By Seyi Lasisi
Months after leaving Lesotho to pursue his MFA in filmmaking at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Phillip Leteka received heart-wrenching news from home: “The last cinema in the country closed its doors, with no hope of ever re-opening,” Leteka says in his Mastercard Enablement Application. Almost a decade after, there are still no cinemas in Lesotho. These eight years of having no cinema in his country have made him reflect: “It is as though we have been forgotten. It is as though cinema never really had a chance. A handful of those filmmakers who had at one point been resilient outnumbered against the tide, have chosen to go elsewhere.” By choosing to stay in Lesotho, Leteka is hoping to build. “I will not be building cinemas — the physical buildings, but I am interested in building a more resilient community of young filmmakers as I believe that to be the place where Lesotho’s cinema will reside.”
Lesotho is geographically surrounded by South Africa. A sovereign state, Lesotho got its independence about six decades ago on the 4th of October, 1966. However, for its estimated population of two million people to have a theatrical experience, they have to travel to South Africa. With filmmakers like Lemohang Jeremiah Moses, whose film, This isn’t a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, was Lesotho’s debut submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film — and Leteka, Lesotho’s cinematic reliance on South Africa is set to change.
Phillip Leteka is one of the winners of the Talents Footprints – Mastercard Enablement Programme Grants, a grant he won at the 73rd Berlinale Film Festival for his film-related educational outfit, Majoaneng (interpreted as “Academy of Images and Letters”). Majoaneng is a group of young aspiring filmmakers “armed with just a few basic filmmaking tools such as DSLR cameras and Portable sound recorders” who are interested in developing their filmmaking craft in the thick of Lesotho’s non-existent film industry. With the Talents Footprints grant, Phillip Leteka, the filmmaker, Fulbright Scholar, and lecturer at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (Faculty of Communication, Media and Broadcasting), is on the verge of imprinting a film industry on Lesotho soil.
The award-winning filmmaker has a long list of short films to his credit where he performed tripartite duty as the writer, director, and producer. Insolite, Of Words, Target of Convenience, Seek Another Land, About the Tenants, and Naka la Moitheri, are short films to his credit. My Education (2023) and You’ve Changed (2022) are documentary-fiction essay films exploring the ideas of displacement and personal change. In 2022, his project, The Lamb of Ha – ‘Matli (Nku ea Sehlabelo), was invited to participate in Talents Durban (2022) presented at the Durban FilmMart. Although as director and producer, there are no feature films yet to his credit, he was a part of the crew that brought Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s 2019 project Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film about You, to life, working as a sound recorder on the feature.
In this exclusive interview, the Lesotho-based filmmaker speaks with Afrocritik about Lesotho cinema and its potential for growth, the importance of the Talents Footprints Grant to the non-existent Lesotho film industry, and the question of representation of filmmakers from Africa at film festivals outside the borders of Africa. His responses are thoughtful and bear the weight of his intellectual depth as a filmmaker and visionary striving to use Majoaneng to push for the “official birth of cinema in Lesotho.”
Seyi Lasisi: Let’s begin with congratulations on being one of the winners of the Talents Footprints – Mastercard Enablement Programme. What does this win mean to you?
Phillip Leteka: This win means a lot. It means someone, somewhere has taken notice of our course, and they care. It means I will not be alone as I start the journey of contributing to the Lesotho cinema, which currently does not exist.
Lasisi: The grant in its third year of existence has been known for mentoring and financing filmmakers’ projects beyond their cinematic projects. The grant is to pursue your film-related educational training, Majoaneng, (Academy of Images and Letters). What significance does this academy hold for the future of Lesotho cinema?
Leteka: In reference to my video statement, which was shown at the Dine and Shine event, this project is about laying a solid foundation. It’s about building an institution which will be at the very centre of what will define Lesotho cinema. Majoaneng will be a hub that pushes for a more official birth of cinema in Lesotho. We are training our own community of visionaries who will be our window to the world. By the end of each cycle, trainees will have produced one promising work of cinema. The Mastercard Enablement Programme gives us mileage and a unique opportunity to build. I am fully aware that this is a big responsibility, which will require a lot of energy and effort, but unfortunately, I don’t have a choice. Maybe we won’t see any real change for a while. Maybe we won’t even live to see that shift in the landscape happen, but we need to do something now. Maybe only the next generation will be the one that enjoys the fruit. But it’s worth it!
Lasisi: You have described the film space in Lesotho as being non-existent. Can you explain what this “non-existent film industry” means?
Leteka: Lesotho does not have a film industry. The industry is non-existent, and I mean that in the most literal sense of that statement. There are no systems in place. No state funding, or any other funding opportunities. A handful of filmmakers from Lesotho often leave the country to go find solace somewhere else. But if we all leave, will Lesotho ever have its day? I think I’ll stay and start something, which is what my project is about. We don’t even have cinemas, not even one. If you really want to have a theatrical experience, then you’ll have to cross the border into South Africa, which means paying a very hefty price.
Lasisi: Your work borders across a different range of genres: drama, documentary, and psychological thrillers. What influences the decision to court these distinct genres in telling your story?
Leteka: Honestly, I am quite open to all sorts of genres and styles of filmmaking. I think it always depends on the story at hand. But regardless of the style or delivery, every story is often very personal, even if it might not seem so on the surface. I always bury pieces of myself and my experiences deep within the material.
Lasisi: Human rights issues, female empowerment, and queer representation are some of the topical issues your films spotlight. What influences this political undertone in your films?
Leteka: Well, I honestly am really waiting for a time when stories are just stories. A time when we are just telling stories to bring an experience to our audiences and nothing else. A time when there is no goal to make any kind of statement—political, religious, philosophical, or whatever. Just a good story and have all these different facts of life just present as simply that, facts of life. But of course, I understand that we are still a long way off, so whatever political undertones are present in my stories, are there to start, contribute or continue a much larger societal conversation.
Lasisi: What potential do African films portend as a revolutionary tool?
Leteka: A lot of stories from Africa boast a very rich mythology and culture that you just don’t see a lot in the west. They often offer movie-goers a rich alternative landscape and I think the world of cinema can do with more of that. There’s a great opportunity for films from Africa to position themselves well in that regard.
Lasisi: Do you feel that African films need more representation at festivals of this nature? What do you think filmmakers from Lesotho and other unrepresented African countries should do?
Leteka: Absolutely! I think there should be more representation of smaller films at festivals of this nature. But at the same time, representation doesn’t necessarily mean taking anything that comes just for the sake of having a more diverse pool—meaning those projects have to be really good. There has to be a lot of nuance in the filmmaking. I think things are starting to change as we’re beginning to see more and more projects from Africa. But we can do better. In the case of a place like Lesotho, ours is a much bigger challenge. We first have to start by building and creating some excitement around cinema and the arts in general, hence the urgency in my Mastercard-supported initiative. We will start there and then hopefully everything else will just sort of fall into place, including perhaps seeing more films coming out of the country in the near future. Perhaps even reach a state where we can even have a festival of our own one day.
Lasisi: Inclusion and diversity are gaining the spotlight in international film festivals with obscure filmmakers from unspotlighted regions getting accepted to festival circles. As an African filmmaker, what can you say about the level of diversity on display at the Berlinale, and the advantages it denotes for African filmmakers?
Leteka: Just a slight correction. I like to think of myself as a filmmaker from Africa. That’s just a place where I am from originally, but I’m open to exploring all sorts of storytelling and filmmaking even outside of that region. But in any case, I think audiences are hungry for new stories. They want to experience new worlds and hear new voices. That’s inclusive of films from Africa. What I appreciate about Berlinale is that it has all these different sections to try and have a more diverse pool of films. I think it’s probably not yet enough but I would like to think that Berlinale is trying to ensure that everyone is represented. But then again, I still think, in general, that films should always be considered on their merit.
Lasisi: How do you view the prospects of collaboration between African filmmakers that a festival like the Berlinale exposes filmmakers to? Do you think it will elevate the storytelling in the continent?
Leteka: I think the idea of collaboration should probably start even way before we come to Berlinale. I think collaborations and maybe co-productions should take place back home between ourselves. We should not have to wait for Berlinale to take place in order to connect and collaborate. I understand that it’s a big festival, which draws a lot of attention, but we should be in a position to start to come up with other ways within the continent. That way, by the time we come to Berlinale, we would probably be having a much stronger voice and presence.