What it's about:
Ten-year-old Thembi and her eight-year-old brother, Khwezi, are left alone in their rural homestead in KZN after their mother dies. All they have to remember her by is a grass mat she wove, which she aimed to enter in a craft competition run by a white priest in the city. Thembi and Khwezi head to the city on their own to enter the mat themselves and once there, they encounter a gang of street kids who offer to help them out – for a price.
What we thought of it:
The marketing team behind Izulu Lami are calling this film "South Africa's Slumdog Millionaire" - which is over-selling it a bit. Not nearly as slick and entertaining as Slumdog, Izulu Lami at least has ample charm and an appallingly dark underbelly in common with its forebear.
Izulu Lami was born out of a short film, The Sky in her Eyes, which was co-directed by Madoda Ncayiyana and went on to win the Djibril Diop Mambety Prize for best African short film at Cannes in 2003. And now the feature film itself has attracted awards, including an audience award at the recent Durban International Film Festival and a Best Actress prize for young Sobahle Mkabase at the Tarifa Festival in Spain.
Indeed Izulu Lami's greatest achievement is its casting of its central child characters. Thembi (played by the 12-year-old Mkabase) and Khwezi (Sibonelo Mabizela) are abandoned by their greedy and abusive aunt after their mother's death. With their rural mud hut literally left bare, they scrape together the courage to go to 'the city' (Durban) with nothing but their mother's most prized handmade traditional Zulu mat in order to track down the white priest who was one of her most loyal customers.
The story of Izulu Lami has all the elements of a children's fairytale. The siblings suffer the tragedy of their mother's death, there's the evil surrogate parent, the perilous journey into the unknown, the scrappy characters they meet along the way who will either help or hinder our young adventurers. And while it does lull you into its innocent little adventure, any child-like illusions are shattered as soon as they reach the big, bad city. The teeming streets of central Durban are a cesspool of drugs, crime and exploitation that relishes the siblings' naïveté like a shiny new toy. We watch with growing apprehension as Thembi and Khwezi's wide-eyed wonder at this new world is being threatened by dark forces whose evil intentions they cannot possibly envisage.
These include a taxi driver who pimps young street children and sells virgins as cures for Aids. Thembi and Khwezi befriend a wisened young street urchin named Chilli-Boy (played by the infinitely charismatic Tshepang Mohlomi), who takes the newcomers under his wing but is just as likely to turn on them should the opportunity prove fruitful.
The early scenes of the KZN countryside are beautifully shot, and offer a poignant counterpoint to the chaos and danger of the later Durban-set scenes. Much of the movie is made up of thoughtfully composed shots, although they don’t often work that well together or offer any new insight into the characters or the story. From a narrative perspective the movie is quite messy, with vital plot points patched together. The movie works best as a meditation on the horrors faced by children on the streets, the true victims of this tale, but the movie's diligence in following its mythical intentions ultimately works to its disadvantage.
The performances from the child actors are delightful in their unrefined charm. Mkabase in particular is absolutely heartbreaking and the dynamic between the kids is a winner, even though the filmmakers have made it hard work for the audience to appreciate their often disturbing story.
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