Foreign cinema, or rather: the outside—alien, should be a term used for any film that is foreign to art, and only succeeds in replicating the status quo. So in many ways, this category applies more to the mainstream, as supposed to where the term is normally used, and vice versa.
Vaya is not foreign in any way. It is the language of average work struggles, social class illusions, overwhelming distress, and the nature of everyday life. The question is how to create a film from all this. Without ending up inside a basal two hour scream, perhaps saying how things are, but lacking the ability to transform the horror.
Moving on from his parts in Blood Diamond (2006), Lord of War (2005), then onto his writing and directing debut in Man on Ground (2011), and Tell Me Sweet Something (2015), it is clear that Akin Omotoso has an affinity for frank story telling. We do not all live in the same continent, eat the same foods, tie people up, etc., but most of us appreciate a film minus the filter, especially if what remains has grace and vitality.
We are in South Africa, travelling from rural KwaZulu-Natal to the city of Johannesburg by train. Mountains near the sun, surrounded by miles of flat plains and desert. Some in the carriage have eaten, some have not. Some blabbering on about the futures they are seeking. Some are stealing, others ignoring… But everyone is being slowly cooked, where the difference between the visitors and the Joburg natives is immediate. It provides the necessary landscape to destroy any delusions we have about racial brotherhood and sisterhood, where as soon as they step off the train, they are met at best by nonchalance, but mostly by a slow riding malice.
‘Vaya‘—the word meaning ‘move’ in the urban language of Tsotsitall—is direct about the reality of black on black classism, where the visitors are seen as simple Zulu boys and girls by the more life hardened city dwellers. So, lower in status. This is the bravery of this film however, because the global class systems have gone no where, and remain a polite cancer. Where the delivery of the mirage, like any well tailored drug, is sly, since when it is introduced to your system, it allows you to look down on someone else: the instant hit.
Vaya has a knowing script. There is a mesmerising scene where local crime god Xolani (Warren Masemola) shows the naïve Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) the plains of a local rubbish tip on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Scavengers search among the fields of garbage and refuse, wretched and zombified, dressed in scraps, where Xolani explains “These dogs, are trapped in hell…” then later “…I can make sure you end up like this.”
Fear, humiliation, and tradition, is the main fuel in all of these characters’ lives. Although again, life flows back to humour, where a few city men are standing around with no idea of how to slaughter a bull. The oldest of the men laughs at another and suggests “Why don’t you ask your smart phone for help?” Nkulu (Sibusisio Msimang), a ‘Zulu boy’, walks up, sent in search of his father’s body, and tells them that he can do it. He can. Like another day at work, as random lives intertwine once again.
There are set-ups and family ties. Mixing religions and rules. Those of the criminal underworld—which are the same anywhere you go—and those of traditional ancestral beliefs, which can be equally as dogmatic. Vaya knows its world, and is unashamed to look at its own reflection. The plot is grounded by characters who have accepted the rules most local to their own environment, where this grounding is challenged by those whom have not.
The easiest story on screen is Us vs Them. The cheapest way to skip across 20,000 or so years of human reflections without ever really saying anything. This film is more honest about how life goes however. Family, race, class, hope, origin, and dream, having almost no weight against the underlying fact that economic demands often commandeer our lives more than love.
Akin Omotoso has directed a film that sways away from sensationalism unless it is relevant. People get hungry, people get desperate, and use each other like dusty marionettes. There is pain, life, and candour.
The elements that many films try to combine, but rarely pull into an engaging whole.
Dir: Akin Omotoso
Scr: Craig Freimond, Tshabalira Lebakeng, Anthony Mafela, David Majoka, Madoda Ntuli, Harriet Perlman, Robbie Thorpe, Ncibijana Mpumelelo Madala
Cast: Mncedisi Shabangu, Sihle Xaba, Sibusiso Msimang, Zimkhitha Nyoka, Azwile Chamane- Madiba, Warren Masemola, Nomonde Mbusi,
Prd: Rethabile Molatela Mothobi, Robbie Thorpre, Harriet Perlman, Ronnie Apteker
DOP: Kabelo Thathe
Music: Joel Assaizky
Country: South Africa
Run time: 105 mins