/ 17 October 2022

Thabo Khambule speaks about his award-winning film, Margarine

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The film, a story about pain and abandonment, won the Best International Film and Best Director at the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema

“You know that phrase, it takes a village to raise a child? In this film, it became a case of ‘sometimes it takes a village to make a film’,” says writer-director Thabo Khambule about how a community helped him make his award-winning film. 

Margarine, which marks Khambule’s feature film directorial debut, is executive produced by Carmel Khambule, Thabo Khambule and Kabelo Thathe, and stars some bright young talents, including Themba Mkhoma (Mirage of Life), Linda Sebezo (Gauteng Maboneng), Yolo Noruwana (Diepcity, uMbali) and Motsoaledi Setumo (Greed and Desire, The Queen).

The film opens with its main character, Mafashion, furiously kicking down the door to his estranged father’s shack. Raging with anger, he aims a gun at his father’s chest. “You’re only my father because you fucked my mother,” he declares. “Besides that, you’re nothing to me.” 

Ignoring his father’s desperate plea for him to drop the gun, Mafashion pulls the trigger. Adrenaline pumping, he lets out a few deep breaths before he spits bitterly on his dying body. It’s a riveting start to a film that explores the disturbing life of a delinquent with no moral compass, while it also interrogates how a troubled upbringing contributed to the vicious cycle of violence that he struggles to escape. 

This opening sets the tone for a raw and unsettling portrayal of a lawless life in adestitute township. The film also explores the yearning we all have — even hardened criminals — for tenderness and care, especially in the face of abusive homes and absent parents. 

Mafashion finds it in Tshepang, the naïve student who he calls Margarine because she’s as “beautiful and yellow as margarine”. They’re from opposite ends of the spectrum, making their interactions both fascinating and confusing right up to the end.

The film was shot in Munsieville township in Krugersdorp. Khambule says he chose the site primarily because he had a limited budget and because Munsieville has a hub of actors, many of whom he knows, who were committed to making this film a success. 

“They could get locations for free, go into people’s houses for free. We could negotiate all those things … And visually it looked nice and I knew I could have access to key things like locations, actors and even wardrobe because I didn’t have an official wardrobe person. If we saw someone dressed nicely that speaks to our main character, Mafashion, I’d be, like, ‘Bheki [Ncube], please talk to that guy and ask him if he can lend us his clothes for when we shoot’. That’s how we built the world,” 

Apart from the absurd audio effect every time Mafashion lands a hot klap, you wouldn’t know the film was made on a shoestring budget.

Khambule says the concept evolved from a documentary drama series he’d shot years ago as a pilot about reformed prisoners looking to atone for their sins by apologising to the families they’d hurt. After experiencing some difficulties with the broadcaster when it came to the legal aspect of the project and other things not going according to plan, he canned the project but kept the footage. A few years later he began developing it as a feature film. 

The idea for the film was sparked by a conversation with a friend. Their discussion centred on true stories about criminals terrorising people in the townships. His friend spoke about things he’d experienced in his formative years and how he would grow up to become a nightmare to society. 

“After talking to him I realised that he was a monster because of how he was raised,” Khambule says. “He was raised in his [maternal] home and his mom passed away. But the uncle was a nightmare to him. He was violent and abusive. His dad stayed on the other side with the stepmom and he couldn’t go to his father whenever he had problems with his uncle at home. I think he was scared of the stepmom; she wouldn’t welcome him with open arms.” 

Khambule used the core of this conversation and later, while shooting the film, he exercised his artistic licence to craft a compelling story. “It’s not based on a true story. It’s just inspired by a real event. Otherwise it’s totally fictional.”

Khambule recalls reading a haunting story in The New York Times more than a decade ago about a boy called Robert “Yummy” Sandifer. Just 11 years old when he was murdered, Yummy was a young member of the Chicago gang, the Black Disciples. 

“He was such a nightmare to the society and for me his story was tragic. It really touched me and broke my heart. And then I was, like, ‘okay cool, maybe let me make this story a tragedy because the story haunted me for years’. I then realised that as parents we do create a future that our children find themselves in. What can we do in terms of creating stories that are cautionary tales that will make parents realise that our children’s future is really in our hands in terms of what they become as adults. The hate that we give them becomes the outcome that we pay the price for.”

Khambule says he wanted to highlight how love and tenderness could play a pivotal role in circumstances such as these through Margarine’s character. “It was really important because, when you look at this boy’s story — no money, no father, no father, no home — that’s why he’s so hardened. That’s why he wants the whole world to feel his pain. And for him to even begin thinking about change he has to know what tenderness is. I felt like Margarine is a catalyst to help him know that in life there is the other side, not only pain and abandonment and rejection … To me it says all we need is love.” 

Khambule reminisces about how he directed several music videos, TV dramas and telenovelas before he finally got the opportunity to direct his first feature film. Having made a successful start, he looks forward to telling more stories like Margarine

“For me I care about the reconstruction of society. A story can’t just be a story where we’re just laughing … there are other filmmakers who can tell those stories. Whether it’s a film about relationships, I always want people to have something to take home to challenge issues and not just tell a story. If it’s coming from my heart, if I wrote it, then it has to have lessons, it has to be a cautionary tale. Sometimes it can be a film about hope.”

Margarine won Best International Film and Best Director at the 2022 Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema in California, United States, and earned a few nominations at the American Black Film Festival in Miami last year. To be acknowledged on the world stage was a huge accolade but what he’s even more proud of is telling stories of the things he really cares about. 

“Knowing that I told that story despite the odds, challenges, we never gave up and I had everybody who believed in it backing me up. It meant everything. It being nominated and winning at an international level, that’s a cherry on top, I can’t even downplay it.”