‘Thina Sobabili’ sticks to the familiar

‘For me and my little camp over here, it’s always been about how important the story is to you,” writer and director Ernest Nkosi says, looking over at his team of co-producers sitting on the balcony at the offices of advertising agency Ireland/Davenport. Between taking phone calls and pulling together the arrangements for the North American tour of his film Thina Sobabili: The Two of Us, there’s the kind of banter typical of people who have spent enough time together to have outgrown niceties.

This familiarity is carried through successfully to the screen and sits at the heart of what makes Thina Sobabili a refreshing and authentic cinematic experience. It’s a rare gem in how it unashamedly speaks to a mass audience as one neighbour would to another, not as a vague representation of some other place.

It’s no surprise, then, as Nkosi is quick to point out, how close the film’s subject matter is to his own experiences. A young man, Thulas (Emmanuel Nkosinathi Gweva), is left to care for his younger sister Zanele (Busisiwe Mtshali), and is violently protective of her for reasons explained later in the film in a dramatic reveal.

He does everything in his power to shield her, but she catches the eye of a charming older man, Skhalo (Richard Lukunku). Unbeknown to her, he is dark and controlling, a side we see in terrifying detail in his exchanges with his wife Zoleka (Zikhona Sodlaka).

Although this story of family, poverty and survival takes place in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, it is not far from what Nkosi saw growing up in Katlehong, some 35km to the east of the city.

A scene from ‘Thina Sobabili’

But Alexandra provided the perfect cinematic backdrop, with “the main road dividing the haves and have-nots”, he says. The infamous Old Pretoria Main Road features in the film as support characters Mandla (Mpho “Popps” Modikoane) and Sbu (Thato Dhladla) make their way to a planned robbery.

Making an independently funded film
Much of what we learn about these two characters takes place outside a tavern, where they sit on crates playing a card game; the repetition of aimless activity emphasises the redundancy of a life with no apparent prospects. There is very little complaining, however; the characters just get on with the daily activities of their lives.

The film has clearly struck a chord with Los Angeles audiences; it was nominated for best picture at Danny Glover’s Pan-African Film Festival earlier this year, walking off with the audience choice award and an American theatrical distribution deal.

Speaking to Nkosi highlights the kind of creative control one can only have when making an independently funded film. He and his co-producers tried the government route, applying to the department of trade and industry and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) to no avail, but he shows no signs of bitterness.

“Not getting any money from them was the best thing that could ever happen to us. It forced us to go through the process,” Nkosi insists.

The township environment he creates in the film has an authenticity that makes the stereotypical scenes that predominate in advertising look cartoonish. Nkosi, a creative at Ireland/Davenport, is diplomatic in his critique of the local advertising industry and its representation of black life, saying simply: “There are not a lot of black people telling our story.”

Ernest Nkosi (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Having access to resources
Despite this, he credits the industry within which he works for teaching him the importance
of delivering completed products that look good.

“Advertising taught me finessing and finishing. The story came from inside, so there’s balance [to the film],” he says.

It’s an important point to remember when discussing local cinema. What are the characteristics of a successful South African film? Is it determined by technical prowess, usually achieved by access to resources? Or do we assess it by its ability to speak to a South African audience?

In addition to promoting the local film industry, the NFVF is mandated to restore historical imbalances in infrastructure and skills development. This is a complicated task, considering that not one of the 48 South African films that made it to the box office in 2013 and 2014 featured a black woman at the helm. It’s a worrying figure, considering that black people make up 80% of the population, with black adult women outnumbering their male counterparts by 100 to 86.1.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that speaking and appealing to a black female audience could help unlock a reliable and consistent cinema-going audience.

Enter Ayanda. Directed by Sara Blecher, it tells the story of a 21-year-old black woman living in urban Johannesburg who steps in to rescue her late father’s auto repair business from closure. The NFVF-backed project received great attention as the opening-night film at this year’s Durban International Film Festival and evidently aims to reach a hip, urban audience.

Much of it takes place in the trendy Maboneng Precinct, with the colourful and bustling streets of Yeoville also featuring. Whereas Thina Sobabili never loses its conversational pace – allowing the viewer a way back in despite the occasional wobbly performance or oddly placed piece of music – Ayanda is more like listening to your mother explaining that new thing called Twitter.

A genuine reflection
Despite a consistent performance by the lead, Fulu Mugovhani, the story does little but offer the story of a nice, hard-working girl thrown down a glut of dramatic plot points. There is no sense of genuine reflection.

The version of South African life depicted in Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Necktie Youth is a far cry from Alex, but is not without its own sense of disillusionment. Johannesburg’s northern suburbs provide the unsettled backdrop for the chilling events of the film that was named best South African feature at this year’s Durban film festival and won Shongwe -La Mer the award for best director.

The stark aesthetic immediately sets it apart from the typical South African film. A young (white) girl live-streams her suicide; we watch the effect it has on her fellow affluent drug-addicted peers.

A scene from ‘Necktie Youth’

The film is a brave undertaking, and what it lacks in story development it makes up for in audacity and style. While the lifestyle it depicts is only relatable to a few, the film has a certainty about it. It knows itself and reflects no obvious desire to be understood.

An example of an affirming and touching film that has been ushered through the state funding system is Nomalanga and the Witch, written and directed by Palesa Shongwe and named the best South African short film at the Durban festival.

Produced as part of the NFVF-sponsored female filmmakers’ project, the film tells of Nomalanga and her husband, who move to a new neighbourhood. Despite a neighbour’s warnings, she feels compelled to approach the mysterious woman across the road.

Shongwe describes the encounter between the virtuous Christian and the so-called fallen woman: “I was trying to figure out what that binary is. I was trying to figure out what that meant for femininity,” she says.

Nomalanga forms a warm and intimate relationship with the woman, despite herself.

The film is less a portrayal of young urban black femalehood than it is a reflection of how it is processed through white liberalism: charming, entertaining and unthreatening. However, in Thina Sobabili even the cinemagoer who is an outsider to that world is made room for at the fire.

The cast of ‘Ayanda’

The township scenario
Despite the differences in how the films are made, Nomalanga and Thina Sobabili share one characteristic: the way in which they situate the township scenario not as a reflection of a demographic but as an objective universe in which characters are confronted with the most relatable crisis in all human drama: choice.

Referring to a particularly bone-chilling scene in Thina Sobabili, Nkosi says it is intended to make the audience uncomfortable to the point where they want to leave – and to remember that there is a victim here.

Zoleka is a woman in a terrible position who makes a questionable decision. It is this choice that sets the wheels in motion for the film’s tragic conclusion. At the heart of the film, however, is a brother’s love for his younger sister.

Nkosi has been criticised for a lack of style, but he insists that all he wants to do is hold up a mirror and allow the audience to decide for themselves.

The most successful local films seem to have been born of a moment of self-reflection on the part of the filmmaker. It may be too much to ask of one film to be representative of anything more than itself. But in the context of developing the South African film industry, surely a yardstick should be its ability to access the most marginalised in society.

Thina Sobabili is on circuit in Gauteng cinemas; Ayanda is due for release nationwide on October 2

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