It is difficult to find unique narratives in an age that is polarized by worry. In South African cinematic culture Tshivenda is a silent hero of linguistics. It is the tugging rope that disturbs the familiar chasm of English and isiZulu being the dominant mediums of communication in film. Operating on visceral level it often feels like a silent partner in the local cultural space. Ntshaveni wa Luruli’s film Elelwani is a textured cinematic benchmark that comes in the wake of years of steadily building momentum. From the onset the film operates on a premise that is both shaky and interesting. Its current cultural relevance stems from a resurgent interest in expletives from what has been for many years (at least in mainstream terms) been an ignored part of South African social memory. It is the first feature film in Tshivenda which means already-at least socially the film bares the responsibility of taking the battle to ligitimise this language into the South African mainstream-to the next level. It’s also a cinematic adaptation of a book that has made a significant dent in the framework of how narratives from the north are viewed by the rest of the country. In short (at least conceptually) Elelwani is a film that seeks to be legitimate and is about legitimacy.
The film draws its epicenter from that cinematically familiar question of the battle between tradition and modernity. In the narrative we follow Elelwani (played poignantly by Florence Masebe) a young recent graduate with a disfigured butterfly tattoo behind her ear, a clean manicure and tomboyish disposition. She is a thorny mess of contradictions and is perhaps the most textured character to emerge from the South African film landscape since Oliver Hermanus’ Shirley Adams. When Elelwani comes back home for a celebratory gathering she is bamboozled with the news that she must make right by marrying the man who has funded her studies. What follows at least for the first part of this visual masterpiece is a measured tug-of war between Elelwani and her parents as she tries to state her case for not wanting an arranged marriage-instead preferring her own love interest Vele and an education in America.
What wa Luruli has pulled of here with a sort of unfamiliar mastery, is avoiding using culture within film in a tokenistic manner, as somewhat a punching bag and nothing more than dead symbolism whose sole purpose is to aid the movement of the film. Instead he uses the cultural imagery to showcase the contradictions that exist in this social context. Often in the film we see old ‘wise’ men bowing their heads and clasping their hands at Elelwanias a sign of respect for her womanhood, but in the same token obliging her to marry a king she neither knows no loves. Wa Luruli as a director does not take sides but rather he employs a film-noirish texture to a lush green landscape to make the setting seem more closed off than it actually is and the decision faced both by Elelwani and he parents as increasingly alien.
In a ghastly turn of events Elelwani is informed that she may do what she pleases and in exchange for her freedom her younger sister Rhendani is to take her place in the kingdom. This is where the film enters its most risky territory. At times the narrative feels a little underserviced by the typecasting that ensues. Many of the characters in the film also play similar or exactly the same characters in Muvhango, (the local Tshivenda TV series). This of course makes the film structurally problematic as it feels like it draws too often on familiar resources instead of venturing out and giving us a completely new Tshivenda interface to engage with. This is particularly true of the role of Makhadzi the dark matriarch of the royal court, who operates at a distance and is the crown-seeking dark shadow that is a villain in this instance. Elelwani is a film that asks questions about the role of the individual in society and to what extent does the individual bare responsibility towards the latter. Perhaps the most welcome surprise in the film is the support acting that is provided in the form of Vele (Played by comic luminary Ashifashaba), in the few scenes in which he occupies the screen he delivers a surprisingly human and understated performance in this-his latest role.
As Elelwani peels beneath the surface of the royal household she soon discovers that all is not as it seems here and that history is the most persistent enemy in the place. As sibling rivalry for the crown sees the true king and Elelwani’s real husband (played by Vusi Kunene) wither in the shadows. There are however stylistic drawbacks that are largely of a fringe nature-such as Kunene’s butchered unconvincing accent. The latter parts of the film it must be said at times feel quite outlandish, as we see Elelwanisuddenly transforms and accept her duties as a royal wife wanting to make right. This does at times make the story seem unreasonably optimistic but no less accomplished.
This is not a film that is part of what I often call voucher cinema-aiming to tick all the right boxes on route to box office returns without making a dent in the cultural landscape. Refreshingly it is also not a manifesto for liberal values taking place in a rural setting; rather it is a comparative study about how two eras of a culture are at loggerheads as they battle for relevance in the contemporary. South African cinema has mastered the urban landscape and here wa Luruli has made a significant step towards helping own the rural. Elelwani is a film that is fully realized and is punctuated by lush dark cinematography that at times feels like still life photography. This is not a film that South African audiences have insistently wanted or expected. It is however the film that South Africans deserve. A gritty and well thought-out piece of cinema that feels relevant without being bogged down by that familiar trouble of feeling too self-consciously and quintessentially South African.