Getting to know Happiness is a Four-Letter Word creator Busisiwe Ntintili - 'I’ve always loved art and storytelling'

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Busisiwe Ntintili is an award-winning film and television writer, director and producer.
Busisiwe Ntintili is an award-winning film and television writer, director and producer.
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Busisiwe Ntintili, founder and executive producer at The Ntintili Factory, shares with us her experiences in the film and TV industry, her thoughts on transformation, and what it’s like to shoot a drama series for a global video streaming service during a pandemic.

Your experience in media and the arts is extensive, ranging from advertising agencies to radio stations, corporate videos and documentaries to the box office. Tell us more about your journey.

I’ve always loved art and storytelling. I wrote short stories, painted and played piano when I was in primary school in America, where I grew up and spent the first 20 years of my upbringing. At 13, I wrote and directed my first theatre play under the New Jersey Young Playwrights Programme.

When I returned to South Africa after graduating from varsity, I started out as a copywriter in advertising. Then I worked in radio as a copywriter and graphic designer, before getting my first big break in TV working on the first Big Brother South Africa series in 2001. And although I love performing and did so as a child, teenager and well into university, my true passion was in creating the stories. I always wanted to be behind the scenes, not in front of the camera.

What has been your most challenging role in your career history so far, and why?

My most challenging role has been as the showrunner for my latest project Jiva!. I created, executive produced, wrote and directed the show. To be in charge of an international-level production and to oversee hundreds of creatives – from the dancers to the actors – required an immense amount of energy and focus. But creating something special and uniquely South African, and working with amazing talent, was  the best part of the job.

The biggest challenge, however, was Covid-19. We shot the Netflix show in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, and had to stop numerous times because of varying lockdown restrictions. Every week I was on the edge of my seat, not knowing if we’d be able to actually wrap up the show. But we did, and I’m very proud of the work we produced.

Give us a glimpse into a day in the life of a showrunner and an award-winning film and TV executive producer.

A typical day for me as showrunner would include having a brainstorming session with the writing team in the morning, then meeting with my casting director to audition actors, approving a new location with my directing team, and squeezing in lunch in our transport van. Then it’s off to the set to brief actors on their story arcs, check out a crucial scene a director is shooting, going to the edit suite to watch the latest cuts of an episode, and giving my showrunner notes.

When I get home, I squeeze in dinner and only get a chance to check emails at around midnight. Most days during production are 12- to 16-hour days for the showrunner.

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In your opinion, how can we, as a society, create more positive spaces for female talent in entertainment?

I think that creating safe spaces for women starts with the people doing the hiring. As a showrunner and executive producer, I have made it my mission to create safe work environments for women in front of and behind the camera. We have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment on my sets. And representation matters: my writers’ rooms are usually filled with women, as are my creative heads of department.

In terms of transformation, how far behind or ahead is the South African entertainment industry?

The balance is still skewed unfavourably towards men and White filmmakers due to historical privilege, but we are making strides.  

From your days of creating Intersexions to Happiness is a Four Letter Word and JIVA!, you’re a very busy woman. How do you manage your time?

I used to work like a mad person, sometimes doing multiple shows at the same time. But I’ve learned that self-care is important to stay mentally and spiritually balanced. I now know how to switch off and take time out for myself.

You also train up-and-coming Black filmmakers. How frequently do you do this training and mentoring?

Over the past decade, I have run regular writing and pitching workshops for promising young writers, and I’ve mentored new creatives in the industry. I’ve conducted my own masterclasses at the Durban International Film Festival and the Time of the Writer Festival. Right now, I’m developing my own digital storytelling workshop series. My advice to those who want to make a career out of the performing arts is to learn, learn, learn. That’s what makes you a better artist.

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