While trawling through Ster-Kinekor’s website I was pleasantly surprised at finding that not one, but four, local films were showing – albeit not all at one venue. Having made a pact with myself to support more local, and continental, content I determined to watch one of the South African movies on offer.
Besides a brief glimpse of an online ad for Necktie Youth, I knew nothing about any of them. I took to reading the blurbs, making my choice based solely on story. Ayanda, a film about a creative, young Jo’burger who tries to rescues her late father’s motor repair shop, appealed the most.
Named after its female protagonist, you would expect the story to be determined by Ayanda. Instead, it’s framed – literally and metaphorically – by a young, male photographer who brings present-day Jo’burg to life in a vibrant display of Instagram-filtered style, capturing the creative modernity of a burgeoning city.
Making my decision based on story, it’s ironic that it’s not the film’s strength. The story is by no means weak or bad, but the plot is far too convoluted. Ayanda would have worked better as a TV drama – with a different title – that gives the characters chance to grow, and the plot time to develop.
From the outset the tone is one of hope and promise, yet strives to provide a realistic portrayal of the South African city and its community. But in maintaining a spirit of positivity, while delivering a faithful portrait of contemporary Jo’burg, it writes itself into a corner, with no proper resolution at the end.
While it breaks the promise of story, it delivers heart and soul visually. For all its complex characterisation, and titular protagonist, the starring role goes to Johannesburg. Set in Yeoville, the metropolitan suburb comes alive through establishing shots of streets scenes that are vibrant and energised, but never sentimental or glossy.
South African elements are further woven in through the portrayal of today’s Jo’burg – most exemplary of which are the animated cut-ins, heightening the film’s visual style. It is the film’s artistic direction – from the fashion and music to the animation and Ayanda’s eclectic furniture – which delivers on the opening promise of presenting an Africa that is not about civil war, poverty and safaris.
Every member of the cast gives their all, particularly Nigerian actor O.C. Ukeje as Ayanda’s love interest, David. Touching on various themes, such as loss and identity, he is the character who brings these across most poignantly. As for the title character: in addition to being robbed of agency over her own story, she becomes so self-indulgent that by the end you just want to scream at her to get off screen.
In Ayanda, there are too many elements to the plot, all crowding ambitiously for attention. Yet the ambition to tell a story that is not about blood, sunsets and Western saviours is a necessary step in forging a future path for South African, and African, cinema. Admitting its flaws, meanwhile, is a necessary step in acknowledging that we’re a cinematic contender worthy of critique, and not a product to be patronised like some third-world orphan.