We speak to director Mthabisi Mlauzi, aka Tee, about how growing up around gang violence led to the creation of his debut short, The Gift.
The Gift is unmistakably set in Derby – but perhaps not the Derby you’re familiar with. The landmarks featured in this 10-minute crime film have been warped almost beyond recognition into a dark and gritty representation of the city’s criminal underbelly, as protagonist Sam makes one final drug deal in order to finance his daughter’s birthday present.
Chief among these uncanny echoes of Normanton and the city centre is a sight known to anyone throughout Derby: the neon “TO SEE BETTER DAYS” sign, installed above the Spot as a beacon of hope for a high street still reeling from the impact of lockdown. In The Gift, however, this message could just as easily end with a question mark, as it takes on a more personal meaning tinged by tragic irony. Is a brighter future really on the horizon for Sam, or – as the recurring countdown motifs in the film suggest – is his time almost up?
“I didn’t want it to look normal,” explains 26-year-old director Tee Mlauzi. “It’s not a normal life to be selling drugs and going down that path. A lot of people perceive England to be a dystopia, and it’s completely different to how other people see the world around them. That’s why you see some of these young people going around wearing balaclavas – because their reality isn’t like ours.”
For Tee, The Gift is an expression of the darker side of Derby he was exposed to throughout his childhood. Originally from Zimbabwe, he came to the UK as an asylum seeker aged nine, and grew up in Sunny Hill, surrounded by gang violence. “There was a guy who got shot in my area, and I played football with him literally the same day he died,” he says. “I grew up around gang members, drugs and violence, but my family kind of kept to ourselves. It could’ve been language barriers – numerous things kept us locked in our own little place.”
Years later, after moving to Coventry to study civil engineering, Tee came back to Derby to celebrate his 21st birthday and was stabbed in a racially-motivated attack. “I got stabbed twice, so the guy was really going for me,” he recalls. “I went through depression and was questioning a lot of things in my life because I felt like I could have died. ‘Am I in the right place? Where do I need to go?’”
“I hope people who see the film start to go towards a brighter side of their life”Tee Mlauzi, director of The Gift
Tee instinctively turned to photography for solace. “When I was taking a picture, it was between me and the subject in front of me – and that’s all that mattered,” he says. From there, his newfound passion evolved into a career in filmmaking, as he gradually found opportunities to capture weddings and shoot music videos. What’s more, Tee dropped out of his civil engineering course to study film at the University of Derby, cementing his commitment to this new path. “Trying to convince my family that this was now what I wanted to do was a journey in itself,” he laughs.
Tee tapped into the network he had built from making music videos to assemble the cast and crew of his first narrative short film, The Gift. “I’m used to working with people who are first time actors or people who haven’t got that much experience,” he explains. “The lead, James Nyatoro, is a musician I’ve worked with, and I’ve always seen the potential in him to do film.”
Based on the lived experiences of Tee and those around him, the film is a frenetic, fleeting thriller that draws inspiration from a broad legacy of crime fiction, from The Wire to The Batman – but transforming Derby into his own Gotham City would prove a challenge. While the owner of the corner shop featured in the film was happy for Tee to use his space, others were less willing. “You don’t know who to ask and most of the time, as soon as they see you, it’s just, ‘Put your camera away’,” Tee says, suggesting a venue-booking system would be of benefit to Derby’s creative scene. “Getting space is quite tough, and there isn’t really anywhere that can point you in the right direction.”
Despite these difficulties, Tee’s commitment to his artistic vision resulted in a finished product that went down a storm at its Repton FilmFest premiere, with audience members sharing that the film had given them a new perspective. “I’m so happy, especially going to Repton and seeing the kind of area it is,” Tee says. “It was good for me to raise awareness of what people are going through right next door.”
Although the film depicts Tee’s negative experiences of Derby, he still loves the city and wants The Gift to be a vehicle for positive change. “I never thought I’d find another place that I’d call home until I came here,” he says. “Derby’s making good changes, and I hope people who are living the lifestyle that Sam’s living in the film see it and start to go towards a more focused and brighter side of their life.”
By Jamie Morris