'Elelwani': An insight into Tshivenda culture

Telling a Tshivenda story: Florence Masebe is lead actress and executive producer of the film Elelwani. (Madalene Cronjé, M&G)

Telling a Tshivenda story: Florence Masebe is lead actress and executive producer of the film Elelwani. (Madalene Cronjé, M&G)

Florence Masebe, the lead actress and executive producer of Elelwani – the first Tshivenda film to be screened in South African cinemas – is upbeat about her roles in bringing the movie to life.

The film is written and directed by Ntshaveni wa Luruli, who worked as assistant director on Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Jungle Fever, and represents a personal, albeit small, triumph for Masebe, who is one of the most vocal critics of the local film industry. 

She took up the roles of lead actress and executive producer to give something back to her people, she says. 

"We will never tell our own stories in our own voices or language [if things continue as they are]. We have a wealth of stories but don't care much about the value of heritage. Something needs to be done by [the department of] arts and culture and [the National] Heritage Council.
We're obsessed with kasi [township] lingo. You won't see programmes like Deliwe, which will proudly tell our own stories in our language without trying to diversify [...] through tsotsitaal [township slang]," she says. 

"Black practitioners are in film – but they don't own the industry. Twenty more Mfundi Vundlas [who created long-running soap opera Generations] is what we need." 

Elelwani, meaning "to remember" or "recall", originates from the book written by Dr Titus Ntsieni Maumela, who, as a teacher in the 1950s, wanted to show how education was an important vehicle to change the treatment of women in the Venda community. His first novel gave a voice to many Vhavenda who were told to study Sepedi or given books that were extracts from the Bible. 

Masebe was one of those children. Growing up in Limpopo, in a village called Tshakuma, she read Elelwani, which was published in 1976, during her high school days. 

Wa Luruli studied dramatic arts at the University of the Witwatersrand and went on to complete a fine arts master's degree in screenwriting and directing at Columbia University under the tutorship of the acclaimed director Milos Forman. 

The movie, which took nine years to make, tells the story of Elelwani and her boyfriend who are madly in love and plan to spend the rest of their lives together. They are both educated and live urban lives with aspirations to travel abroad. 

After graduating, Elelwani returns to her family in the countryside to introduce her boyfriend and announce their plans. But tradition weighs heavily on her family and they refuse to accept the union. 

The father wants his daughter to become the wife of the local king. What unfolds is a secret hidden by the royal family from the community and Elelwani is destined to uncover these mysteries and deceptions.

I chat over lunch at Tashas in Melrose Arch with Masebe, who has an irrepressible sense of humour and energy. She recently finished shooting the local TV drama Scandal in November and is working on a new production. 

 ?                         Actor and Producer, Florence Masebe. Photograph by Madalene Cronjé, M&G

If her heart is not in a certain project she won't do it, she says, which is why she doesn't take on many acting roles. "I believe in focusing on one thing and giving it my best." 

The conversation digresses to the industry. "In South Africa we don't have much of an industry. [But] we have hard-working people," she says. 

Masebe studied at the University of Cape Town's drama school and began acting professionally in 1993. 

Best known for her role as Humbulani in the SABC2 prime soapie Muvhango, Masebe has been on local television screens since her beginnings as a host on the youth programme Electric Workshop

She went on to play the role of Thembi in Generations and describes it as "an exciting journey for the length of time she was on it". 

Since then she's been part of the cast of 7de Laan, Soul City and Scandal. Elelwani marks her first leading role in a feature film.

The 30 000-plus people who follow her on Twitter are aware that she makes no bones about her cultural values and beliefs. She doesn't always tweet in English and says if she wrote in a language that someone didn't understand then it probably wasn't their message for that day. 

She's respected for her ability to speak, read and write in almost all of South Africa's official languages.

Masebe is vocal and fearless when it comes to biting the hand that feeds her. Tweets such as: "The likes of Endemol and Urban Brew remain big players in the television production sphere because they own facilities. The industry will not grow or transform if we are OK with being briefcase and laptop producers who must hire equipment and facilities" and "One day I'll find the energy to talk about how in 20 years I haven't seen a DAC [department of arts and culture] minister who worked for the arts" have sparked much debate. 

"It is cheap for a broadcaster to get into the business model of buying foreign [programmes], instead of shooting their own," she says.

"Film and TV credits show white people still own the industry. But we have come a long way since black people could only get roles as maids or nurses," she says.

Speaking to Wa Luruli about the film, he says: "Culture can only survive if it can adapt – if not, it's doomed to die." He adds that Elelwani aims to allow the audience to make up their minds about what message they get from the movie. 

"This young woman is the present South Africa, who is trying to forge a bridge between what it was [her past], and what it is [her present]. It integrates the old and modern culture and Elelwani learns that there is no contradiction or conflict between African tradition and modernity, as both traditions can live side by side with the understanding that neither of the two is better than the other. 

Through this film, Wa Luruli, who is Venda by birth, offers insights into an "exotic" culture without exoticising it. This is perhaps achieved by his refusal to explain or reveal all its secrets. 

Elelwani has received a number of accolades: the opening night film at the 2012 Durban International Film Festival; the official selection at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival, the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou and the Luxor International Film Festival in 2013; and winning the award for best actress in a leading role (Masebe) and best production design at the African Movie Academy Awards last year. 

Elelwani opens at the Mall of the North, Brooklyn Mall, Rosebank Mall, Maponya Mall, V&A Waterfront and Gateway cinemas on January 31

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