Berlinale Review: ‘Vaya’ Offers Rare Glimpse of Life in Johannesburg

'Vaya' Berlinale Poster
‘Vaya’ Berlinale Poster

2017 BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The film “Vaya,” by acclaimed South African director Akin Omotoso (“God is African,” “Man On Ground”), which debuted last year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), takes place in”Jozi,” or “Joburg,” or Johannesburg. Our very own staff writer Shane Slater briefly covered this film when it debuted last September. As Berlinale 2017 approaches its opening weekend, Awards Circuit was offered an exclusive interview with director Akin Omotoso. The interview will be published early this week, shortly after this review, which expounds upon Shane’s insights and offers important historical and social context for the film, which is continuing its positive momentum with another prestigious festival debut as it looks for widespread distribution.

The plot is based on the true story of four young men who came to the city in search of estranged family and opportunities, and is a creative result of a program called “The Homeless Story Project,” founded by one of the film’s producers, Robbie Thorpe. The program provides those that cannot be heard with opportunities to tell their stories and unique experiences to the world through films and published media.

Jozi used to be characterized by a booming economy with the primary industry being the mining of gold and diamonds. Now, mining accounts for an economic output in the single digits, and the financial and retail sectors and crime have taken over. In the 1990s, thousands of poor people, who were forbidden from Jozi, fled to the urban center from the outskirts and its suburbs, along with people from war-torn African nations that fled to South Africa for refuge. This caused many landlords to flee their buildings, and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) to leave its headquarters, creating an urban center that is reminiscent of America’s Detroit.

Once thriving, the downtown area beckons new people from the city’s suburbs with empty promises. Over a third of the city’s residents ride the Rea Vaya, the public transportation system in Johannesburg, to commute to and from work. Residents of the suburbs often work in the city, looking for success and wealth, something that they seemingly could not find at home. A staggering 37 percent of people are unemployed in Jozi, 91 percent of which are Black African. Water is scarce, and people are desperate to get by, often resorting to degrading things for money. The city has a high crime rate, and gangs seemingly run the urban center, where crime is overlooked by a weak law enforcement. There is a conveyed sense of prejudice between the urban center and rural suburbs, where many people speak Zulu and are often criticized for working in agriculture. Crime is almost seen as a prestige to the corrupt that run the urban center.

In “Vaya,” the intersectional story follows three people who all share the same transit ride on the Rea Vaya to Jozi’s urban core, which the film portrays as being characterized by a dog-eat-dog mentality, crime and danger. They are parting from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), an agricultural province of South Africa that is geographically cut off from Jozi through plateaus and mountains, and, as the name implies, is predominantly Zulu. It is apparent that a history of colonialism has left the greater Jozi area disjointed and segregated. People struggle with poverty, staying alive, and get very little workplace luxuries like America; there are no worker’s rights or unions, which we see in one of the film’s primary characters.

Nkulu’s Journey

A quiet and insecure man named Nkulu (Msimang Sibusiso) is sent to Jozi by his mother to retrieve the coffin containing the body of his dead father. Upon arrival, he encounters a phone stand guy (exact character name in credits) at the market inquiring about directions, who brushes him off with anger. He can’t find his father, so, with no help or sense of direction, he sleeps on the street for the night. After a day on foot in the blistering heat of the city, Nkulu finally makes it to the mine, only to learn that there has been a complication at the funeral parlor.

In a great scene that adds some well-integrated comic relief, Nkulu meets a man named Madoda (Mncedisi Shabangu) on his farm, as he and his friends are struggling to slaughter a cow. Madoda, his ego tested by his friends, pulls out a gun, and is about to shoot the cow, when Nkulu shows up. As if connected by fate, and Nkulu being a “farmboy,” he is well-versed in slaughtering cows, and offers his assistance. They call him “Zulu” boy, referring to his different dialect.

After explaining to his mother, who is in denial, that the body was not at the parlor, Nkulu is told to see his Uncle Goodwill, who is an important man. Upon meeting Uncle Goodwill, he explains to Nkulu that KZN is his ancestral home, and that he must return his body there to secure the ancestral bond and bring his mother peace. He finally vocalizes the reality and phoniness of the city to his nephew: “At home you’re somebody. Here, you are nothing. You’re fuck all.” Nkulu ends up going through incredible lengths to try to obtain the body.

Nhlanhla’s Journey

An eager, naive young man named Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) is heading to the city with big dreams to meet his cousin Xolani (Warren Masemola), willing to do anything to get rich fast, even if it means resorting to crime. When Nhlanhla is greeted by Xolani’s “friends,” they take him on an initiation quest. They make him do increasingly strange things, leading him on to believe he is meeting Xolani. Nhlanhla spends the night at one of the men’s friend’s house for the night, where they gamble and drink all night.

The next day, Xolani’s crew leads Nhlanhla to an abandoned building, only to knock him out. The viewer learns that Nhlanhla has been tricked, and Xolani’s men have dangerous intentions; his life is in danger. There is a clear prejudice these men have toward Nhlanhla, calling him “Zulu,” furthering the geographically established and cultural classism between the city and the suburbs.

Nhlanhla wakes up to find another man tied up in the abandoned building. Eventually, Xolani’s men are overhead saying that Xolani told them to rough him up but not kill him, much to Nhlanhla’s disliking. It is revealed that their mission is to retrieve a parcel, which is a time-sensitive matter. In a split-decision, they leave Nhlanhla alone with a phone, giving him a sliver of hope.

Finally, Nhlanhla’s cousin Xolani helps him escape, tricking him into believing that his men were turning against him. He brings him to a woman named Gogo’s house, who reveals she’s having trouble getting proper healthcare, to which Xolani emphasizes it is upsetting when people do not keep their promises, furthering this spoken motif throughout the film.

Zanele and Zodwa’s Journey

Two girls, Zanela (Zimkhitha Nyoka), and her friend, Zodwa (Azwile Chamane-Madiba), struggling with starvation and poverty, ride the Vaya to find Zodwa’s mother in Jozi. Upon their arrival, two girls approach the same phone stand guy, to which he reluctantly agrees to give them a phone call to call the younger one’s mother, a negligent, supposed famous singer named Thobeka Sithole (Nomonde Mbusi). When she does not show up after they use the man’s phone, he agrees to house them for the night, his conscience not letting them sleep on the mean streets.

As it turns out, the girls end up staying at the same place as Nhlanhla and his newfound “friends.” When one of them offers the phone stand guy 200 rands (South African currency) for one of the girls, although nothing happens, the tone of the film really kicks in, and the viewer gets a sobering sense of the real danger the city provides.

The phone stand guy is an interesting, integral character throughout the movie; he is part of the glue that holds the story together. He also represents moral purity, represented through his shunning of Xolani’s men and sheltering, feeding and protecting of the girls. Although he may seem one-dimensional, only caring about money, his eyes and his internal dialogue show a multi-layered man who cares about doing the right thing.

Zodwa’s mother finally shows up the next day, supposedly explaining that her boyfriend, who we realize is Madoda, had a family matter to deal with. In a moment of shock the phone stand guy, realizing Madoda’s power, refuses the family’s money after they offer to pay him back. Zanela is offered to stay at Madoda’s bar and hotel with Zodwa and her mother.

Thobeka explains to Zanele that the music industry chewed her up and spit her out, and that people only invested in her because they thought it would benefit themselves financially, furthering the crime-ridden narrative of Jozi. It is a universal theme seen in societies built on distorted principles of capitalism as a result of repeated imperialism. She also gives sound advice to Zanele, explaining that she had to resort to things she was not proud of to pay off her debt, and to not trust people because they are generally liars.

She had the same dreams as everyone who moves to the city. She wanted to escape from the countryside where all you can be is “somebody’s wife,” to be anything you want. It is all a fantasy, however. In an emotionally resonant scene, we finally hear Thobeka sing, and it is angelic. It adds a somber underscore to her conversation with Zanele. Talent does not matter in this city, only money and greed.

How ‘Vaya’ Builds to its Climax

As the movie progresses and the second act comes to a close, the telling score by Joel Assaizky crescendos to a more ominous and foreboding tone. These stories, these people, are building to something that is going to burst. We see Zodwa and another child tenant of Madoda’s bar actually ask to go to school. In this society, people WANT to learn, but do not have the financial means to afford it.

After seeing the potentially bad nature of Madoda, we see him make an offer to make Zanele a dancer. He is making the same kind of promise that Thobeka warned her about; Madoda’s intentions may be evil, even exploitative, further darkening the narrative.

In an ironic scene, we see Nhlanhla come home with Xolani, who treats his wife like a dog; essentially, it is no different here than in KZN. Women are treated the same, nothing more than a housewife or a means of exploitation for money and power. Xolani finally tells Nhlanhla why he is in Jozi.

During an important monologue, Nhlanhla explains, “Back home, they’re always taking from you. What you have is not yours, it belongs to everyone.” Meanwhile, Zanele, putting on her makeup, is about to head to her first job for Madoda, uncertain of her future. She looks at herself in the mirror, giving the viewer a lot to think about of what may be ahead for her. She sees the phone stand guy again, one last time. Being the film’s moral glue, he explains that Madoda is a dangerous and violent man capable of terrible things. Eventually, all of this tension comes to an explosive climax that is too powerful to miss.

Lasting Themes and Effects of a Struggling Jozi

At first, Zanele and Zodwa, Nhlanhla, and Nkulu go to the Jozi with hopes of achieving their respective paths. They are told by people like Thobeka and Uncle Goodwill, who came to this city with the same hopes, that the city chews people up and spits them out. By the end, they realize they made the wrong choice, and that Johannesburg is not what they thought. By the end, we see some characters narrowly escaping a life of despair, and some making choices that will alter their lives forever for the worse. However, Nkulu’s character arc is really interesting. He, along with Zodwa and Zanele, seem to have kept most of their moral integrity among all of the characters. Yet, naive at first, they eventually experience a moment, or series of moments during which they all lose their innocence. Madoda and the phone stand guy represent the worst and best of human nature, respectively. These contrasting characters tie the film’s moral outline together intelligently, allowing Omotoso to tell “Vaya” with the precision he needs.

The performances are outstanding in “Vaya.” In fact, it is one of the best ensemble performances I have seen in recent memory. Omotoso’s beautiful, honest direction underscores the gritty performances of the cast, and provides a sense of realism that is rarely seen on-screen anymore. It harkens back to old Italian neo-realism films like “Roma città aperta” by Roberto Rossellini and “Ladri di biciclette” by Vittorio De Sica, which were characterized by using untrained actors and real people as secondary and tertiary characters in unadulterated settings.

One can think of “Vaya” as South Africa’s “Magnolia,” although instead of providing sharp social commentary on the ill societal effects of the excesses of suburban luxury and isolationism, it conversely explores the adverse effects of a society historically deprived of the tools to live and succeed, consistently colonized, war-torn and fought over. Furthermore, it is less of a satire and more of an honest, uncompromising look into the harshest, most dangerous areas of Jozi. Viewers should continue to keep an eye out for director Akin Omotoso, who has improved with every film, and expect more of his distinct realist style to spread across the film industry.

“Vaya” is produced and distributed by Rififi Pictures. The film will have its Berlinale debut this week on Feb. 11, and hits theaters in March 2017.

GRADE: (★★½)