How I Do It: Journalist, filmmaker and author Santilla Chingaipe on surrounding yourself with the right people

Photography by Michaela Barca

“When you’re doing things that go against the grain, you want people around you who aren’t projecting their fears onto you.”

Impressive job titles are one thing, but what about people who have carved out their own niche and created a job specifically for them? Rather than landing that covetable LinkedIn byline, working for yourself presents a whole new way to choose your own adventure. That said, it’s not always about exploring the road less travelled – sometimes it can mean forging your own entirely untrodden path.

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It’s a tough slog, but if being your own boss is your own personal dream, How I Do It is the column for you. We’ll talk to established freelancers and friends of FJ who’ve been at this long enough to have the benefit of hindsight, and they might be able to help you figure out how exactly they ‘do’ what they do.

Money, agents, timelines and tight turnarounds – this is how to hack the creative hustle. This week, we hear from Melbourne-based journalist, filmmaker and author maker, Santilla Chingaipe. Here’s how she does it.

Run me through the last, say, five years of your life. What’s been happening for you?

I quit my job. So I worked full time as a news journalist for SBS and I quit that to sort of pursue a filmmaking career full time. And initially, it was supposed to be documentary filmmaking. And I had a whole universe of storytelling open up for me. So now I don’t just make documentaries, I make narrative, feature films, television stuff, presenting stuff, curating things for institutions, writing books. So it’s been a whole world that’s opened up since I took the leap of faith.

How do you explain to extended family members what you ‘do’ for work?

I don’t. Because there’s always someone that doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. And I like to tell people that I ask questions for a living, which is essentially really what I’m doing. And it depends on the context. So there’s some things that people can understand. If I make a documentary, or there’s something that people can see, to connect to, then they can, but in terms of what I’m doing on it, it’s very difficult to explain to someone, “Oh, I write, direct and produce”. Because sometimes people don’t really know what that entails.

And people’s understanding of that is usually from a Hollywood context, which is very different from the reality of things. So it’s hard. When people see something like, tangible it makes sense. If you write a book, it makes sense. But even just people understanding how much work is required to make an end product like that? I think a lot of people don’t quite fully grasp how hard people in the arts work. Because I think a lot of people just think we’re all having a big holiday. 


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A post shared by Santilla Chingaipe (@santigrams)

How do you explain to them how you pay the bills?

I also don’t, because it’s hard. And I think when it’s family, and they care about you, particularly if it’s parents and stuff. A lot of people know I mean, it’s the general stereotype about the arts, that it’s so hard to make a career sustainable career and have financial stability. And parents generally worry because they want you to have secure work and all that sort of stuff. So it’s really, really hard. And I won’t lie, like it’s not easy, carving out a career in the arts, especially in this country, because the arts are generally poorly underfunded, and undervalued.

Because like I said, I think there’s this misconception that creatives are just generally just kicking back and doing fun things. So it’s a very difficult thing to explain how it works in terms of being able to financially sustain yourself. Yeah, it’s, it’s sort of a little bit easier when it comes to sort of more formal things. Like if it’s working on a film or something, which has a structure because you’re working with institutions. So there’s usually a contract, an exact budget, a physical set that you work on… but when it’s sort of other little things, it’s hard to explain.

Take me back to age 18, when you left school. Did you have any sense of what you wanted to do, and if so, what steps did you first take?

I was supposed to become a doctor. And I applied. I didn’t get into med school straight away. So I got into Biomed. And so I was going to do Biomed, graduate, and then go and sit like a medical entrance exam, to then go into the four years at Melbourne uni. So it was going to be seven years all in all. That was my plan. I just thought I was going to be a doctor, despite the fact that I hate the sight of blood. 

Okay, so moving forward slightly. Take me back to your early twenties, when you were just finding your feet. Did you have any sense of where you were going and if so, how did you get there? 

I had no idea what I was doing. What I did have, and I still have it today, is just a feeling, you know, you wake up and you’re like, ‘This feels like what I want to be doing’… I think my early twenties was really [about] trying to prove to people around me, my friends, my family, that I like, I like it [and that] what I was doing felt right. And I knew that a lot of people didn’t quite understand. And they kept sort of wanting me to end up in a structure that made sense to them. And that was really, really hard. It was very hard, standing by our own convictions and pushing back against some of that sort of stuff. But I really didn’t have an idea of what I was doing. All I knew was that I enjoyed stories. I enjoyed listening to them, I enjoyed telling them. Journalism was the closest thing to me that I had grown up around understanding which is why it became like a natural kind of entry point. Yeah, but I did not think that I could ever make films like it never crossed my mind.

You know, it was never anything that I thought was possible… but it’s very hard when all you’ve got is a feeling and you can’t articulate it. How do you articulate a feeling? People dismiss you because when you’re that young people think that you’re just being young and ignorant… you know, some people think that they can’t take you seriously, because they’re sort of thinking, you’re probably going to be bored of this by next week. And so it was a lot of that pushing back and really trying to prove to people I actually know [that] this is what I really want to do with my life, and I’m gonna make it work. And it was really hard, because like I said, I didn’t have any networks. I didn’t have any connections in the industry. I had no idea what I was doing. All I had was the confidence in myself. 


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A post shared by Santilla Chingaipe (@santigrams)

What’s a common misconception about people who work freelance?

I don’t know what the misconceptions are of freelancers. I want to know! Because again, it varies, right? Like if you’re freelancing in fashion, it’d be very different to freelancing in journalism, which is different to filmmaking. I mean, it just depends on what you’re doing. Yeah. I think after the year that we’ve had where people have worked from home, and have seen how hard it is to be disciplined when you’re at home and self motivate, I hope that’s going to be one an insight into just how hard it is to work for yourself. To be able to get up every day. Set a routine for yourself. Get on top of deadlines. Hopefully that’s given people an insight into just how it’s not just chilling on the couch; it’s really not.

How did you learn to set your own rates? Do you have any resources to share/any bits of advice when it comes to dealing with the money side of things?

That’s really hard, because people aren’t really forthcoming with how much they get paid. I wish we did talk about it a lot more. Because I work across multiple sectors, like the different industries set different rates. So for filmmaking, for example, they’re set by the sort of industry rates, which makes it easy to standardise, basically. So [if] I’m working on something and I’m for hire, and I’m working as a writer or, as a director, my hourly rates are set, basically. I have a lawyer and I have an agent, [and] when I am working on things where I am being asked to use myself or promote myself and that’s part of the overall ‘theme’, the process of having an agent, in a way it helps because they help you work out what your value is and I’ve undervalued myself a lot over the years. 

But I did it for free. Because I was like, you know, it was part of building my confidence and building my skillset. And I’m not saying that’s what people should be doing. It’s just what works, and what worked for me. I always want to ensure that people get their money’s worth. Later on, the tricky thing becomes negotiating. Once you’ve built a bit of a portfolio, are you able to raise your value? That’s where it becomes tricky, to be honest. And that’s where you probably need a little bit more help. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of leaving school and freelancing for a while in their chosen creative field?

I would say, save a little bit of money. I mean, the first year I was running on adrenaline but the second year, it was hard. And I think it was only the third, third year that I started to actually get work coming to me that I wasn’t seeking out. This fourth year that I’m in now as a freelancer, it’s probably the first time I’ve felt I was definitely on the right track. So I would say that you need a little bit of savings, I would say, have people around you that support you.

It’s easier said than done, but when you’re doing things that go against the grain, you want people around you who aren’t projecting their fears onto you. And so sometimes people will say things well-intentioned, but they might make you second guess your choice. So you kind of want to be around people that support you, irrespective of whether or not you fail. You know what I mean? So I would say that I have at least one person that is like my cheerleader. He was someone who was constantly reassuring me, even when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. So I say: have a bit of savings, have someone that supports you, and just take the leap.


Check out the other How I Do It interviews here and our non-freelancer focused career series How I Got Here here.

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