Before first-time helmer Jenna Bass turned her thoughts to movie magic, she was focused on a different type of sleight of hand. A graduate of Cape Town’s College of Magic, the 27-year-old says, “It was probably the best education I could have gotten.”

Bass’s pedigree isn’t just smoke and mirrors. Her first short, “The Tunnel,” was a product of Focus Features’ now-defunct Africa First program, and screened at Sundance and Berlin. “Love the One You Love,” a highly anticipated feature debut which has its world premiere at Durban on July 20, was executive produced by Lawrence Mattis.

But magic taught Bass the earliest lessons she would later apply to the bigscreen, where she learned to conjure a world that is both real and illusion. The transition from magic to movies, she says, was “probably the most obvious career move you can make.”

In “Love The One You Love,” Bass draws on three unlikely protagonists — a phone-sex operator, a dog handler and an IT technician — to look at love and identity in contemporary South Africa.

While at first glance the juxtaposition of her three leads seems odd, Bass says that the radical experiment of the Rainbow Nation after apartheid has created a society where “most people…are outsiders.”

“Put people in a room and see what happens,” she says. “That’s the story of South Africa.”

The divisions that still exist 20 years after the end of apartheid have been fertile ground for many South African helmers to explore, and Bass says those fractures helped to bring the story of “Love The One You Love” into focus.

“We’re a totally divided society,” she says, “but…we all (care) about love. If you really get under the skin of that in an interesting way, people will follow you.”

True to her roots as a magician and entertainer, Bass is juggling a host of projects. Currently in development is “Flatland,” what Bass calls a “feminist Western” which recently forged a German co-production agreement, and has received support from EAVE’s  European Producers Workshop, the Rotterdam Lab, Paris Project, and South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation.

She’s also working on a “supernatural noir” feature, “Tok Tokkie,” and “a collaboratively work-shopped hip-hop musical mini-series,” set in Cape Town’s gritty Cape Flats. In her spare time, Bass is also the co-founder and editor of an African pulp magazine, Jungle Jim.

“You always have to have five things that you’re working on,” she says.