Breakthrough cinema! - Elelwani at DIFFHelge Janssen
Helge Janssen: This allegorical tale of transformation, of a woman journeying into the unknown based on a compassionate, seemingly futile surrender to tribal fate, is a cinematic masterpiece.
In the opening scene Elelwani stands in statuesque gravitas in the sparsely furnished immaculate Venda Kings' bedroom, the epicentre of patriarchal dominion. Her red dress and butterfly tattoo behind her right ear locates her inescapably in a contemporary context. She strokes her hand along the leopard skin hanging against the wall at the head of the spectacular double bed.
This allegorical tale of transformation, of a woman journeying into the unknown based on a compassionate, seemingly futile surrender to tribal fate, is a cinematic masterpiece. With stroke after stroke of adroit insight the film negotiates the fine line between the expected freedoms obtained through the process of higher education, and an intuitive response to a calling that would change the course of history.
Having completed her degree and with an American bursary on offer, Elelwani returns to her homeland for a celebratory home coming only to discover that the King who financed her studies now expects her to marry him. Crestfallen, and through long and difficult negotiations (we see her banished to the goat and chicken shed), Elelwani eventually succeeds in obtaining her freedom. But when she discovers that her 12-year-old sister is to be traded off in her place she is overcome.
Florence Masebe, who plays Elelwani, gives an utterly focused performance, encapsulating Elelwani’s re-metamorphosis with conviction. Her transformation from a contemporary emancipated university graduate (crisp sunlight captures the purple streak in her hair while she is deeply engrossed in plumbing her core intuitive self – the quintessential driving force of feminine power) to a woman who finds herself at the centre of a momentous life task, is nothing short of a tour-de-force. Throughout her role she strikes the perfect balance between the expected submission within the traditional mechanisms of her coerced destiny, and the value she places on herself, her being - which is never compromised. With superb script and expert direction throughout by South African director *Ntshavheni wa Luruli who adapted the story from a 1954 novel of the same title by Titus Maumela, there are no half measures for Elelwani. Her primordial grasp of the courage she has to summon ties her indelibly back to her roots and is a masterstroke of cognition within South Africa’s contemporary cultural/political landscape. It is this very power that tribalism has attempted to keep in check via its customs and subjugations of female deity/sovereignty.
Cinematography by Lance Gewe (Tsotsi, Jozi, Spud) is nothing short of awe-inspiring: every frame is larger than life and as such magnifies the magic realism of the tale. The stark sculpturesque imagery of confrontational scenes inside the rondavel heightens the stiff formality of tribalism; contrasts light and dark; frames what is becoming, what is decaying. Time-lapse photography, interlaced within the contemplative pace of the film speeds up the narrative. Of particular note is the accented voracious eating sequence of a pair of Elders where camera angles accentuate a gargoyle-like grotesqueness. I was reminded of a dramatic stanza in **Jacques Brel’s despairing song “The Port of Amsterdam” which captures the archetypal decadence of masculine energy and is superbly echoed in this revealing episode.
Editing by Aryan Kaganof (artist/author/filmmaker/documenter: SMS Sugar Man, Wasted, The Uprising of Hangberg etc.) strengthens the overlay impact of symbolic imagery: moon, landscape, white lion, mask - in rapport with themes and subthemes. The cinematic interplay of nature – e.g. the sense of entrapment in the spider web (tradition) - and nurture – e.g. the wholesomeness of corn being threshed (fertile change) - threads through the film driving the parabolic mythos and is integrated with intuitive aplomb.
Colour and styling is exemplary and relentlessly subversive creating an immediate yet subtle ruffling of expected norms. The starched and colourful geometric construction of the Venda quilted garments is strikingly beautiful, modern, contrasting with the shabby and apathetic western garb worn by the men - apart from Vele, played by Ashifashabba Muleya, Elelwani’s University boyfriend who has a pivotal role in the film in more ways than one! Muleya, who is a stand-up comedian in real life, handles this serious role sensitively. Yet this stark visual disparity in clothing subliminally accentuates the contradictions and sometime absurd clashes between urban and rural consciousness. Jungian symbolism of anima/animus, both negative and positive, is integral to the tale.
Worthy of mention is the comprehensive supporting role played by Salome Mutshinya as Elelwani’s mother, trapped in tribal protocol, caught between her and her husband’s materialistic needs and her daughter’s destiny.
The music by Chris Letcher cleverly underpins the drama and the film’s elated theme is surely to be a hit. I enjoyed the wry humour of the vaudeville procession complete with village idiot, as Elelwani makes her way across to her new dwellings while the entire community rejoice.
Elelwani is a breakthrough contemporary parable and is a MUST SEE film!
Breakthrough cinema! : Elelwani (The Promise) 2012, South Africa, Ntshavheni wa Luruli - Director – viewing at the DIFF, Musgrave 29 July.
* Ntshavheni wa Luruli is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose “The Wooden Camera” (2003) was awarded the Crystal Bear for best youth feature at the Berlinale in 2004
** Jacques Brel (1929 – 78), Belgian singer and composer:
"In the Port of Amsterdam
Where the sailors all meet
There’s a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails,
And he’d show his teeth that have rotted too soon
That can haul up the sails that can swallow the moon
And he yells to the cook with his arms open wide
Hey, bring me more fish, throw it down by my side
And he wants so to belch but he’s too full to try
So he stands up and laughs and he zips up his fly."
*** At this showing at Musgrave Centre, Durban, it was of note that some black youths in the audience (male) took much of the imagery to heart and were deeply affected: their guffaws in shock at the eating scenes, the gasps of embarrassment where Elelwani presents the elders with her American bursary and they think it is an example of her drawing – were signs of the strong emotional impact this film was having.
multimedia performance artist / freelance journalist
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Durban International Film Festival
Dates: Thursday, 17th July 2014 - Sunday, 27th July 2014