Screen scene: Bongani Ngema, centre, in black, plays the lead role in the film version of his 1980s play Asinamali. The writer and director says many of the themes in the production are relevant to today’s younger generation and he hopes the work inspires and teaches future generations. Picture: SUPPLIED
Screen scene: Bongani Ngema, centre, in black, plays the lead role in the film version of his 1980s play Asinamali. The writer and director says many of the themes in the production are relevant to today’s younger generation and he hopes the work inspires and teaches future generations. Picture: SUPPLIED

It is 25 years since Sarafina hit the stage and its creator, Mbongeni Ngema, is back, converting his classic theatre production Asinamali into film. The first-time director is also its scriptwriter, lyricist, composer and actor.

"He is doing things with actors I wouldn’t even dream of," says producer Darryl Roodt. "The screenplay was about 48 pages long and we thought, well you can’t make a feature film from 48 pages. It ended up being 600 pages because he is so good at workshopping with actors."

With his membership-based company Committed Artists, Ngema has developed a database of actors to draw on.

"He 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."

The script has evolved into a play within a play. Ngema is in the lead role as a theatre director who enters a prison to work with convicts and create a musical to channel their struggles. Through drama and song, forgiveness and healing follows.

"Ngema is very much in independent film-maker mode," explains executive producer David Dison.

"The script is a baseline to be varied and there is a lot of improvisation at the time of shooting. Every day on set is very exciting, as he gets the most out of the characters."

The film treads a fine line between realism and musical. The isicathamiya of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and jazz arrangements by Brian Thusi carry the story. The score by Chris Letcher juxtaposes the emotion of tango with the power of Zulu dance in the closing scene. Ngema has also added a few R&B songs.

Ngema believes Asinamali brings a new vocabulary to local film. "We South Africans are known as being very musical and full of expression," he says. "We have shown the world what we can do with music and theatre. But film brings all those elements together."

As a youngster, Ngema was mentored by Archie Gumede and Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge as a writer. He learnt from Gibson Kente and Barney Simon at the Market Theatre. And now at the age of 61, he feels the conversion of Asinamali to film is an important step towards teaching and inspiring future generations.

It was extraordinary to watch him workshop these actors and build their characters

"We can identify with the young people even though we are a different generation. Asinamali speaks to today’s young people as the #FeesMustFall campaign used the same term.

"Let’s see how we can come together and find some solutions," says Ngema.

Asinamali, which means "we have no money", was used as a slogan by ANC activist Msizi Dube. On his release from Robben Island, Dube returned to KwaZulu-Natal and founded the rent boycott movement. He was assassinated in 1983.

Ngema was part of the Asinamali movement in Lamontville, Durban, Chesterville and KwaMashu and wrote about the events. His Asinamali theatre production was performed at the Market Theatre and townships across SA and ran on Broadway in 1987. It paved the way for Sarafina, a play about the 1976 Soweto uprising. It ran on Broadway for 18 months and introduced many Americans to Nelson Mandela’s name.

Sarafina was made into a film in 1992 with a team including Roodt as director and Dison as legal adviser. For Dison and Roodt, this was the beginning of a strong commitment to converting Ngema’s other theatre productions to film.

Dison and his partner Briony Horwitz structured and raised the film’s R12m financing through a combination of commercial and public grants. The script was in development for more than two years, the soundtrack took three months to record at Downtown studios and the film was shot in four weeks. Soft funding came from the Industrial Development Corporation, the Department of Trade and Industry, the film commission and the National Film and Video Foundation.

A completion bond was provided by Hollard film guarantors. Us Plus, a short-term finance company run by Leon Kirkinis, provided cash flow.

"The budget is based around a certain projection on what you will earn at the box office or in television, but it is generally not enough to cover the costs of the film because of the problems of access, with only 6-million people buying film tickets in SA," Dison says.

Asinamali premiered at the closing night of the Durban International Film Festival.

After the screening, an elated Ngema said: "Our bigger plan, besides going to international festivals and getting distribution in the US, is doing township distribution. We want to take this film to schools and community halls across SA."

The Durban mayor’s office and the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission are partnering to ensure the film is screened in townships during its opening run starting on September 15.

Dison, Roodt and Ngema are looking at four further films of stage plays and a script based on the life of Patrick "Ace" Ntsoelengoe, the superstar soccer player from Kaizer Chiefs and Toronto Football Club.

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