As with so many filmmakers, Tam’s route into making her passion into her career is a storied one. She started out by cutting infomercials, worked her way up to reality sports shows, survived a decade as a producer in advertising, and now wonders what took her so long to get around to doing what she’s wanted to do the whole time.
Tam is now an award-winning documentary filmmaker – she produces, she directs, she edits. A woman with many hats. Tam regularly makes 1-minute documentaries for a cumulative international social media audience of over 54 000 on her own site: Documinute.co.za
Tam has worked with Filmer over the course of two documentary projects. One of which, an honest and emotive 5 part docuseries that explores The First 1000 Days of Life through the eyes of five new moms.
Filmer was able to pin down this prolific filmmaker, in between shooting content in the trenches of an active mine in the Northern Cape, for a few questions.
Tam, what’s your origin story?
I started out editing infomercials during the graveyard shift while still studying and since then have done a little bit of almost everything in the industry. A lot of that time was spent worrying that I was going to be a ‘jack of all trades, and a master of none’ as I become very generalised in my career. Looking back now, all that experience in different disciplines really made my career what it is today and has given me the ability be a far more well-rounded filmmaker than I might have been otherwise. I have also found that it has made me a far more empathetic producer and director as I know what goes into other people’s roles.
When I did begin to specialise, it was because my husband, Andrew, and I were both accepted to go study at the New York Film Academy, him for cinematography and me for documentary filmmaking. We saved for YEARS but it was just never enough and I think we both just got fundraising fatigue and wanted to start doing, instead of saving. We used the money we raised to buy gear and decided to just go for it on our own.
Within 3 months of this decision I was featured on Humans of New York because of my social media documentary project, Documinute (a series of 1-minute documentaries about interesting people, animals, places, cultures and happenings). Within 24 hours of the post going live, Documinute went from having a cumulative 3 000 followers to over 50 000. As a result of that Documinute is now an award-winning production house, and I am asked regularly to make brands their own “Documinute-style” content. I have over 130 short documentaries of varying lengths available online (some sponsored by big brands for social media) and I even have a feature-length documentary out on Amazon Prime called ‘Banking on Africa, The Bitcoin Revolution’ – the first documentary about cryptocurrency made both by a woman and in Africa.
Tell us about the work you are currently doing?
Documinute has become synonymous with emotive and concise mini-documentaries, so currently I am working on a lot of different commissioned Documinute style content for various clients who want to tell emotive stories but don’t know where to begin.
Luckily, everyone has a story to tell so every client in every industry can share their message, brand or history in a relatable and human way. Right now we are on 3 week long shoot around the country filming various videos for an international brand and we are working on a series of campaigns for South African brands too. The end of 2021 got really busy. In a passion project capacity, I am working on a documentary tentatively titled ‘Tunnel Vision’ about a 53 year blind surfer from Cape Town who is representing her country in California in December at the International Para Surfing Championships.
What are the traits that got you to where you are now?
I was never particularly good at sports that required speed at school but I found that I could outlast anyone because I had staying power and that ability to just keep going has definitely helped me get to where I am today. There were many times that I was not sure this industry was for me or later, that my dream of Documinute being a vehicle with which to pass the mic to people who would not otherwise have a chanced to tell their own story would ever become reality. However, I just kept going because in the end, what makes most things a success is as simple as just not giving up. I am also a firm believer in looking after my crew and team in the way I wish I had been mentored and looked out for when I was a junior in the industry. In doing so, I have found a core group of people I know I can rely on and who in turn, know they can rely on me, and this ha made a world of difference.
What kind of work do you love to do?
I just love any kind of work that allows me to share a human story, that allows for people to connect with emotive content and for others to hear and be heard. I am all about candid interactions and letting others tell us about their lived experiences. This kind of storytelling typically lives in the realm of documentaries and documentary style content, so that is where my heart lies.
How do you think the South African film industry can improve?
I think there needs to be a shift in mindset towards the fact that filmmaking is a ‘team sport’ and no one person is the solution. While I can do a lot in the industry, I cannot do it all at once and there are disciplines where there are definitely people who are a lot better and more talented than I am. Having an opportunity to work with those people makes the end result better than what I could ever imagine, so I know I need others to help me.
I would like to see more mentorship programs – not just academically, but professionals should also be trying to pass on their knowledge where they can. And I’d love to see more of a shift towards making the people who make the films a bit more important than the films themselves as there is a culture of working people to the bone. A bit of mental health awareness amongst crew, starting at a tertiary level would go a long way to making careers within the industry more sustainable and the working environment and the overall experience a far happier and supportive one.
What drew you to start pitching and working with Filmer?
My friend and fellow producer, Alison Pope, pointed me in the direction of Filmer. I started using it, and will continue to do so, because I love the way it puts you into contact with the end client or agency. Often, if you are a small production company, it is very hard to get invited to pitch on jobs purely because people do not know your company and already have a list of suppliers they work with all the time. Breaking into that circle is very hard and I find that Filmer gives you an opportunity to pitch on what you want to work on and opens the floor to more ‘players’ to have a chance. I think long term this will be the beginning of many successful careers but also a shift in the types of work we are seeing out there as more people can bring their ideas to the table.
What advice would you give to young aspiring filmmakers?
- Done is better than perfect – if no one ever sees your film, does it even exist? You have to make a lot of bad stuff to learn how to make the good stuff.
- Don’t let gear hold you back – I was once hired to make a series of commercials on an iPhone. Use what you have. Borrow, hire, whatever – but do it!
- Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t, or that you should stick to a certain discipline in the industry, or that your vision isn’t ‘right’. If you want to be a filmmaker, FILM YOUR FILM. You’ve got this! 🙂
To see Tam’s work, please go to: https://www.documinute.co.za/