Nothing for Mahala skirts sentimentality by exploring the depths of its gallery of rogues.
You probably know Axe Gumede. He works at the bank in a high-level position. He lives in a fancy bachelor apartment, wears designer threads and drives a flashy new Mercedes-Benz coupe. You might call him a "black diamond" and he's the protagonist of Nothing for Mahala, a new local comedy-drama.
Axe is a go-getter. He's a member of the first generation of black South Africans with real access to material wealth. They want all the trappings of material success – and why shouldn't they? Their parents never had it and now they want it all.
Yet, in a country where people like Kenny Kunene and Khanyi Mbau are in the headlines for their hedonistic lifestyles and are role models for many, the film resonates with truths about money, materialism and greed.
"Essentially, we want to challenge people's attitudes and behaviours around values," says Garth Japhet, the chief executive of Heartlines, the company that produced the film. "We do this by telling stories that inspire people to re-evaluate what they believe about certain things."
Heartlines's film formula hits home with a punchy message, but it's not heavy-handed. "It was very important that the film could stand on its own as family entertainment first and foremost," says director Rolie Nikiwe.
Heartlines has also produced the award-winning dramas The Good Provider, Crossroads, The Bet and the Heartlines movie itself. In 2009, the Heartlines project also produced Hopeville, a co-production with the SABC, which was released as a movie and as a six-part miniseries.
Nothing for Mahala, made possible by sponsorship from Nedbank, the department of trade and industry and the National Film and Video Foundation, is making an impact before it has even been released. Its Facebook page has 32 000 followers and the YouTube trailer has had about 15 000 hits.
Produced by the excellent Quizzical Pictures (formerly Curious Pictures), the production and technical values of Nothing for Mahala are high, with much attention to detail. There's a full house of stars in the cast, plus new talent and some supporting icons – Lillian Dube, Annabel Linder and Casper de Vries.
Although it deals with serious subject matter, the irreverent script by Darrel Bristow-Bovey remains lighthearted and upbeat.
Axe (Thapelo Mokoena from Mzansi and Isidingo) seems to have only one close relationship – with his gogo. Greedy for success, he won't allow anything to stand in the way of his ambition to become a partner at the big property firm he works for. His mentor is his ruthless boss, Mike (a notably menacing Jamie Bartlett).
Yet, despite his many flaws, Axe is still likeable. In fact, none of the characters are simply good or evil. In this way the film creates complex characters that go beyond simple stereotypes.
When Axe is convicted of drunk driving, he's sentenced to 200 hours of community service at Autumn Hills retirement home, where a variety of characters live. One resident is Hendrik (Marius Weyers), a grumpy and lonely old man.
Yes, there's also the pretty love interest, and she comes in the form of Reneilwe (Mmabatho Montsho, known for her roles in Rhythm City and Generations), who runs the home, but the focus isn't really on the romantic plotline.
Both characters move the plot forwards by challenging Axe's greed and narcissism in their own ways. Meanwhile, Axe's extravagant lifestyle has caught up with him – he owes some serious debt to some dangerous skollies.
There's a risk of being didactic and sentimental in such movies, but Nothing for Mahala manages to skirt this. As Japhet says: "We're emerging from oppression and there are 12-million people in debt. Why do they get into debt in the first place? What drives them?"
As Hendrik says in the film: "To spend money you do not have to impress people you do not know … It's often about being perceived as successful to others that seems to matter far too much."
Nikiwe says: "Do you control the money or does it control you? These are the kind of questions we want to provoke."
Nothing for Mahala is the first Heartlines feature to be released on the big screen, exposing it to a larger audience than before. It will also show on SABC, as the previous films did. The films are a springboard to further resources that Heartlines produces and provides to schools. Workbooks take scenes from the film to provoke discourse.
"My interest lies in promoting behavioural change," says Japhet. "The theory is that we need a small amount of people to behave in a particular way and that begins to influence others. The film challenges us all to take a comical and critical look at our own relationships with money and people."
Japhet is under no illusions about being able to transform everybody – yet watching Nothing for Mahala just might be a conscious nudge in the right direction.