Review – Elelwani: Tricky magic

2012-07-20 12:12

In her glamorous red carpet outfit, actress Florence Masebe lay down in front of the audience on the Suncoast Cinema stage after the opening screening at the Durban International Film Festival last night.

It was an unexpected and unsettling moment that acknowledged the deference that must be shown by women in traditional Venda culture.

Then she stood up and accepted the applause of the VIP crowd, a powerful modern woman who had just carried the world’s first Venda language film in her title role as “Elelwani”, and was also one of the producers on the project.

This conflict and reconciliation between the modern and the traditional woman was what award-winning director Ntshavheni wa Luruli set out to explore in “’”, an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Titus Maumela.

With its selection of “Elelwani” as the opening feature, the country’s most important film festival sent a clear message to the industry and audience – as it does each year.

The soft politics says that it’s time to engage with indigenous stories that create a truly African film language. With his visually striking, state-funded film that took a decade to arrive on our screens, Wa Luruli did just that.

He tackled his simple but complex theme by balancing a critique of the treatment of women in traditional culture with a celebration of the role of ancient traditions in modern life.

He did this by peeling away the mystique and dispelling the curio value of his rich culture.

The film was shot at the Venda king’s homestead and offers audiences a rare and powerful glimpse of life in a world where women must go on their knees before the king and never meet his eye – yet where they run the kingdom behind the scenes.

On all these levels “Elelwani” broke ground. Yet, as the story drove towards a conclusion, he lost my buy-in as a viewer.

With a degree in her pocket and the offer of a bursary to America, Elelwani returns home to her Limpopo village with her lover Vele, played by Ashifashabba Muleya.

But her education means nothing in light of her duty. Elelwani must marry the king.

It is her destiny and she is traded like a horse.

But in her kicking against tribal authority, she finds that she is drawn into the politics of the palace.

She spends time with the dying king and begins to immerse herself in the ritual power of her culture.

It’s really only here, at the royal homestead, that the film begins to delve into a kind of magical realism – but then it does so unevenly.

The nature themes permeate the mind of the modern woman.

Reality is jarred and subverted by a startling piece of creature effect and a motif of a white lion, by wooden masks and sacred forests, village madmen and powerful prophets.

It’s at the pivotal moment in the film that Wa Luruli burst my bubble.

The prophet that will determine Elelwani’s future is introduced so suddenly and is so overblown that it gives the story away.

Worse, it reads like a gimmick and it negates the deep cultural discussion that we had been invited to engage with.

Elelwani’s justice feels cheated and the themes start to crumble.

The problem was there all along.

Elelwani and Vele’s relationship is never properly explored in the film and receives precious few lines of dialogue. Yet it is as crucial to the plot as her relationship with tradition.

The magical and the traditional offered some sublime moments in “Elelwani”. Reality, though, was less effectively explored.

Yet “Elelwani” is an important new film that will no doubt be absorbed into the education curriculum and hold its own in the decades to come.

It’s proof that marginalised, traditional culture is perfectly able to tell universal stories.

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