Izulu Lami/My Secret Sky, the multi-award winning feature film currently on at cinemas nationwide, is the story of two orphans from rural Kwazulu-Natal who journey to the city and are caught up in the underworld of street children and prostitution.
People are saying that this is South Africa’s Slumdog Millionaire, but I don’t think so. Madoda Ncayiyana’s feature film debut is closer in timbre to the work of Guillermo Del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and other gut-wrenching films about children in a frightening world.
A potent cocktail of fear and hope characterises the childrens’ lives. They shriek with joy as they play in a dangerous city and dance with abandon, unaware they are being watched by a predatory pimp. The juxtaposition of terror and innocence is deeply affecting, and is the film’s greatest strength.
Thembi (Sobahle Mkhabase) a ten-year-old girl in a little yellow dress roams the streets of eThekwini (Durban) unaware of the danger that dogs her steps. With an adult’s foreknowledge that the odds of her being raped are massive, I watched the film sitting on the edge of my seat filled with terror.
A special mention goes to Thembi’s would-be rapist, played with consummate skill by Israel Makoe. It would have been easy to demonise this character, but Makoe’s performance is nuanced, rendering the tortured state of a man driven by his belief system to commit an act he knows is wrong. However, our empathy for him is destroyed the moment he touches Thembi.
Making a film about children at risk in a South African city is a political act. One only has to think of the laborious 'Yesterday' to be reminded that a film with a message to deliver about AIDS, sexual violence and economic inequality can bludgeon an audience with the very sadness’s they have trusted the filmmaker to resolve and transcend for them.
But Izulu Lami successfully navigates the difficult passage between delving into social matters and delivering value for money entertainment. It brings my world closer to that of the children in a way that is delightful and unthreatening. I identify with them. I love them. Witnessing the city through their eyes enables me to see the depth of darkness many of the adults live in.
It is less difficult, even healing, to face the big issues through inspired story telling. The film uses layers of visual imagery to address a deeper part of the audience than purely its intellect. The central motif is a traditional Zulu mat with a design of the heavens that tells of the ancestors; a graffiti Madonna and child look down on the street children from the wall of the stairwell where they sleep.
This, combined with a near-perfect soundtrack and a skilful story, allows the audience to face and resolve our uncomfortable feelings about the growing problem of street children and AIDS orphans. Greater even than that, it might serve the purpose of mobilising us to find ways to address the issues rather than secretly wishing they would go away.
It is heartbreaking that cinemas might struggle to keep Izulu Lami on circuit as moviegoers flood to watch the next Hollywood blockbuster. Next to this one, other films feel trivial.
I would have hated the filmmakers to write a tragic end to the movie. But in order to give the film a happy ending, they needed to work doubly, even triply hard at the plot in order to eliminate holes. The ending, cobbled together from ingredients including traditional handicrafts and a benevolent white priest, looks and feels one-dimensional and lacks the authenticity of the rest of the film. The audience is left with a sense of disappointment: we know this is not how things happen in the real world. Children seldom rescue themselves, they need help from a committed adult and the priest is too distant to be this.
Nevertheless, Izulu Lami ticks all my boxes for a great film. It provided the escapism I need at the end of a long day, it made me laugh, it made me cry and I fell in love with the male lead, in this case Chilli Bite (Tshepang Mohlomi).
Francisis a political philosophy graduate and novelist based in South Africa.
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