/ 24 March 2024

Inkabi is a hit for the local industry

Cast And Director At Private Screening Credit African Encounters 2 (1)
All that jazz: Director Norman Maake (centre) with the crew of Inkabi, a local film about a retired hitman, flanking him. Photo: African Encounters

The first time I listened to jazz, I found it annoyingly slow and dreary. The severity of my impatience was due to house and kwaito sounds overwhelming my then youthful ears. 

Avant-garde jazz was even worse — distorted, experimental and offbeat. It was only with time — and attending live shows — that I began to appreciate the sensitivity, creativity and restrained power of the genre. 

Watching action drama Inkabi making its world premiere on Netflix on 13 March I was reminded of jazz, with the film swinging between smooth storytelling and avant-garde filmmaking. 

Viewers enter a world of contract killings, casinos and violence, set in Joburg blues and rural landscapes. 

“The inkabi [hitman] underworld is one with a rich history. I have always been fascinated by this world and its characters,” director, writer and co-producer Norman Maake tells me. “Therefore, it felt natural to set the film in this world.” 

An Afda film school alumnus who has directed films such as Love Lives Here, Piet’s Sake and Soldiers of the Rock, Maake, came up with the concept for the movie in 2014. 

Co-producer Zinzi Mhlongo adds that the first time she read the screenplay she knew this was a unique opportunity to delve into the complexities of our country’s social and cultural landscape via this deep, dark underworld. 

“It was told in a unique way which I believed would provoke meaningful conversations about the realities of life in our country,” she says. 

Hitting top 10 status on the streaming platform in its first week of release, Inkabi is already provoking debate among viewers. 

Through their company, African Entertainers Consultancy, Maake and Mhlongo spent rigorous hours mulling over the details of the film. 

Like my initial unfamiliarity with jazz compositions, one is tempted to switch to something else in the first few minutes of the film. But curiosity about this world of Zulu hitmen draws one in to watch every movement in each scene and patiently witness the director’s vision. 

Inkabi revolves around Frank (Tshamano Sebe), a retired hitman, who has chosen to start over as a private taxi driver. 

He befriends Lucy (Michelle Tiren), a young Kenyan woman working at a shady downtown casino. After losing custody of her daughter, Lucy is in a downward spiral of drugs and high-class prostitution. 

One night, she witnesses the murder of one of her clients, a prominent millionaire. Lucy manages to escape but the killer is after her blood. She has no one to turn to except Frank, her only friend. 

Themes of justice and redemption are nothing unique. It is, however, the delving into the human side of an inkabi that grounds the film’s premise. 

Before, Frank only killed for money but now he must kill to protect a friend who has never had anybody to stand up for her. 

Maake aimed to show how a retired hitman, forced to return to this dark world, but for a different reason, can protect and bring justice to those vulnerable in society.

Making a film in South Africa is an arduous and expensive task, compared to doing it in other parts of the world where the industry is mature. 

Respect and credit are due to Maake and Mhlongo for crafting a high-quality film on a small budget in a post-Covid context. 

The film is one of six micro-budget projects supported through a project funded by Netflix and the National Film and Video Foundation. 

“We were fortunate to be selected as one of the six films. Although there will always be challenges, we are proud to have produced the film with the support of an amazing team of creatives,” says Mhlongo. 

She adds that despite the difficulties the South African industry continues to grow and thrive, thanks to filmmakers’ resilience and creativity.   

On the down side, there is a feeling that the editing and character development in Inkabi are hurried. Hence one fails to fully empathise with some of the characters. 

The feeble shoot-out scenes and old men fighting also threaten to detract from the film. 

Under such budget constraints, one does however commend the creators, including cinematographer, Chuanne Blofield and editor Tongai Furusa, for attempting to bring a prime-quality film to our screens. 

Given that the concept of inkabi has strong Zulu cultural associations, the decision to cast a non-Zulu as the lead character was controversial. Maake says it was intentional.  

The film has more than one hitman, he says, and he wanted to broaden the common perception that assassins are typically Zulus who come from rural villages in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“The story of why Frank is non-Zulu is an entire film on its own — the third film in the trilogy.” 

A trilogy? Maake again compels us to be patient with the process — or rather his process — in allowing the puzzle pieces to fit.

In some scenes, the film explores restrained violence through the use of animation, shadows and sound. 

Maake indicates that the style was informed by the crime genre, with heavy influence from the imagery of the city of Johannesburg. 

“The animation was inspired by this mystical world of inkabi and its colourful, mythical nature of how they carry out a hit. 

“I was also interested in what role culture and history play in the film.”

The violence scenes conjured up images of Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 action movie Kill Bill: Volume 1. In a seven-minute scene about bloody revenge, he uses anime-inspired ingenuity to make the gore palatable. 

Similarly, Inkabi has hints of Western tonality evocative of the 2017 South African neo-Western, Five Fingers for Marseilles

The mix of filmmaking styles might not be everyone’s cup of rooibos — especially audiences who are used to Hollywood’s high-budget, fast-paced movies.

The challenge for filmmakers thus becomes creating unconventional, yet classical, works, while appeasing mass audiences. 

Maake argues that filmmakers must create the stories they want to tell. When one has relentless passion for the story, the audience will come. 

“A story told from the heart is a story that will live long after its making,” he says. 

With the emergence of streaming platforms, local filmmakers have an opportunity to grow new audiences. 

The audience has control over what they want to watch, says Maake and cultivating a diverse audience is important for all involved. 

“I believe that we have a growing audience, and as time goes on, they will tire of stereotyped content.”

Crafted with utmost passion and proficiency for storytelling, Inkabi asks for the audience’s patience to watch a local story shot through a different lens. 

Maake is only scratching the surface of the potential to feed the growing appetite among film viewers for authentic African stories.  

Despite a couple of flaws, Inkabi is a compelling addition to South Africa’s recovering film industry. It is a victory for independent filmmakers in showing what can be achieved on a micro-budget. 

Like jazz for people who don’t even know they like jazz.