If you can peel your eyes off the prowling cat slinking through Shatterbox Anthology 's newest short feature sponsored by DOVE® Chocolate, Khethiwe and the Leopard, you'll probably notice that the film resonates as a poignant celebration of childhood — a world shaped by dreams, imagination, and, above all, vulnerability.
Set against South Africa's verdant landscape of weed-braided dirt paths and worn, pastel-colored huts, the movie feels like it was staged by its main character, Khethiwe, a young girl living in a small, isolated village terrorized by adolescent bullies and, perhaps more pressingly, the leopard stalking neighborhood pets by night. A self-conscious storywriter, Khethiwe encounters the predator alone at her fort, harnessing its wild magic to tame her schoolyard tormenters, who've been trying to force her to do their homework for them (of course). It's a film saturated in the drowsy magic of innocence — that unapologetic, insatiable appetite for creation too often discarded along the road towards adulthood.
For director Pamela Romanowsky, the visionary behind 2015's macabre The Adderall Diaries, starring James Franco and Amber Heard, this sense of unbounded wonder is always near at hand. Like Khethiwe, Romanowsky struggled as a kid to preserve her quirky confidence while navigating middle school, though she knew that her curiosity made her unique. "I wanted to build a story with girls at the center of it — I was remembering what it was like when I was 13, an often-muddy outdoor child and a daydreamer who loved to write," she recalls. "Before I joined a mainstream school, my imagination gave me my sense of self. After I switched out of the Montessori program, it made me realize how weird I was. My intelligence and creativity made me a target for bullying, and I stopped talking about it."
Romanowsky's memories are sadly familiar. From Luna Lovegood to HRC, women are too often cast out for their smarts and energy, easy prey for loud mansplainers across classrooms and debate stages. Khethiwe and the Leopard, threaded with fragments of an unsure girl's stories, spotlights the sensitive child's quiet power — especially her potential to teach others empathy. "As kids, we're really good at nurturing creativity, but as we move through life, we become insecure about it, since it makes us feel overexposed," Romanowsky says. "I wish more adults would let themselves find outlets for the imagination. I’m lucky in that my work inherently involves creativity all the time, but sometimes I feel really vulnerable — and I’m most vulnerable when I just let my imagination fly."
Hanging onto the inspirations of eccentricity is hard, but, as Khethiwe shows, it's also incredibly brave. In her film's surreal, sleepy universe, Romanowsky locates the specter of childhood insecurity — a furious bully wielding a rock, a growling creature twisting between trees in the darkness — and turns its potent magic inward, pushing her unsure artist/heroine to keep going, spots and all.
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