Ngema charts a new course for the­atre-to-film

Mail & Guardian - - Reviews - Struan Dou­glas

Asi­na­mali brings mu­sic and the­atre to­gether in “a new vo­cab­u­lary for South African film”, as writer and direc­tor Mbon­geni Ngema puts it.

Asi­na­mali means “we have no money”. The slo­gan was coined by ANC ac­tivist Msizi Dube. Af­ter his re­lease from Robben Is­land, he re­turned to KwaZulu-Na­tal and founded the rent boy­cott move­ment. He was as­sas­si­nated in 1983.

As a young­ster, Ngema was men­tored by Baba Archie Gumede and Grif­fiths and Vic­to­ria Mx­enge to be­come a writer. He was part of the Asi­na­mali move­ment in La­montville, Dur­ban, Ch­ester­ville and KwaMashu.

He re­calls: “When I heard that Msizi had been killed I de­cided that I should write about the events around Dube’s as­sas­si­na­tion, mak­ing my lit­tle con­tri­bu­tion to the strug­gle of La­montville town­ship.”

The Asi­na­mali the­atre pro­duc­tion was de­vel­oped and per­formed at the Mar­ket The­atre, where Ngema was in­flu­enced by Gib­son Kente and Bar­ney Si­mon. Asi­na­mali ran on Broad­way in 1987, paving the way for Sara­fina.

The film is set in 1992, when a re­turn­ing ex­ile starts a prison the­atre project. The pris­on­ers are linked to the La­montville rent strikes of 1983 and tell of the dif­fer­ent roles they played in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Dube. As these char­ac­ters share their sto­ries, the script evolves. The pro­cesses of drama and the heal­ing power of song re­lease pent-up emo­tions. This leads to bet­ter re­la­tion­ships and con­di­tions in the prison.

The film treads a fine line be­tween re­al­ism and mu­si­cal. Isi­cathamiya by Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo is used as the sound­track to a strip search scene per­formed in a tausa style of dance, and the jazz ar­range­ments of Brian Thusi carry the town­ship scenes. The prison play closes the film in an emo­tional jux­ta­po­si­tion of Zulu tra­di­tional dance per­formed to a strik­ing tango, scored by the head of the mu­sic depart­ment of the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, Chris Letcher.

Ngema plays the lead role of the the­atre direc­tor and is in love with the lead­ing lady, played by Dan­ica de la Rey. Her death sen­tence adds a dra­matic coun­ter­point to the the­atre direc­tor’s suc­cess.

The an­tag­o­nist in the film, Sergeant Mg­waqaza, is played by Boi­tumelo Chuck Shisana. His per­for­mance ex­em­pli­fies the com­mit­ment of all the ac­tors to bring out the best in the script. He played a ma­jor role in the work­shop­ping of the fi­nal prod­uct.

Pro­ducer Dar­ryl Roodt ex­plained: “Ngema found ev­ery one of the ac­tors, all un­knowns. It was ex­traor­di­nary to watch him work­shop these ac­tors and build their char­ac­ters, and you can feel it in the film. Ev­ery ac­tor is clearly de­fined.”

With his mem­ber­ship-based com­pany, Com­mit­ted Artists, Ngema has de­vel­oped a data­base of ac­tors to draw on. The script be­comes like a base­line for the ac­tors to im­pro­vise and de­velop their char­ac­ters. This work­shop­ping is a lead­ing style of Ngema’s film­mak­ing. It is a tech­nique used by film­mak­ers such as Spike Lee and Ing­mar Bergman.

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer David Di­son be­lieves it is a style that could catch on in South Africa, “where peo­ple are un­in­hib­ited and free and not par­tic­u­larly bound by con­ven­tion. We have a young democ­racy. And peo­ple revel in it.”

The film pre­miered at the 38th Dur­ban In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Both Ngema and fes­ti­val direc­tor Chipo Zhou said the #FeesMustFall cam­paign res­onated with the “asi­na­mali” cry of the early 1980s.

Di­son said: “It is very im­por­tant that peo­ple are able to chan­nel their strug­gles, ex­press them­selves and ex­pi­ate. Protest and these kinds of slo­gans con­trib­ute mas­sively to free de­bate which fights up against elitism and cor­rup­tion.”

The suc­cess of Asi­na­mali has led the pro­duc­tion team to con­sider con­vert­ing Ngema’s other scripts to film. Town­ship Fever, a 1991 hit mu­si­cal about the largest rail­way strike to take place in the his­tory of South Africa, is al­ready in process. Other scripts for devel­op­ment into film in­clude Mama and Zulu, and a script based on the life of Pa­trick “Ace” Nt­soe­len­goe, the su­per­star Kaizer Chiefs and Toronto Foot­ball Club player.

Asi­na­mali tried for a nom­i­na­tion in the best for­eign lan­guage cat­e­gory of the Academy Awards 2018 but lost out to Inxeba (The Wound), which will be South Africa’s en­try at the Os­cars. Asi­na­mali will start its run on March 2 next year with a pre­miere in Kil­lar­ney, Johannesburg, with si­mul­ta­ne­ous screen­ings in the La­montville Com­mu­nity Cen­tre and in New York.

From stage to film: Mbon­geni Ngema plays the lead role in the film ver­sion of his play Asi­na­mali

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