South African filmmaker Jenna Cato Bass might not seem like the obvious choice to direct a horror movie. For most of her life, the 35-year-old helmer has steered clear of scares. “I was really sensitive as a kid,” she tells Variety. Even the sight of a character getting shot was too grisly for her to bear. “Horror was out of the question.”
Bass was in her twenties when she began dipping into the genre. (“I was still too scared to watch the actual films, so I read the scripts.”) She found herself fascinated by the form — what people found scary, and why — even while she puzzled over why most horror movies were about supernatural menaces, ancient curses or mysterious creatures from the deep: nothing that was “real or rooted in our world.”
That question would eventually lead to “Mlungu Wam” (“Good Madam”), a psychological thriller that world premieres at the Toronto Film Festival. Set in the suburbs of Cape Town, it follows a series of disturbing events that occur when a single parent (Chumisa Cosa) moves back in with her estranged mother (Nosipho Mtebe), a live-in domestic worker caring obsessively for the bedridden white “Madam” who’s employed her for 30 years.
Bass says she was inspired to make a movie about the “day-to-day horror” experienced by millions of South Africans every day: death, sickness, poverty and the lingering inequalities in a society still grappling with the legacy of apartheid nearly 30 years since the start of Black-majority rule.
“What would horror look like if it happened to the people who actually experienced it on a daily basis?” she says. “How would horror change if you took away those fundamental things that we expect, like the fact that horror is escapism, and the fact that horror is a sort of visceral, voyeuristic thrill …about people who don’t experience horror [in everyday life]?”
“Good Madam” turns on Mavis, a housekeeper whose days are a weary slog of sweeping, scrubbing, ironing, folding, and maintaining the vast and well-appointed household of her aging white employer. Bass wanted to center the film on a domestic worker, “this person who’s so integral and is in our homes and is running our lives,” as a kind of homage to a quintessentially South African figure who historically has largely been “sidelined in our stories.”
That decision also enabled her to highlight how the typically Black worker’s place in society presents a particularly South African conundrum. “Everybody in this country has got some sort of emotional connection with the domestic worker,” she says. “And [there’s] also the fact that the domestic worker is the ultimate symbol of apartheid race politics … and the way that apartheid persists and continues to haunt us.”
For Bass, horror seemed like an obvious mechanism to explore that dynamic. “It’s literally a haunting,” she says. “We wanted the movie to be like an exorcism, [to say]: ‘This is how the past haunts us, and the film is going to exorcise that trauma in some way.’”
“Good Madam” is a Fox Fire Films, Sanusi Chronicles and Causeway Films production, in association with Salmira Productions and Strange Charm. It was produced by Bass and Babalwa Baartman alongside Kristina Ceyton (“The Babadook,” “The Nightingale”) and Samantha Jennings (“Cargo”). Bass and Baartman wrote the script in a collaborative process that included the cast, which besides Cosa and Mtebe, includes Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, and Khanyiso Kenqa. Visit Films is handling world sales.
Bass’ fourth feature is not her first to both use and subvert genre twists in the service of socially pointed commentary. Her second feature, the body-swap satirical thriller “High Fantasy,” was a low-fi exploration of the messy tangle of race, class and gender identity in modern-day South Africa. With “Flatland,” which opened the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama strand in 2019, she reimagined the Western with a story of three women trapped by circumstances and thrown together by fate who set out on a cross-country journey of self-discovery.
Collectively her movies reflect the voice of a young South African filmmaker grappling with the complexities and contradictions of a country still hopefully striving to live up to its billing as the “Rainbow Nation.”
“It’s why I keep making these low-budget films,” she says. “I just feel like one film is not going to make a difference. So I keep making them. And at some point, there’ll be some body of work that maybe together has some kind of impact.
“Each one is contributing a little bit more to the conversation and — before the healing even starts — acknowledging the trauma, because that is something in itself that hasn’t really been allowed,” she continues. “In acknowledging the pain, there comes a kind of healing. You’re letting it out and being heard for the first time.”