselves with what the industry tells us to do.