EXCLUSIVE: Interview With ‘Vaya’ Director Akin Omotoso

Akin Omotoso, director of 'Vaya'
Akin Omotoso, director of ‘Vaya’
2017 Berlin International Film Festival: After outstanding critical reception following its Toronto International Film Festival and its premiere last week at the Berlin International Film Festival (or “The Berlinale”) on Feb. 11, “Vaya” is on pace to be a festival circuit hit, and might even garner major awards attention as the year progresses. Awards Circuit had the chance to interview director Akin Omotoso about “Vaya,” some of its themes, and how he was able to piece together such vastly different stories with ease and grace.

The Making of ‘Vaya’

AC: The film was equal parts emotionally resonant and deeply affecting in portraying the less-flattering parts of Johannesburg. Throughout “Vaya” there are themes of poverty, economic and social segregation, crime, deceit and naivety in pursuance of a life of one’s own. These are themes you have tackled before. How are you able to convey these themes with such a sense of realism?
Authenticity has always been a key concern for me. The story of “Vaya” is rooted in reality, from the writing to the selection of locations and actors. In terms of writing, the stories are based on real stories from the Homeless Writer’s Project. “Vaya” is based on the lives of four young men from The Homeless Story Project and rooted in their experiences of coming to the city in search of family and opportunities. This project was set up 10 years ago, by Robbie Thorpe and Harriet Perlman, with people who have all known homelessness. “Vaya” is drawn from the life experiences of David Majoka, Anthony Mafela, Tshabalira Lebakeng and Madoda Ntuli, all who have experienced homelessness and the brutal betrayal of family when they came to Johannesburg. The group meets every week and “Vaya” was created in story workshops, where a script was crafted over an eight-year period. In terms of locations, we worked with a photographer Mark Lewis who has photographed the ‘other side ‘ of the city extensively over many years. The men from the Homeless Project also showed us locations where they live and sleep and work – providing a lens into another side of the city. We spent a lot of time finding real locations to shoot in. In terms of actors: many of the actors have never been seen on screen before. So their experience of navigating something new had its own authentic ring.
AC: The lighting in this film is fantastic, particularly shots of the sunlight hitting the cityscape. Did you use natural lighting for the film? One of the last shots, where it shows the outskirts of Johannesburg, shows the thousands of homeless people. How prevalent is homelessness? Unemployment is high, causing a spike in crime. Have you seen positive changes in the government to help curb this unemployment and crime?
There is a housing backlog of more than 2.4 million houses in South Africa. The cities, in particular Johannesburg, cannot cope with the influx of migrants coming to the city each year in search of work and opportunity. Unemployment is high, and currently sits at 27 percent – and is ranked one of the highest in the world. But this figure does not include the many people who have ‘piece work’ – insecure livelihoods that give employment in short bursts allowing them to rent crowded rooms and spaces for short periods of time. The issue of homelessness is not simply about people living on the streets. Millions of people in South Africa continue to leave rural communities and travel to cities. Sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population is growing at a higher rate than any other region in the world but our cities cannot cope with this massive influx of people. In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, overcrowding and increased competition for resources and services, migrants to the city seek out family for support. For the poor and the jobless, the safety net of family is fast disappearing. Countless migrants to the city find themselves invisible and trapped in places with limited opportunities for survival and abused by the very people whose protection they sought. It is difficult to place a moral judgement on criminality when for the poor it is not only the last but the only resort.
AC: The phone stand guy is such an interesting character. He is the moral fiber of the film. Explain the significance of phone stand character in this story?
Kindness in “Vaya” – as in life – sometimes comes from surprising and unsuspected places. People are not always who they seem.
AC: We see a fragmented society in Johannesburg as a result of apartheid. To what effect does this have on the mentality of the city?
One of the legacy’s of apartheid has been the migrant labour system. In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, overcrowding and increased competition for resources and services, migrants to the city seek out family for support and often end up alone, vulnerable and homeless. In South Africa the migrant labour system has had catastrophic consequences for family structures. There has been a systematic breakdown in family networks and support.
AC: There is a paradox – at first, Zanele and Zodwa, Nhlanhla, and Nkulu go to the city with hopes of achieving their respective paths. They are told by people like Thobeka and Uncle Goodwill, they came to this city with the same hopes, but 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. Is this a love-hate relationship to the city?
Yes – people’s relationship to the city is complex. For outsiders it often brings shattered dreams and hopes. The life you imagined never materializes. But life in rural communities is not to be romanticized either. People leave behind deep divisions and traditional cultural practices that limit their choices. Jobs too are scarce in rural areas.
AC: Thobeka fled because she was made promises that were not kept, she wanted to be more than a housewife, but resorted to prostitution to get by. Yet, we see how Xolani treats his wife, and nothing is different in the urban center of the city. We find out that Madoda is a sex trafficker. There is a theme of exploitation of women and degradation. Is this mentality also a result of Johannesburg’s apartheid past?
I think oppression of women is both a legacy of apartheid but also a legacy of male dominated traditional practices in many cultures.
AC: Similarly, 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, all naive at first, they eventually experience a moment, or series of moments during which they lose their innocence. Does Nkulu’s “manhood” being challenged by his Uncle Goodwill offer insight into flawed masculinity, a motif that is seen throughout “Vaya”?
Yes I think the theme of “manhood” is a thread that runs through the film. Particularly in the character of Nkulu. In the end, Nkulu in a way finds his manhood by breaking free. The city offers him some freedom to be his own person.
AC: There is a clear cultural bias by the people of the urban core towards the suburbs. Can you provide cultural context to this?
Zulu is spoken in both KwaZulu natal and in JHB. But the dialects are different and distinctive. The city Zulu that people speak is different – a hybrid influenced by many other African languages spoken in JHB. In “Vaya,” great attention was paid to the kind of “Zulu” that people speak, as another marker of someone coming from the rural area as opposed to someone who has grown up in the city (e.g. The gangsters).
AC: How did you tackle moving so seamlessly and effortlessly between violence, happiness, sadness and raw emotion?
It all starts with the script and what the writers did to create that template. I wanted to make sure that I did justice to that template and more. Because I followed the process from the very beginning I was in the unique position of being able to dream about the film for eight years, plus. It was a real blessing. So eventually when we were ready to shoot we had lots of discussions with the writing team (and I mentioned earlier the search for locations, Mark’s photography, etc) and the DP, the Art Director, the cast etc. It was a real collaborative process.
AC: The performances are outstanding. In fact, it is one of the best ensemble performances in recent memory. How were you able to bring such riveting performances from the cast? They are so good, they almost seem like actual characters. Were you going after a sense of realism for this film in casting real people instead of actors when fitting?
The casting process was intense and included many aspects. We worked with casting director Moonyeenn Lee on this film. The thing that was key was that we wanted faces that were new because we didn’t want to break the spell with the audience (especially the South African audience) of people coming to the city. In other words, if it was someone famous, the illusion would be broken, so unknown faces were crucial to the authenticity. I spent time in Durban doing open calls and saw a lot of people. We cast in Joburg as well. It took a long time to get the right balance but it was definitely rewarding and every one of these wonderful actors and actresses gave their all and I am forever grateful.
AC: The film is based on real stories. To what extent is truth, and what fiction? Did all of these people really ride the Vaya on the same train? Or is that added for stylistic and symbolic reasons? In the end, at Madoda’s bar and hotel, did all three central stories actually have their respective “climaxes” in that setting?
No, the final narrative is fictionalized and the story of all the characters coming together on a train was a device we used to bring different stories together into one multi-strand narrative. However, the incidences that happen to all the characters are rooted in real stories.
AC: “Vaya” ends on tones of hope and hopelessness. Was this contrast intentional to show the opposing societal differences of Johannesburg?
David, Anthony, Tshabalira and Madoda said to us – tell our story and don’t water it down. And that’s all I focused on when making the film and hoped that in some way we were able to shed a light on people that we ignore. The last image of the film represents that ethos.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Mr. Omotoso for his time and insight into the production of “Vaya”!