We’re talking to Willem van den Heever in our latest #DIYwithDYD feature. #DIYwithDYD is a series that follows creative individuals. We learn how they made their amazing projects happen. Willem van den Heever is a 21-year old filmmaker from Pretoria. He has achieved massive success internationally with his short films. Some of which include Coffee which took him to Seattle’s National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), where it received the Best New Talent Award. He is also a Cannes Lions Finalist for his work on Man Made of More. He just recently got back from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival; his film Dropping In premiered at the festival and walked away with a $10000 Short Film Challenge grant.
DYD: We became aware of you because of the Hello Ambassador Conference in 2014. It was amazing to discover what a talented filmmaker you are, and at such a young age too. How did you get into film?
Willem: As a kid I always enjoyed messing around with the family camcorder. I think it was somewhere in the beginning of high school that I saw Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and just knew this is what I wanted to do, I wanted to make films. A bit later that year I also saw Bekind Rewind which also added to the inspiration of filmmaking. While still in school I started helping out on music video shoots, which gave me a good idea of what it’s like behind the camera and on a film set.
DYD: What kind of stories are you drawn to? And, do you feel that your work carries a distinctive Willem van den Heever style?
Willem: I’m drawn to broken stories. The imperfect stories about life, broken relationships and just being. I am mostly drawn to interesting characters and therefore more character driven films.
My work and I are both still young and I’m still discovering myself through my work everyday. And even though there are still a lot of my influences that can be seen in my films, a distinctive style is definitely something I am working towards and something that is starting to surface.
DYD: We watched Sibs Shongwe-La Mer speak at the Hello Ambassador Conference in 2013 and were struck dumb at the contrast of his success. He is part of a group of South African artists that are well-known abroad and revered in their respective fields but struggle to achieve the same reach in South Africa. Do you think this is the standard for South African artists who push the envelope?
Willem: It definitely seems so to me, yes. This is something, and specifically Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s story, that I’ve made a point of mentioning in interviews, because I’m experiencing the same thing. In the beginning it was quite funny to me, but now it just became the norm. I will get accepted at all these international film festivals, but locally my films just end up on the web. Hopefully, this is something that will change in the near future and we’ll see some more local recognition going out to these artist. (In a way you guys are already helping with this article, so thank you.)
DYD: Let’s deal with the age thing. You’re young. Do you ever have to deal with judgement based on your age?
Willem: I do, yes, and once again mostly locally. It is as if the majority of the local market is still stuck in this stigma that talent comes with age and the older you are the better you are. In some cases this is true, but we live in a time where kids educate themselves and from a much younger age than in the past. We are constantly surrounded by information and technology which makes learning and practicing our skills much easier than in the past. I believe age is irrelevant when it comes to art and your work should speak for itself. It was amazing to see filmmakers from the age of 16 at my first film festival in Seattle, with incredible work. It was just as great to see these filmmakers treated with the same amount of respect as the older guys. The reason why they have these filmmakers from the age of 16 already is because the market and industry support and respect them despite their age.
DYD: You’re also kind of a poster child for young filmmakers in South Africa. Does this set up difficult expectations that you have to work with?
Willem: It is something that I’ve started thinking about lately and it does put some pressure on me, and not just on what I create and put out there, but my everyday life as well. I don’t think we are always aware of who is looking at us and our work, especially when it comes to social media. To think that simple things like what I tweet or post can influence someone in the same way that I am influenced by my role models.
DYD: Where do you think the South African film industry is heading?
Willem: I don’t think anyone is quite sure on this one, but I definitely think it’s going in the right direction. Even though I think we are still focusing too much on the wrong kind of cinema and giving too little recognition to certain films, and specially local art cinema, the South African film industry is improving and we are moving forward. With filmmakers such as Sibs, Oliver Hermanus and the more popular Neill Blomkamp, just to name a few, South Africa is busy leaving its mark on the global film industry.
DYD: What have been some of the difficulties you’ve had to face along your journey?
Willem: For now funding is my biggest challenge (even though anything is possible with enough dedication and determination we all still know everything costs money). Hence this challenge you are depending on other people to help you out and believe in you and your dream, and like we’ve mentioned with my age-factor as well, this too can sometime be quite difficult.
DYD: What have been some of the highlights that you’ve experienced?
Willem: Everything I’ve experienced with my films so far is a highlight for me. It is incredible to think I’m living my passion and slowly turning this dream of mine into a reality. I was privileged enough to already have attended 3 international film festivals and my biggest highlight the 2015 Sundance film festival in Park City from which I have just returned. I met some of my favorite directors such as Jared Hess and Edgar Wright, something that I would never have imagined.
DYD: This feature falls in our “Do It Yourself” series. We’re trying to get young people to see different ways of handling their futures. What advice would you give to young people about starting their own projects and/or businesses?
Willem: Nike said it best, “Just do it!” Take every opportunity and chance you get and put your work out there. Not everything will be successful, but failing at something is the first step to success. 80% of Woody Allen’s success was just by showing up, and sometimes it’s as simple as that. Put in the hours and eventually it will pay off.