‘Sew Winter to My Skin’ Director Demystifies Last Days of South African Outlaw

“It’s a love letter to our history,” director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka tells TheWrap

Ted Soqui

By depicting issues of racism and bigotry in pre-apartheid South Africa, “Sew Winter to My Skin” writer and director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka said he wants to portray everything that “make(s) us the same in humanity, rather than the things that set us apart.”

Following a screening of the 2018 film, South Africa’s Oscar foreign race entry, Qubeka participated in a Q&A moderated by TheWrap CEO and founder Sharon Waxman. Based on true events, “Sew Winter to My Skin” is a Western-style film that follows the violent and emotional last days leading up to South African outlaw John Kepe’s execution in June 1952. Kepe (Ezra Mabengeza), the self-proclaimed “Samson of Boschberg,” was hung for a string of crimes including theft and the murder of a farmworker.

“If you ask me what the film’s about, it’s a love letter to our history. The pain that we live through in terms of apartheid made us who we are,” Qubeka told TheWrap at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles.

He explained that his film, which features little to no dialogue, drew inspiration from filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Jean-Jacques Annaud. He said he was inspired by the way such filmmakers relied on imagery to get their stories across the screen and decided to apply the filmmaking technique to compliment the psychology of his protagonist.

“A life of a thief is essentially a silent one. It’s you moving in the shadows,” he said.  “It was trying to get into the psychology of the man. He’s got this ‘rat-like’ persona… I found that space to be a silent space.”

In the multiple manhunt scenes before his apprehension, Kepe moves silently through cliffs and unforgivable terrain — all while carrying a live sheep on his back. Throughout the film he sneaks into houses and finds unique, if not stomach-churning, hiding places all for the sake of survival.

Producer Layla Swart and actress Kandyse McClure, also at the Q&A, recounted their experiences shooting the film in a rural town in South Africa, where the story’s events really took place. McClure recalled hearing racist remarks from the local townspeople. She said the racist, pre-apartheid sentiments portrayed in “Sew Winter to My Skin” still remain in the South African town.

“Nothing much as changed. People still live very much the way they did all those years ago,” McClure told audience members. “They didn’t want us to stay because…they didn’t want black people to use the same toilets.”

Swart said the small town’s behavior is a result of the socio-political climate. However, she said that including  the very real discrimination that’s intertwined with South Africa’s history was necessary for the film.

“I think what we really wanted to explore, was the psychology also on the white colonist settlers — who were thrown in a space that was antagonistic from the get go, that didn’t want them there,” Swart said. “We’re looking at both sides of people displaced in one space and time who have to deal with each other with so much fear of the other hating you.”

Qubeka recalled going to school in a similar place in South Africa and his experiences with racism. Though it may be easy to point out bigotry, Qubeka said it’s necessary to understand and feel sorry for their bigots’ small points of view.

“I feel like if you are in a space where you really look at some one who’s different to you whether it’s their sexuality, their religion or their color, and you think they are possibly a lesser human being just because of that, I think you are retarded,” he said, later apologizing for his use of the derogatory term. “It says to me that you’re worldview is small, because there’s no way you can have a full concept of humanity and be aware of humanity in all of its forms and still have that kind of hate and bigotry. We should feel sorry for the bigot.”