Born and raised in Durban, before pursuing a filmmaking and directing course at the New York Film Academy in LA, and then followed by a diploma in media practices from the Boston Media House in Durban, top South African director Lauren Chengan has come a long way from being a childhood film enthusiast to now being signed with global production house FORT. Her directing career has seen her working with brands like Ford, Telkom, Black Label, Game, Debonairs, DSTV Africa, Nedbank and Discovery. Dedicated to telling both entertaining and meaningful stories, Lauren always aims to make her audience think, with whatever she’s putting out in the world. But let’s start from the beginning.
“I come from a very corporate family,” says Lauren. “But the thing is, I absolutely loved movies. I was completely obsessed, it was quite a problem.” That was the one persistent inkling that hinted at her future career.
Then Lauren started getting serious about it. “I started doing more research. I knew that all movies get made in Hollywood, so it was a no-brainer. In my mind I knew I had to go." The first thing on her list was going to LA to take her first real steps towards film. Soon after she found herself in LA, at the age of 18, as somebody who had never left their home country, starting a whole new chapter. “The whole thing changed my outlook on the world, the person I became and my craft.” Following her course in the States she moved back to South Africa. Upon returning home, Lauren found herself immediately doing a diploma at the Boston Media House specialising in film and TV. While there, she took her first real steps in the industry.
In her final year, she stumbled upon a universal opportunity – a South African teenage drama series was being shot in Durban, called Snake Park (about skater kids, so there’s your pun for today). With a group of other young creatives and fresh graduates, Lauren went to the casting of the show, where they actually went to the casting directors and told them they want to make a start in the film industry. “We told them we’re aspiring filmmakers, while the auditions were going on. We basically wanted to get onto the production. And it was awesome because they ended up selecting a few of us to actually go ahead and direct a couple of episodes, based on our portfolios. There I got to direct two of the episodes, so that was my very first official directing job”.
After her first directing gig, Lauren took a swerve through the industry and ended up pursuing an editing internship in Johannesburg, where she got to learn the ins and outs of a good edit. This alongside lots of script supervising for long-form projects kept her interested in the industry and according to her, made her a more well-rounded director today. “Both editing and script supervising helped me immensely. Without having that I don’t think I’d be the director that I am today – I am now always thinking about the edit, about continuity, and I know exactly how to do it. I’m always seeking the end result that is best for the entire team. Working in both of these departments helped my directing”.
Following her first employment she moved on to directing for herself, and as a doe-eyed 24-year-old she was ready to take up as much work as possible: “I was keen to do whatever,” she laughs. “I got to start filming real people’s stories, inspiring stories…that was the first gateway into directing commercials specifically, at that first proper directing job”.
All of this leads to now. Lauren joined FORT in the middle of last month and although she hasn’t shot a project with them as of yet, there’s a mutual understanding between her and the company already. "I’m a real admirer of the work they do and how far they’ve come, the way they push a lot of boundaries.” This is something Lauren herself is not a stranger to: “They seem very intentional with what they do and what they focus on, which I respect a lot. I think our values, goals, passions for the craft and the drive we share with the team at FORT. I very much look forward to all the magic we’ll create together.” And so do we at Little Black Book!
When talking about inspirations and what has kept Lauren going strong, she tells me things have changed in the past ten years (as they would for any creative). More specifically, there’s the dichotomy of noise and silence in the way she approaches the creative space in her own mind. “Ten years ago I’d find music and noise inspiring, they would stir my ideas. Now, I’ve just found that in our subconscious is where we hide all our greatest ideas, the rarest ones. So I love sitting in silence, in the garden or just outside amongst nature. I feel like when I am truly silent is when I feel really inspired – this is when I allow myself to get to my deepest ideas. It’s a new thing for me.”
And what kind of ideas are hidden in the silence, one might wonder? “I always strive towards change,” says Lauren. “When I started out, and still today, I feel very fulfilled when I’m working on stories and ideas where I’m also learning from the story. I want to do things that inspire me and others and that make all of us think harder, shift our mindsets. And if I do that, in my work, if the project allows it, I always strive to seek the deeper message and how that is connecting with the people watching it. You can’t just sort of drop information on people – it’s about how to actually connect and let people understand what you’re talking about. For me, it’s finding that connection.”
One project Lauren points to when we talk about meaningful work is her campaign that was aimed at provoking young people to register to vote for the general elections two years ago. Targeted at the next generation of leaders, the campaign included five different people from different industries. It was essentially a bold story of hope and inspiration, that gave real life results. “An incredible amount of youth did end up going to the polls and registering to vote. Just to think that you can have that effect on people is incredible. Or to think that I can be a part of that through my work… It’s phenomenal. I was very, very proud.”
However dedicated to change and poking and prodding people’s consciousness, Lauren also enjoys making light-hearted and purely entertaining work. “At the moment things are crazy,” admits Lauren “We’re constantly stressed about a new thing and there’s so much uncertainty, so we need things like that. I used to joke that if the world would end directors and filmmakers would be the first to go, because who would need us? We’re not doctors or lawyers. But now I realise people need our stories. We, as humans, need stories. They form every part of what we are, of everything. From religious texts and historical texts to telling entertaining stories on TV, it's all necessary. Both ones that make us think and deal with real issues and ones that make us laugh.”
Lauren’s extensive experience and her view of the Western filmmaking industry compared to South Africa’s industry gives her some unique insight on what is happening around her. “What is really exciting at the moment is the real boom we’re seeing in directors in South Africa. I don’t see it as a threat, I see it as something so inspiring and necessary. We’re finally looking at some diversity in directing in terms of race, gender, age. 20 years ago you had a very specific profile of the director on all of these fronts, but now we get people from so many backgrounds and in a variety of circumstances, which is needed for good directing.” Those real and inspiring stories, Lauren believes, need to be told from a plethora of viewpoints, which is what will breathe authenticity into them and really show that the people telling those stories are connected to them and truly understand them. The directing scene in South Africa is constantly changing and evolving, which, according to Lauren, is based on the diversity seen in the region.
Weighing up the differences between the South African industry and other global creative hubs, Lauren say: “When it comes to comparison between South Africa and the rest of the world, what I’ve noticed is, we tend to follow trends a lot. Sometimes cramming a lot of trendy things in a project doesn’t seem too motivated, we do get stuck on certain trends and try to weave them in where they might seem a bit hyperreal for the story that we want to tell. That’s quite interesting, but ultimately I think it shows that we do want to experiment, expand and try all the new things.” Although sometimes it might seem that there’s too much crammed in a piece, it comes from a place of experimentation in the context of the constantly broadening and expanding filmmaking scene in South Africa.
A director who has come a long way from a home-sick 18-year-old in Los Angeles, to a top name in the industry, Lauren definitely has a lot to say. Excited about the future and using the talent and success she sees around her as a catalyst for her own growth, it doesn’t seem like she will stop here or anytime soon. Wanting to provoke people to think is any creative’s aspiration in their work, one would believe, but it’s taking the leap and really pushing those boundaries that makes the difference – and Lauren Chengan is ready to do it all. “I hope I get to keep making meaningful work, making people think and giving them the stories they need to hear. I have a medium and I want to use it with intent.”