Jabu Nadia Newman is a filmmaker and photographer. Her latest project, The Foxy Five has taken South Africa by storm. The Foxy Five tells the story of a group of womxn in Cape Town as they navigate their multi-faceted lives all while figuring out their own definition of feminism while fighting against the patriarchy. Jabu’s work is uniquely unapologetic and current, giving a voice to her generation and their complexities.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think my parents were very adamant that I was creative. They kind of forced me to do piano, art classes and ballet lessons from a very young age. Throughout High School and Primary School I was busy with those extramural things and then when I finally got to university I was more influenced to go into film and writing. I would say my parents have been quite a big influence in being creative.
You also studied politics?
Yes, in my first year I studied philosophy, economic history, politics, and history, and then I dropped those and just focused on politics, media and film.
Do you feel like studying politics has influenced your work?
Definitely. Politics was my first choice and my major and I really enjoyed it. It was something that I thought I was going to get into but then film took a leading role.
You seem to be very conscious of the work you are putting out and the message you are trying to convey. How are you able to do that at the beginning of your career without being influenced by other pressures?
I think that it helps a lot that The Foxy Five is self-funded and is made up of a crew and cast that believes in what it is saying and believe in what it’s about. I’ve always felt that film had a responsibility of having a socio-political message and I always felt that film was such a big way to influence people to connect to it so easily because it is visual. It was very natural that the messages in the films that I was making were things that I was dealing with or were things that I was interested in.
Have you heard of The Bechdel Test?
Yes, that is actually a big influence in The Foxy Five. I read it and I was quite surprised that basically the only criteria for a film is to have a conversation between two womxn that doesn’t involve men and that is so ridiculous to think that most Hollywood films don’t fulfill that criteria. The fact that I had not even realised how there wasn’t enough representation of womxn; I was so used to it and taught that. Only when I read about the Bechdel Test did I think, “Wow, that’s really f*cked up and crazy.” That is when I was like “I want to make a series or at least a film, that is literally only womxn never talking about men or even if they do it is very much side characters.” Also making sure that none of the men in the series have names; they are ‘The Blesser,’ this person, that person, ‘boy 1,’ ‘boy 2,’ to make sure that they are not driving the stories, the womxn and their issues are.
How did The Foxy Five come about?
It came about during the Fees Must Fall protest in 2015. I was really inspired by the womxn in the movement and how they were leading the movement and all the things that they were talking about. There was a thing that came up called intersectional feminism which I was really interested in. I felt like I could relate my feminism to that and I wanted to understand it because I was going to a lot of talks that were trying to describe intersectional feminism and it was really hard. It was like, “It’s chaos. It’s thinking about 20 different things at one time. It’s thinking about your own privileges….” So then I wanted The Foxy Five to be like a research project or an experiment in how I could explain what intersectional feminism is through a narrative and through practical examples that we could relate to. A lot of women don’t want to say that they are a feminist because they feel as though it’s too academic or they don’t understand it or it doesn’t relate to their lives, but I wanted The Foxy Five to show that it really does because it shows that knowing the personal is the political. Knowing that by being a woman, feminism comes into play in your life
Currently there seems to be different degrees of feminism. Do you believe that statement to be true?
I think there are many ways to be a feminist. I think that feminism cannot be defined into being one way. You can be so many different ways that doesn’t agree with other women and doesn’t subscribe to how other womxn live that can be its own form of feminism in its own way. Feminism right now needs to be broadened to include housewives, stay at home moms, ‘blessees’ who have blessers, sugar babies and sex workers.
How do you feel about the word woman spelled with an X?
I think it is really important. I was brought to it by one of the characters ‘Womxn We’, Nala Xaba, during the time that I wrote the first episode and I had not spelled woman with an x, I spelled it with a ‘y’ and she explained to me that ‘x’ is a more inclusionary consonant in using it so that we can be talking about womxn that include trans womxn, non-binary individuals, able-bodied or any type of womxn that maybe isn’t seen as the conventional womxn. I think it’s also awesome that we are reclaiming that and not wanting to be linked to a man in any way or the idea of a man.
What I loved about The Foxy Five is that it is a group of very smart and modern womxn but they each have their own personalities and facets of their lives. They are dealing with very complex and real things. The latest episode dealt with mental illness. How do you go about writing something like that and staying authentic to these causes?
Each issue or facet that we are talking about is an experience that either the cast or the crew has had almost verbatim. When we get together and we are talking about the episodes, we are also sharing things about our lives and that influences a lot of what I write. It is very much personal experiences that go into writing it and making sure that we are keeping it as authentic as possible as well as trying to be forward thinking in the way that we are trying to show a way of how it should be or how we should be seeing it or how we should be viewing these issues rather than just putting it out there and saying, “This is how it is.” We also say, “This is how we should deal with them.”
At the end of the day they all have the same end goal and they work together but some of them have different ways of going about it.
It’s important for these womxn to hash out these issues amongst themselves to show that we can have different opinions and we can talk about them openly with one another and still come to a conclusion that can benefit the both of us. It was important to make these characters very different and often be at heads with each other because I feel like we need to work towards accepting other womxn as they are and understanding why they are the way they are and working together to create a solution that we can both be proud of and be happy with instead of discarding a womxn because “Oh no she isn’t a feminist so I am not going to work with her.”
A lot of viewers have responded in the comment section saying “finally a series where I feel portrayed.” Do you feel like there is an added expectation around the accurate representation of these complex womxn?
Ja. I think that the characters are still very much like a certain type of womxn which I am struggling with to find out how to expand that because honestly all the womxn in The Foxy Five are really beautiful, they are incredibly intelligent, they are able-bodied, they don’t have any disabilities so therefore there are a lot of womxn who are not being represented right now. This is definitely a first step in understanding what the South African audience needs more. Content needs to be made for different kinds of womxn. As much as this has been so rewarding and it has been so great to see people relate to that, I realise now that there is so much more we can do in representing womxn in South Africa.
How are you able to self-fund? And what are your future plans in regards to funding?
The first episode I self-funded from inheritance money and then after that my crew and I sold a lot of our clothes. We had a fundraiser. We do hope to have a crowd-funding soon to help fund the next three episodes because each episode has gotten better and better within production. We also have a production company that helps with providing gear and editing which helps a lot. We are hoping that now, after the third episode, that our audience will be more committed and more in tune with The Foxy Five and that they will be willing to donate to see it grow and to see the next three episodes because right now we are depending on funding.
Crowd Funding has just exploded and is enabling people to create their own art but do you feel that there is a certain responsibility that the government has to fund the arts?
I think so. I feel like funding creativity and funding the arts can only do good for South Africa and for the people and for the community. It definitely is a responsibility, and I hope that in the future it will be taken more seriously. The EFF has promised to do that so we’ll see. It is really difficult. Right now the film industry in South Africa is dominated by white males and foreigners because it is so cheap for them to film here. I don’t know if that is a distraction for the government to focus on local artists and local film-makers. I am really not sure.
I also watched your short, Dirty Laundry, and I noticed that your aesthetic is very similar to The Foxy Five and is very 70’s. Why the choice to work within that aesthetic?
Studying film, we studied black exploitation films which was really interesting to me because it was during the time of civil rights movement and there were these films that were made about black womxn just beating up everybody and being the hero and being this badass womxn which was so awesome to me because it was strange, I was like, “How was this allowed during that time? And why has this not carried on?” That is why I wanted to pay homage to that and people like Pam Grier who was a very inspiring female character and black womxn to look up to within the media at that time. I think that black exploitation films influence film more than we give it credit for and the film that we see today. That’s what I was inspired by.
What would you like to say to someone who hasn’t seen The Foxy Five because they have reservations about feminism or what it’s about? What would you like them to know?
I would like them to know that The Foxy Five is not only just about feminism, it is also about personal stories and it is also just good content and good stories to see how the womxn in South African are today and how they are viewing the world today. Essentially I wanted The Foxy Five to be conversations between black womxn to see what we are discussing and what we are talking about so that the rest of the world can know how we are feeling right now because we don’t always get the chance to say that.
Who are some South African womxn in the arts that inspire you?
Special thanks to Jabu Nadia Newman and Hannah Baker.