Liwonga Mahlawe is a 9th grade theater student from Johannesburg, South Africa. She loves storytelling and has extensive experience acting for film and theater. She won a ConnectHER commission to make her film Divided As One, about how a woman and a young girl help each other heal from the trauma of gender-based violence.
1. Congratulations on winning ConnectHER’s first PitchFest and a $2,500 commission to make your film! What does the opportunity mean to you?
It means so much. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to bring awareness to an issue that affects so many women. Although I'm young, I do care about social justice issues. I’d like to contribute to the cause by using what I'm good at. Film is something I'm so passionate about, and I’m so excited that my first film will be seen by people.
2. You started modeling at age 3 and acting at age 9. You also belong to a performing group, play the guitar, edit video, and write songs. What enabled your artistic talents to flourish in so many areas?
Honestly, I’ve always known I wanted to be on the big screen, whether it’s as the star or having a production credit. I’m so inspired by people like Marsai Martin, Ava Duvernay, and Issa Rae. They’re making lots of noise in the industry, and it's beautiful to see. I also have people in my family who inspire me. My big brother is a musician and actor. And my mom is the founder of the KIDDZ Performing Arts Studio (KIDDZpas). She has definitely supported me and created an environment in which I feel like I can do many things. She has encouraged me to explore so much of my artistic side, and I’m eternally grateful to her.
3. Can you tell us more about your recent performance work?
In 2019 I attended summer camp at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, which crystallized for me the experience of filming both from an acting and cinematography point of view.
I am a member of KIDDZpas, an after-school film production and acting studio for kids from ages 10-17. It gives me an outlet to practice a lot of the bits and pieces from my theater classes with other teens who come from various backgrounds, schools, and experiences. The KIDDZpas team will play a significant role in production and post-production of this film. We also have fantastic dancers in KIDDZpas; they will receive a priority opportunity to audition for the film.
4. You talk about what a big problem gender-based violence is in South Africa. We need to do better at preventing violence against women, but also to think about healing for survivors, as you propose to do in your film. What kind of healing do you think is possible?
I have known victims of gender-based violence, and I have seen how in South African communities, violence against women is normalized and swept under the rug. I want to highlight that it’s an unhealthy approach. I want our society to start acknowledging the violence and start conversations about prevention and healing. For a child, that might mean finding ways to process your emotions so that your traumatic experiences do not completely define you as you grow up. For an adult who experienced trauma as a child, it’s a matter of healing your inner child, of realizing that what you went through is terrible, but also that it’s okay to enjoy child-like things and not shove them away in an attempt to distance yourself from the trauma you endured when you were younger.
5. What do you hope to do in the film industry in the future?
I am an actress, and I hope to become well known in the film and theater industry. I would like to open doors for girls throughout Africa and show them that they can do anything they dream of, from wherever they are. I also hope to create films and TV shows that people can relate to. For me there’s nothing better than watching a film or a TV show and feeling like I relate to the experiences I’m watching on screen. If I have to choose a favorite part about filmmaking, I would choose shooting. I really enjoy the atmosphere on set when suddenly everything comes to fruition. For me that’s a 10/10 experience!