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Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi

Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi

This week we had a conversation with Johannesburg based, filmmaker, director and writer Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi. In our conversation we talk to him about his journey as a filmmaker, a valuable lesson taught to him by a varsity lecturer and how he approaches his creative process when dealing with clients as well as having the important discussion around payments from clients. We end on a lighter note and ask him about his favorite movies.


CN: Introduce yourself

XON: My name is Xolelwa Nhlabatsi, but everyone calls me ‘Ollie’.

CN: What do you do?

XON: I am a filmmaker, I direct and write. I can shoot and edit as well, that way I know everything. I had a great lecturer in varsity, she was always disadvantaged within the film industry because she was a woman and a person of colour. She taught me that in order to gain respect from the rest of the crew, I had to learn and know everything as I am automatically underestimated because of the colour of my skin.

CN: How has the process of learning to know everything helped you?

XON: I am the kind of person who gets annoyed when I do not understand or know something, so it has instilled the will to constantly explore and learn something new. It also helped me a lot because I could experiment and personally, that’s where most of my learning came from.

CN: Since you're a director and a writer, is it hard to direct a project you have not written?

XON: Yes, it is, commercials tend to be like that. It is kind of a slow process because I have to work on someone else’s concept but with time and experience things become easier.

CN: What made you want to break out of a 9 – 5?

XON: It was nice having a stable income, but I don’t like being told what to do. I was also lucky enough to have grown up in an entrepreneurial family, so I hung around their workspaces every day after school to learn and see how they ran their day-to-day endeavours. It taught me the importance of networking and how to use that to my advantage.

CN: What is your creative process like?

XON: I talk to my clients, ask them what feel they would like to create, what their favourite shows/ themes look like and to get to know what they like. That way I am able to gauge their quality and style based on what they like.


CN: Clients sometimes have a hard time articulating exactly what they would like from a project, how do you work your way around that?

XON: I ask them what the purpose of the project is and what about it makes it important. From that information I am then able to draft a concept. It’s honestly a give and take situation, it’s important to always reciprocate your client’s needs. If they’re happy, I am then able to draft timelines and a budget. In this industry, you’re always building new relationships - a new client is a new relationship. You need to bring yourself to the table,  be clear from the beginning about your capabilities.

CN: How do you deal with money matters and clients?

XON: There always needs to be a clear discussion because everything costs money. You need to also understand how different clients make their payments beforehand and their terms and conditions. That way you avoid being surprised with regard to their payment procedures. Always ask for clarity.

CN: What inspires you to be creative?

XON: Everything really, I would sit silently in a bus or at the park to just observe the world around me. I also watch a lot of movies, I watch at least two a day. I pick a movie based on how I feel on that particular day, whether it be the need for inspiration or a pick-me-up on a gloomy day.


CN: How did the Woolworths gig come about?

XON: That was a product of having good friends, a good network and having my work out there, so it became easier for people to recommend me based off the work I have already done.

Therefore, it is important to shoot and play in order to have content for a portfolio. Do internships, you can learn a lot from those about the work environment. Keep pushing, the aim is to never stop, regardless of what is happening in your life. Hone your skill and talent, be curious; sign up to newsletters and every piece of information you can absorb knowledge from. Have the humility to accept when things have not gone well for you, although you should  investigate where you could have gone wrong.

CN: Lastly, what are your three favourite films?

XON: In no particular order: La Haine (1995), Star Wars (1977) and anything directed by Ousmane Sembene

There are some great take aways shared here by Xolelwa. It’s important to keep learning, it will always be to your advantage to understand how things work. Know how to work well and execute a vision that may not be your own and be sure to have an open discussion with your client as when it comes to payment. You deserve to be paid your worth and on time.

The creative industry throws so many challenges and curve balls our way on the daily, it important to keep the fun in creating and stay inspired.

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