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CT filmmaker’s dream hits the big time



Jessie Zinn is only 28 years old, but she’s already achieved what most filmmakers dream of: recognition and global reach.

Zinn reached this apex moment when The New Yorker announced that it had acquired her film, Drummies, last week. This means that this short documentary will be streamed on its platform, bringing a South African story to the world. “As someone who grew up reading articles in The New Yorker, this is an absolute dream,” she says.

Zinn grew up in Cape Town, and attended United Herzlia Schools, before going on to study at the University of Cape Town. It was there that she first picked up a camera and fell in love with the medium, and she’s never looked back. This is just one of many accolades she has gathered in recent years. Her short documentary, Wavelengths, literally made waves when she filmed it from outside the windows of hotline volunteer counsellors in San Francisco during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drummies, which is about a team of drum majorettes in Cape Town (known as drummies), was also shot at the height of the pandemic, when time stood still, and it’s this stagnation that Zinn captures, contrasting it with the drive, energy, and frustration of teenage girls under lockdown.

The theme of ambition and coming-of-age is infused in the film, which The New Yorker describes as having a “dreamy” quality, and which Zinn says is about “a drum majorette team over a slow summer in 2020, and [about] aspiring to be greater than where you are now, which everyone can relate to”.

She doesn’t take achieving her dreams for granted. “The New Yorker has always been a publication I’ve admired, and it’s an international platform. The digital world has opened up an incredibly exciting space for documentary filmmakers because there’s real appetite for content,” she says. “Just to have that reach is an incredible opportunity. I hope people from all over the world watch the film and are able to relate to it on some level or learn something new.”

Zinn says Drummies is the film she produced as part of her MFA (Master in Fine Arts in Art Practice) at Stanford University. She was one of eight candidates from around the world selected for the degree, which she humbly describes as “miraculous”. It was during these two years that she made documentaries that shaped her as a filmmaker, and where she developed an interest in telling stories about women’s reproductive health. The sensitivity needed when engaging with real people about their lives “required an extra level of respect and understanding”, she says.

She has always wanted to make a film about drum majorettes, but wasn’t able to do so until Stanford University provided the funds and resources to make that dream a reality.

“I grew up in a post-apartheid South Africa, where sport plays a pivotal role in shaping ideas of nationhood and identity. As a sport, drummies is particularly interesting, as it emerged in the late 1920s, and was one of the few racially integrated school sports to exist throughout apartheid,” she says. “Today, drummies is a fiercely competitive and high-stakes sport in our country. Drummies girls sacrifice a lot for excellence, but absolutely love what they do. The teams are more than just sports teams – they grow up together and become little family units.

“However, due to the sport’s glitzy veneer, drummies is often taken less seriously than other male-dominated, more stereotypically ‘masculine’ sports,” she says. “I was fascinated by this dichotomy of a glitzy exterior versus an interior world filled with blood, sweat, and tears. Drummies provides an escape from some of the harrowing realities in our country, and is intrinsically bound to dreams, hopes, and aspirations. I wanted the film to reflect a dream-like escapism, joy, and fantasy. Mostly, I wanted to create an empowering portrait of these incredibly inspiring young women, all of whom I have no doubt will help pave the way for a better future.”

Zinn first came across a team of drummies through a photo series by South African photographer Alice Mann, which was published in The New Yorker in 2018. It was this that sparked her interest, which has now come full circle back to that publication.

“There was a real sense of empowerment and strength in the portraits that immediately caught my attention. I was also drawn to this subject as I was extremely dedicated to sports and dancing growing up, so I immediately felt a connection. The team that I ended up filming is at a school just down the road from where I grew up, so it all felt personal and familiar. Though I’ll admit, the girls tried to teach me how to do a couple of their tricks, and I failed. The hand-eye coordination required is insane!”

It was in mid-2020, when she was unable to get back to South Africa, that Zinn got in touch remotely with the Groote Schuur Primary School drummies coach Nadia O’Reilly, “who was excited about the project. Through WhatsApp messages and voice notes, I ‘cast’ the main girls that the film would focus on in order to expedite the filming process a bit,” Zinn says.

“However, due to COVID-19-related restrictions, I ended up getting stuck in South Africa for the rest of the semester, which in a strange way was great because it gave me more time to spend with the girls, on and off screen. I became close to most of their families, who kindly invited and welcomed me into their homes.”

Zinn says she usually shoots with just her and her cinematographer in the room, so they worked “with COVID-19 restrictions instead of against them”. It created the intimate quality that she wanted to achieve, making a film from the girls’ perspective. Kyle Stroebel, a colourist at The Refinery, helped achieve the film’s dreamy quality. He also worked on Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher.

After Drummies played at a number of film festivals, Zinn was approached for it to be acquired by The New Yorker. She says it was “extremely lucky, as often filmmakers struggle with distribution, especially for short films”.

Now based in Cape Town, Zinn is signed to Giant Films to create commercial films, and also creates her own independent documentary films under her production company, Red Coat Films. She credits her family, especially her mom, theatre critic Robyn Cohen, for nurturing her love of the arts.

“My goal is to continue to create, learn, and improve, so I pick projects that allow me to experience the most growth,” she says. Her advice to aspiring young filmmakers is to “back yourself” in a difficult industry with lots of rejection. You have to be mentally strong, and back your vision or goal, because you’ll face many hurdles. Get comfortable with rejection – it becomes your best friend,” she says. “Behind every success is 100 rejections. You need to be able to use them as fuel for forging ahead.”

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