In her first horror film, GOOD MADAM (Mlungu Wam), South African director Jenna Cato Bass (High Fantasy, Flatland) explores South African’s complex relationship with Black domestic workers and their service to white bosses through the use of a supernatural thriller.
In GOOD MADAM (Mlungu Wam), Tsidi is forced to move in with her estranged mother, a live-in domestic worker caring obsessively for her catatonic white ‘Madam’ in the wealthy Cape Town suburbs. But as Tsidi tries to heal her family, the ‘spectre’ of ‘Madam’ begins to stir.
For the World Premiere of GOOD MADAM, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the chance to speak with director/co-writer Jenna Cato Bass, where they discussed everything from how the concept came about to the sound design of the film, and wait she hopes people gain from the film.
Hi Jenna! Thank you so much for speaking with me today. GOOD MADAM is such a multilayered story, how did this concept come about?
Jenna Cato Bass: It’s not like I have an idea straight away. It’s often I’ll have sort of an idea for a story and then I’ll also have something about society that I want to explore, and then I’ll also have a genre that I’m interested in. And so, they’re all kind of separate and it takes a while for the connection to sort of form. In this case, I’ve been wanting to make a horror film for a really long time, mainly because I didn’t watch them for most of my life. I’m a very late convert to horror cause I was just too scared for most of my life, I was really sensitive. I couldn’t watch people getting shot, like that was too much for me. I had to walk out of the Power Rangers movie, like I was easily scared. When I was getting into film, the last films I would ever watch would be horror films. So, it was only in my 20s that I started really watching them and was like, oh wow, I’ve been missing out on so many interesting films that can say so much about our world and things like that. For so long we wanted to make one but really didn’t have the confidence and didn’t have the story, basically. Getting into horror and watching lots of them and kind of just then realizing, why is it that I love horror but I’m not watching films in which the horror happens to people who usually experience horror on a day-to-day basis. You know, oppressed people, marginalized people who are actually dealing with things that are horrific, like the real horrific things in life, like inequality and structural oppression and things like that. So, what would a horror film look like if it was not happening to a suburban blonde woman and what would it look like here if it was happening in this context?
I then really wanted to tell a story about a domestic worker because they are such loaded figures in the context of our country, being very important in the way that they influenced so many people’s lives here. They really sum up the race relations of our country, and they also sum up the ways in which those things haven’t changed post-apartheid and the way that we would have thought they would. So, basically, making a horror film about domestic workers started to make a lot of sense.
One aspect of the film that really stands out is the sound. It plays such a huge part in regards to the cleaning that takes place around the house. Why make those specific noises so loud?
Jenna Cato Bass: I’m so happy you asked that! Our sound team will be thrilled cause that’s usually the last thing that gets talked about [Laughs]. We had a really passionate, very involved team on this project. The film was mixed in ATMOS so it had very immersive three-dimensional [sounds], more so than we would expect from a tiny budget movie. Seldom do we get the chance to have a high budget sound experience so this is very fortunate that we had that partnership. There’s a lot of layers that I could speak to you about the sound in terms of loud things [Laughs]. There were several moments when we were in the mix where there were certain sounds, usually related to the cleaning and sounds like viscerally related to the labor and cleaning and things like that where I was like, “No, louder!” And the mixer was like, “Are you sure?” and I was like, “LOUDER!” [Laughs]. We even got to a point where he was like please can that be loud enough? And I was like ok fine [Laughs]. [It was] to draw the horror out of the heart. The labor and what that means in this context of power dynamics in this house. And also just cleaning a house gets really gross very quickly. Just kind of drawing out everyone’s visceral experience of dirt and filth and like that kind of dirt that we accumulate as human beings without even really being messy or dirty. We create dirt, but someone has to clean it up.
There’s so much symbolism presented within the film from African masks to Egyptian hieroglyphics and so on and so forth. I know we can’t delve into every single one, but could you talk about the importance of symbolism in the film?
Jenna Cato Bass: As you say, there’s a lot of different layers. I never make films that provide answers. I like to make films where a few days later you’ll be thinking about it and you’ll be like, oh, there was a thing, maybe that meant something, and you’ll think about it a little bit more. So, kind of providing layer upon layer upon layer upon layer where you can, post-watching the film or on revisiting it you’re constantly being entertained by that thought process of like rediscovering things, you know? So it’s not just like you watch it for an hour and a half and then it’s over and you move on with your life. There’s always something there to discover. But I think the main motivation for that is like that for me is the experience of life and anything that’s less complicated is like an over-simplification. Everything is complicated and everything is multilayered and especially in a dynamic like this that you’ve got in the film where there’s so much like, Mavis is crazy but she’s also not crazy and you can also see where she’s coming from. It’s like that kind of complexity… it’s a reflection of the complexity of these characters.
When it comes to acting, I was floored by both Chumisa Cosa and Nosipho Mtebe’s performances. What was the process like in finding these actors?
Jenna Cato Bass: The film is a kind of mixture of people who’ve never acted before and people who are actually quite experienced, and Chumisa Cosa is the most experienced actor in the cast who we found through auditions. We kind of followed the usual processes of going to agents and everything. And she’d actually recently moved from Joburg to Cape Town so, she was not an actor I heard of because our industries are in some ways quite different. Myself and Babalwa Baartman, who’s my co-producer/co-writer on the film, we met her and we really liked her. For me it’s always a big thing, you have to like the person you’re going to work with. And then she gave us an audition tape. She is so fully three-dimensionalized, the character based…we don’t work off a script, which is another aspect of the film. We have like an outline and then we have ideas and kind of a brief for the characters. Then we cast actors and develop the characters further with the cast. Then we write a scriptment for the film and then the actual movie gets improvised. So, the dialogue…none of that is pre-written, it’s all kind of in the moment. So, that’s an approach I’ve been doing for a while. Another reason I was kind of worried about doing a horror film is that it’s hard doing that kind of collaborative process when you’re doing something with plot points that you have to hit and scares that you have to do. So, that was a challenge. And she just really kind of created this character and it was quite different from the character we’d imagine. She’s wonderful and such a professional. She’s amazing.
And then Mavis who’s played by Nosipho Mtebe is completely new to acting and she is a domestic worker. I decided that I really wanted to have an actual domestic worker who’s had that lived experience of the physicality of that kind of work. A big part of that character is that physicality and I don’t think it’s something you can make up, it’s the kind of thing you have after having worked for 30 years at this job. Domestic workers in South African cinema have been very stuck characters in South African movies. They’re always kind of like a prop in the background and they’re very seldom given any life. And I was like if we’re going to do this then I want it to be someone who actually has this experience, you know? So she’s never done it before and she was also kind of surprised herself.
We’ve talked about so many of the incredible elements and layers used for this film. Is there anything you hope people will take away upon watching this?
Jenna Cato Bass: I think there’s a lot of different things going on in the film. It’s not like I prescribe a certain thing or like a particular kind of message or something. It’s more just like, I want people to, and this goes for all my films not just this one, leave feeling like they see the world differently, even if it’s just a tiny little bit. Maybe it’s not permanent and the next day they wake up and they’re back to normal, but just for like a moment if they see that life isn’t what I thought it was, society isn’t what I thought it was, or human beings are more complicated – like just for a moment, seeing a different layer that they hadn’t seen before.
GOOD MADAM had its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).