/ 10 October 2022

Mlungu Wam: The international success story that returns to South Africa

Mlungu Wam Image (1)
After a successful run at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received an honourable mention, Mlungu Wam comes home for public screenings in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 20 October to 5 November.

“There is a wound rotting underneath the bandage that we need to talk about,” says Babalwa Baartman, co-writer and co-producer of Mlungu Wam, the horror satire about the transplantation of inimba (a mother’s love) from where it is needed to where it is paid for. 

After a successful run at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received an honourable mention, Mlungu Wam comes home for public screenings in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 20 October to 5 November. 

The psychological thriller lampoons the master-servant dynamic that South African society has come to find perfectly ordinary. There is terror aplenty in the economic arrangement that sees some mothers leave their babies to look after babies with beards. 

The real horror story, according to director, co-producer and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass, is the national malaise typified by “the maid-madam dynamic”. She implicates herself in the unequal race relations that enable this toxic symbiosis. “[It] has certainly affected my life and the lives of all my contemporaries, across race and class. The domestic worker is the symbol of everything that remains wrong with the end of apartheid.” 

Baartman goes a step further by indicting black homes with the continuation of this original sin. “From a space of privilege, to be able to seek out inimba is to remove it from another space. There could easily be a conversation about domestic workers and black middle-class women. The removal of a mother from a household to pay dues in another household is something that we need to interrogate.” 

Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has been absent from her family for 30 years when the film begins. In that time she has raised Ross and Grant, the children of the madam who now lives in Australia, but Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and Gcinumzi (Sanda Shandu) — her flesh and blood — have had to be raised by others.

In a commentary on the havoc wreaked upon the black family unit by the migrant labour system, and its concomitant township-suburb commute, Tsidi is combative and dysfunctional in her relationships. She refers to her birth-mother Mavis as “Sisi” and Ma Radebe — her grandmother — as “Mama”, because black South Africans were forced to protect the growing child with the white lie that the absent parent was a sibling, while a grandparent fulfilled the guardian’s role.

Tsidi and her brother are the progeny of different fathers, which is another reason children are sometimes told the lie. Gcinumzi — or Stuart, as he is christened by the madam — is adopted by Diane and raised alongside Ross and Grant. When he swashbuckles onto the scene a seemingly functional product of a stable upbringing, it is to address his biological mother by her Christian name.

Tsidi jokes to Luthando — the father of her child — that she needs Google Translate to talk to her “coconut” half-brother, but the jibe does not conceal her jealousy of his privileged childhood. She had to butt heads with extended relatives under her grandmother’s roof in Gugulethu while Gcinumzi lived the life of a prince as an honorary white person in Constantia. It is no surprise that as an adult he speaks English only and does the bidding of his adoptive mother. To cut Mavis, Tsidi supplies the taunt that when Gcinumzi visits it is not to see her but Diane.

“Stuart is a character that is easy to misunderstand,” warns Bass, so it may be worth considering that he feels guilt not only about his own, but his mother’s station in life. His version of penance may not go down easily with every viewer, but it is important to remember that contrition is there. “UnguGcinumzi,” emphasises Baartman, drawing attention to the meaning of his name, which in isiXhosa is “custodian or keeper of the home”.

“I don’t deserve these spaces,” shouts Tsidi in an altercation, with reference to the othering she experiences in the house in which her mother works. When awaiting school transport with her daughter Winnie, a jogger does a double-take of mother and child — one in uniform, the other in pyjamas outside the gate — as if to say, “People here have cars.” It is only when Tsidi takes the hint and wears a maid’s uniform outdoors that the jogger waves a friendly greeting.

Ostensibly, Mlungu Wam is about a haunted house but the extrapolation to be made is that terror comes from the occupants of it, and by extension the neighbourhood and the country. White minority wealth is the spectral stalker that has managed to invade our homes. 

The house is not a character, as the cliche goes, but rather the physical structure that stands in place of its catatonic madam. Diane is connected to it as a brain is to a body, and what is clear is that Tsidi is not wanted. Perhaps this is because she diagnoses the codependency between madam and maid as dysfunctional. As soon as she attempts to disrupt the relationship by telling her mother that she is too old to clean this big house, supernatural attacks commence.

What Tsidi does not understand is that Mavis welcomes the burden of looking after Diane into their old age, because the madam’s potential descent into a nursing home or grave would mean homelessness for the domestic worker. How, after 30 years of labour, is Mavis not in a position to afford her own home? Tsidi decries the fact that Diane never gives her mother a raise, which induces further enmity from the house.

From the door that locks her in the servant’s quarters, to the toothbrush assault perpetrated by an arm possessed, the house and its ornaments bend and twist behind Tsidi’s every move. The more she disobeys the house rules, the more malevolence stirs. The production design that evokes a beige oppression is commendable, accentuated as it is by Western kitsch ornamentation and Africana. 

A bass drone permeates the sound design as the voice of the house, building tension across the menacing static shots of Diane’s fine china and African art. When Tshidi asks Mavis what she would change about the house, the bearded busts, masks and dolls make her list. In this small way, Mlungu Wam gestures to an exorcism of whiteness where it has left trauma. 

“Telling the ancestral story of space is a huge part of the film,” adds Baartman. “Reclaiming space is intentional” but difficult as we see in Mavis’s qualification that she is not at liberty to redecorate. For, to say the Constantia house is home to her is not to say that it is her house.

Like most domestic workers, Mavis is perceived as an amalgamation of tasks. Bass and editor Jacques de Villiers frame this erasure by excluding the head from shots of cleaning tasks. A perfect example is the opening montage of Mavis’s daily chores: a greasy drain, a soaking pan and a white-knuckled hand flash by in eerie close-up. The intention is to show how she is seen by the madame who surrounds her as a felt presence.

We sometimes hear domestic workers being referred to as “part of the family” by their employers, even as dishware, living quarters, salary and (dis)inheritance mark them as other. Often, the biological family of the domestic worker is not allowed to visit, as Mavis exemplifies when she asks Tsidi what she is doing in Constantia. The convenient assumption that must be maintained is that the helper emerges from nowhere, related to no one. It is this phoney social contract with its dubious sub-clauses that Mlungu Wam challenges. 

Catch the film at various venues around Cape Town with the Cinewav app, which allows users to watch it on the big screen while immersive audio streams through headphones. The filmmakers have been intentional about distributing Mlungu Wam to locations such as The Castle of Good Hope, Langa, and Khayelitsha. A night market curated by Inxwala Slow Market, featuring small, black-owned businesses will be open before and after screenings. 

Mlungu Wam  will be screened from 20 October – 5 November. In Johannesburg, the film will have a limited run at the Bioscope from the 20th of October.Tickets are available on https://www.webtickets.co.za/.