A local film has won a coveted award at the 19th annual Tribeca Film Festival. The event, which showcases a diverse selection of independent films each year, managed to push the boundaries of storytelling and connecting with audiences despite the COVID-19 pandemic, by presenting the awards online this year.

My Father the Mover, by South African writer/director/producer Julia Jansch, was announced as the Best Documentary Short Film, with the jury commenting that it is “a ‘movement’ film which frees people from the pain had the biggest impression on us and lasted through the tragedies we’re going through now”.

The short film tells the story of Stoan (a.k.a. Stoan MOVE Galela), a dancer who uses African electronic Gqom beats to motivate kids in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa to jive through their hardship and find their superpowers.

According to Jansch, the award-winning short came about by chance. “I met Stoan through my co-producer, Mandilakhe Yengo. It was a random encounter as he was working behind the scenes as a choreographer on a series. We started chatting and I asked him how long he has been a dancer for. He answered by saying ‘I’m not a dancer, I’m a mover’. I was immediately intrigued.”

Stoan (Mthuthuzeli Stoan Galela) is a self-taught dancer from Gugulethu outside Cape Town. He started dancing at an early age and his passion is his free dance group, the United Township Dancers. Stoan’s dream is to make dance his mainstream gig. “To make money I sell paraffin, I choreograph bride and groom dances and other gigs that come my way and I sell ‘#move – away from gangsterism’ T-shirts to raise awareness about fighting crime and gangsterism in the community.”

While talking to Stoan, Jansch learned of the work he does in his community. “I was so drawn to Stoan because here was this behind-the-scenes choreographer who was doing this magical work that no-one knows about. I wanted to get his story out into the world in the hope of providing a platform for him to raise awareness about his work. There are so many grassroots movers and shakers, just like Stoan, making small miracles happen.”

On a personal level, says the director, she was moved by Stoan’s spirit. “When we first spoke, Stoan told me ‘Everyone can have freedom. It just depends on whether you want to be free or not’. He was showing me a tattoo of a puppet on his arm, whose strings were being severed. The puppet reminds him that he doesn’t have to be bound or chained by anything. It struck a real chord. We all have our chains, whether mental, physical or environmental. Stoan inspires us to find a way to transcend.”

Jansch wanted to make the film in a way that felt as real and immersive as being with Stoan in the flesh. “This was the only way to tell his story. Of course, no-one could play a better Stoan than Stoan himself. The same goes for Alatha, his daughter, and the dancers. I wanted to bring as much integrity to the project as possible while shining a light and raising awareness for Stoan and the incredibly talented kids he teaches.”

Stoan invited an intimate crew into his home and his class. “The first time I met Julia we connected spiritually, and she understood my calling, and that made me trust her and our working relationship. I let her into my life and into my work,” he shares.

Jansch, the daughter of acclaimed South African producer/director Roberta Durrant, began her career in development, working for FremantleMedia and RadicalMedia. Her short films have premiered at festivals around the world, and she is currently writing her first feature. She has an MBA and an MSC from Oxford University and a filmmaking diploma from the New York Film Academy.

Winning this award is a career milestone for the young New York-based filmmaker, who describes the project as a miracle. “Sometimes the universe conspires to make something happen,” she says. “This project was not planned. My last short took a year to write and months of pre-production; this small gem came together swiftly without sacrificing on quality,” she says.

“Winning this award is an incredible honour and truly came as a surprise. When the jury told me I had won, it became divinely apparent why I had been compelled to make this film – to give Stoan and these extremely talented kids the global platform they deserve.”

For Stoan the opportunity was as unexpected and profound: “I have always dreamed of becoming an international artist and being recognized for what I love to do, but I didn’t ever expect to be involved in films that will win awards like Tribeca, I feel so blessed to be part of something really huge. To be quite honest I didn’t think that it would go this far. I actually took it for granted, maybe it’s because things like this, they seem so impossible on this other side of life, still my passion keeps me going.”

Julia has always been stirred by characters and narratives that unveil what makes us most human. Her stories are often psychological, offbeat, and brought to life through unusual micro-universes and lyrical imagery. She adds: “I think stories and films have a huge responsibility – they can uplift, challenge perceptions, change priorities, and garner awareness. They can do this because they can move audiences. If ever there was a time that revealed the importance of movement, it is now. Movement can heal, transcend, transform. We will get through these times and we will move again.”

Her latest offering, My Father the Mover, is a heart-warming tale about not allowing your current circumstances to dictate your future. With this short film, she not only provides hope in difficult times, but also strengthens her place in the entertainment industry.