An award-winning writer, blogger and editor whose work centers on the post-apartheid condition from the perspective of Black, middle-class South Africans and women, Milisuthando Bongela is making her directorial debut with a coming-of-age story that she’s pitching this week at the Hot Docs Forum.

“Milisuthando” is a meditation on power, intimacy, difference, and the weight of loving and fearing your enemy in a time of decolonization. Directed by Bongela, the film is produced by Marion Isaacs for The Good Black Project (South Africa), in co-production with Sonia Barrera and Viviana Gómez Echeverry of Viso Producciones (Colombia), with Jessica Devaney and Anya Rous of Multitude Films attached to executive produce.

Bongela was born and raised in the republic of Transkei, one of the Bantustans or “homelands” set aside for Black inhabitants by South Africa’s apartheid government. Nominally independent, Transkei residents had a distinct experience of the years in which the rest of the country was operating under white-minority rule. “We lived in a beautiful house on a lovely street with Sotho people, Xhosa people, white people, people from Ghana, people from Uganda,” Bongela recalled. “I grew up inside apartheid, under apartheid, but didn’t know it was happening.”

With South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, which put an end to nearly 50 years of apartheid, the Transkei was absorbed into a country optimistically striving to become a “Rainbow Nation.” Bongela and her family moved to the coastal city of East London, where she became part of the first generation of Black South Africans to be integrated into formerly white-only spaces.

“We were children when apartheid ended, and so we were the first generation of children of different races to share spaces: to share schools, to share transport systems, to share parks, to become friends, legally speaking,” the director said. “On one hand, it was really great for this idea of integration, which is obviously against apartheid. But on the other hand, it put us right into…the lion’s den.”

Structured in five parts, the film returns to “that moment of first encounter” between previously segregated races, exploring the friction, fears, hopes and possibilities engendered by South Africa’s democratic transition. The question the director seeks to answer is: “What has this intimacy that people died for, went to jail for, and fought so hard for – what did it bring us?”

In the first part, Bongela returns to her Transkei youth, using home video footage from the early-‘90s to recreate the “strangely idyllic, pan-African” community she grew up with. In part two, she zooms out to look at the creation of the Bantu homelands, using archival footage that was used as propaganda during the design and construction of the apartheid state. “What we’re doing with this film, too, is we’re taking this archive, and we’re asking: What does it mean for a Black woman in 2022 to take this propaganda archive and subvert it, and to also turn the gaze on whiteness?” she said.

Act three returns to the end of apartheid, with the director’s friends and contemporaries sharing their experiences of integration in a newly democratic South Africa. The fourth act unfolds in the present day, in a society that’s adopted what Bongela calls “the language of wokeness” in order to have real, meaningful conversations around how racism manifests itself today.

Producer Marion Isaacs, who is a long-time friend and collaborator of Bongela’s, says those conversations are helping South Africans reexamine their relationships with the past while also redefining their relationships with each other.

“There’s this acknowledgement of a fundamental connection, and then the question of: If we are connected, then what do we do with these pasts? How do we negotiate them in the day to day?” she said. “It’s a resistance to the idea of going around these issues, and a firm belief in actually having the conversation, talking through the difficult stuff, looking inside.”

For the film’s final act, Bongela returns to the Transkei, bringing to her childhood home a perspective shaped by age and experience. “As much as I’m very critical of it, because it was this state that believed in apartheid, it’s the place that also taught me myself,” she said. “It’s the place that holds my language and my culture and my ancestors all there.”

“Milisuthando” is a deeply personal journey, and one that the director admits is far from completion. “I’m not resolved in any of this,” she said. “I’m negotiating all the different relationships every day.”

It is an exploration, too, of the Xhosa belief system – one that Bongela said has been instrumental in guiding her path through the modern world.

“For us, we believe in cleansings, and rituals, and incantations, and poems, and invocations of the ancestors and the universe and the sky and the birds and the wind,” she said. “How do you use these universal things that all human beings understand…to negotiate a response that retains your humanity, that doesn’t always put you in contact with this part that must always fight for yourself to be seen?”

Forum pitches can be streamed on the Hot Docs website. The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 28 – May 8.