​‘Kalushi’ is a meeting of history and cinema

There is a moment in Kalushi, Mandla Dube’s film about Umkhonto we Sizwe operative Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, when towards the end of his trial his brother and girlfriend visit him. This is the first time we see Mahlangu with family members since his arrest. The writing’s on the wall; the noose of hate will not loosen and Kalushi will be sentenced to death by hanging.

The room is surprisingly well lit, light seeps in from the roof, the four walls are grey and clean. Mahlangu (Thabo Rametsi) and Brenda Viera (Pearl Thusi) face each other, her eyes darting around the room refusing to meet his. “I am sorry for leaving you that afternoon,” he says to her matter-of-factly, as if it’s the most casual thing in the world.

The words make their way through her, she tries not to cry and instead flashes an awkward smile to hide her glossy eyes. The broad strokes of Mahlangu’s life are pushed to the background. The horror of apartheid is reduced to a single casual moment between two lovers who are centimetres apart yet worlds from each other. She will walk out of the visiting room and back into an uncertain world and he will take a different hallway to await his death.

It is a quiet, unpretentious moment that echoes long after you leave the cinema. What can you say to a man who faces a political execution?

Kalushi as a film is not grief porn or trauma tourism; it is a sensitive piece of cinema that has been made by a nuance addict. Dube has resisted giving the bird’s eye view of a political life that we’ve come to expect of films set in this period in our history. Specificity is what gives Kalushi its agency. Dube tries not to fall victim to the convenient tropes of apartheid hero-worship and, when he does use them, he subverts them to make a statement about how we digest our history.

Mahlangu’s courtroom monologues are often more comical than rousing. The humour is in the absurdity of the situation. The narration that threads through the film is a bit digressive but forgivable.

What matters is that Dube spends a great deal of time placing Mahlangu in the context of his family and pulling into focus the community from which he comes, bringing us unbearably close to the people who would be most affected by Mahlangu’s eventual death.

The women in Kalushi are the emotional centre of the film. Martha Mahlangu (Gcina Mhlophe), the bereft mother trying to make sense of her son’s sacrifices, and Comrade Eve, hardened by years in the wilderness and being subjected to the unspeakable horrors of being a woman in a training camp full of men. And then there is Brenda.

Brenda is a new kind of character because she is not a historical figure but rather a composite of the many women who lost brothers and husbands to the gallows. It’s easy to hold on to arguments about historical accuracy especially when the right to tell that history has so often been rationed to us. To say inserting a fictional character into a real story is tampering with the past is not an invalid contention. Dube understands that at times we have to venture outside of the confines of the facts to find the truth of Mahlangu’s life. The film is based on a true story but is limited by it. And Thusi’s transformative performance renders these arguments void.

As Brenda, Thusi is able to carry through the film the volatility of a girl who comes of age in an hostile world. Her greatest acting instrument has always been that of a utility player. The consummate all-rounder, she can play the township orphan trying to make a life for herself in Zone 14 or be the lawyer daughter of a taxi owner going legit in the corporate world in Isidingo.

The power of her performance in Kalushi is how economical it is. With minimal screentime, Thusi shows us that Brenda does not exist purely to fuel the ambitions of her lover. When we first see her she is a schoolgirl but when we see her again she is a woman. Her life did not grind to a halt because a man abandoned her. She is not a character whose strength is drawn from an ability to suffer gracefully.

When I watched the scene with Martha and Brenda outside the courtroom as Solomon is sentenced to death, these weeping women on the floor, bodies merging into each other and buckling under the weight of their shared grief, I was reminded of a story my grandmother told me. In the 1970s, one of her neighbours was four months pregnant when she saw her fiancé being shot by cops at a traffic intersection across the street from where they lived. She lost her baby and never had children after that.

When people say apartheid is over, who do they imagine it is over for? Is it over for men who were forced to relinquish their birthrights and make pillows out of guns? Is it over for the children who were forcefully removed and decades later cannot say the word home because it is a fire under their tongues? Is it over for the women who had to learn to make porridge and assemble guns because at some time, when a stranger knocks on your door, a bullet is the only hope you have?

This moment between Martha and Brenda draws into focus the truths of no closure. That grief has no off-ramp. It refuses to release us from its orbit and we keep circling back to it, learning to live and love around it. But every now and again there is a reminder, that what we have lost is everything. Kalushi was that reminder for me.

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