Sunu Gonera on finding his voice, afrofuturism and making heroes out of ordinary people

In this opening talk of Design Indaba 2018 that brought the audience to its feet, the filmmaker talks about his career high and lows.

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Being the opening speaker for a Design Indaba Conference is not an easy task. Not only do you have to set the pace for the rest of the three-day conference but you have to leave them wanting more.

Sunu Gonera was the first to step on stage this year, cellphone in hand and the cool swagger of someone who knew his moment has arrived. The Zimbabwean-born director's moment has indeed come. He's one of the most sought after filmmakers working today. This explains why he splits his time between Hollywood and South Africa. 

Currently one of the directors working on American tv-series, Snowfall, Gonera also took the audience through his other work including the multi-award winning Absolut Vodka campaign that took the concept of afrofuturism up a few notches with rich, vibrant imagery.

Knowing that afrofuturism means different things to different people, Gonera went to his friends in the creative industry including directors, actors, creative directors, photographers and even his daughter, to find out what afrofuturism meant to them.

John Singleton, for example, had this to say: "Asking me about afrofuturism is like asking one of the Egyptian architects, 'how are we going to build these pyramids and why are we building them in the first place?'... It’s the moment where our origins meet the possibilities of our people. It’s where fantasy stops and reality takes hold and goes rather than imagination."

For Gonera, the love of fimmaking started when he was young and he used to watch movies.

He says his first time in Hollywood coincided with the writer's strike of 2007/8. Meaning he quickly struggled to make ends meet. He relates an incident where he invited Idris Alba to meet over lunch and had to hold his breath as the actor ordered champagne and all sorts of things.

He says if he had not lost everything in Hollywood and come back home to start over, he would not be able to walk back into those same rooms with the kind of mentality that he has now, one that says, “I am bringing something to the table”.

His experiences helped him find his voice as a filmmaker and also taught him the importance of telling the stories of ordinary people. People like his dad, who used to be a shopowner or the taxi drivers that ferry millions of people to and from work on a daily basis.

Whether it is the grandmother who featured as part of the Absolut campaign or the taxi drivers and the shopkeepers in the campaign he worked on for Metropolitan, Gonera says he wants these people to know, "I see you".

He adds: "they hold up the continent as much as the artists who are out there in the public eye. I just wanted to show those people in a heroic way". 

His talk ended on a high, including a surprise performance from Khuli Chana and an audience on their feet to give him the first standing ovation of the conference that week.

More on photography and art:

A photo series on colourism in Haiti, the first black republic

Edel Rodriguez on how the South African protest art influenced his work

Lyra Aoko uses the colour red as part of a photographic exploration of womanhood

Design Indaba Conference Talks 2018 are presented by partner, Liberty.