Award-winning director, Akin Omotoso, shows his softer side in new film, Tell Me Sweet Something

Akin Omotoso

Akin Omotoso

I caught up with Akin Omotoso to talk about his latest film, Tell Me Sweet Something, which was inspired by the director’s fondess for love songs, the romance classic Love Jones, and his desire to celebrate the city he loves — Johannesburg.
“I saw Love Jones [the 1997 movie starring Nia Long and Larenz Tate about celebrating love in the city of Chicago] and I remember the feelings I had when I came out the cinema. I wanted to be able to share that one day,” Omotoso says.

“I was at drama school at the time and wasn’t even sure what I would become … but I do know that I thought it would be great to make films which make the audience feel good.”

Deciding to make a romantic comedy is a departure for the award-winning director of Man on Ground, a film which deals with xenophobia, and God Is African, about a student’s battle to broadcast his protest against the controversial execution of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Maps Maponyane

Maps Maponyane

Nomzamo Mbatha

Nomzamo Mbatha

Work on his latest movie — which stars Nomzamo Mbatha, Maps Maponyane, Thishiwe Ziqubu, Kagiso Lediga, Thomas Gumede, Thembi Seete and Mandisa Bardill — began in 2010 when the filmmaker got a grant from the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF).

“They saw my short film, Jesus and the Giant, and liked it, so they invited me to come and talk about the film. They then decided to help with some funding for its development,” he said.

Omotoso used the money to bring together a group of actors to improvise the beginnings of a love story set in Johannesburg. Then from 2011 to 2014 he worked on the script. Asked about the lengthy lead-in period, he says simply: “We were not in a rush and wanted to get this film right.”

Once he was happy with the script, he cast his leads, Mbatha and Maponyane, both of whom auditioned for the roles. The two actors joined the rest of cast for a month of rehearsals before shooting started in May last year.

Filmed mainly in the Maboneng Precinct, Tell Me Sweet Something tells the story of Moratiwa (Mbatha), an aspiring novelist with writer’s block and a non-existent love-life since her ex-boyfriend, Norman, went out to buy milk and never came back.
Tired of having a recluse for a best friend, Tashaka (Ziqubu) convinces Moratiwa to party up a storm at a new club in the city.

It is here that she meets South African celebrity model, Nat Masilo (Maponyane), or as she nicknames him “The 45 Foot Man” on account of a huge billboard in which he features directly opposite her bookshop.

The film, which was screened at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) in July, shows a side of Johannesburg rarely seen. “It is my love letter to the city that I love,” Omotoso said. “I love Maboneng especially and what people are doing in spaces like Newtown.”

Asked how the film had gone down with audiences at DIFF, Omotoso said: “The reaction was really amazing. We screened it in KwaMashu and people were singing along to the songs, all of which are proudly South African, and engaging with the characters. If I can replicate the energy we found there around South Africa I believe we will have a blockbuster!”

Getting bums on seats at South African film screenings is, however, a challenge — one that Omotoso knows only to well.

“The challenge we face is to fight the built in bias people seem to have about home grown films,” he says. “What they don’t realises is that in the last couple of years the quality of films has improved greatly and movies are being consumed and praised by international audiences.

“So, I want people to go and see a film and then make up their minds about it. They shouldn’t simply tar all films with the same brush.”

Tell Me Sweet Something opens in SA cinemas today.
• Stay up to date with news on the film via Facebook/Instagram: Tell Me Sweet Something; and Twitter: @Sweetsomethingz. Watch the trailer here:

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