Cinema Africa: Wonder Boy for President’s Tony Miyambo

The South African political satire 'Wonder Boy for President' opens in cinemas nationwide. We get to know one of the film's stars.

In this instalment of Cinema Africa, we sit down with South African actor Tony Miyambo following the world premiere of Wonder Boy For President at the 37th Durban International Film Festival.

Look around Braamfontein this week and you’re certain to come across South Africa’s most exciting, albeit mysterious, new political player. The candidate in question goes by the name of Wonder Boy. And he’s about to shake up South Africa’s political landscape. But here’s the thing: he’s not actually running in next week’s municipal elections.

The dreadlocked politician from the Eastern Cape is the title character of director John Barker’s new mockumentary-style political satire, Wonder Boy For President. In the film, Wonder Boy (Kagiso Lediga) is recruited by two shady ANC stalwarts, Brutus and Shakes, to become the ANC’s next big hope.

Brutus is played by hilarious newcomer Tony Miyambo, a 28-year-old with a theatre background from Thembiso. I caught up with Miyambo in Durban following Wonder Boy’s world premiere at the Durban International Film Festival.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Tell us about your role in Wonder Boy For President...

I play the role of Brutus, who is really an ambitious young politician who goes about things in a not so legal way.

You were 23 when you started shooting Wonder Boy. What’s changed in South Africa in those five years?

It’s become much more of a robust political landscape. A lot more young people are making commentary and taking ownership of the political space and political commentary. It’s opened up from just being an elite critical mass. Social media has allowed us to interact with each other, to debate with each other, to share things and fight and disagree on things. It’s encouraged me to find a way in which I can add my voice to the debate and my voice to the commentary. The film has really allowed me to do that.

What you guys did with hijacking several political rallies and events reminds me of Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerrilla filmmaking tactics. Can you speak at all on the guerrilla style of the film?

I never imagined I would do something like that. In fact, that was the first time I’ve ever engaged in the political rally space. You’re entering that space, and you know you’re there to make a film. Nobody else knows it. But it’s weird because once you’re in a stadium full of 90 000 people, you get caught up in that energy. There’s a weird relationship, because then you start seeing yourself in that space, and as an important person in that space. But you always have to come back and be reminded that you’re there to make a film.

I think it was very brave and stupid of us at the same time to do what we did. But also, it just added something to the film that we could have never recreated on a production set. There was something so real about those spaces, and the people in those spaces, and the way in which we engage. More than anything, it was us the actors; not the character of Brutus; it was actually me, Tony, engaging and being part of that space and immersing myself in that space. And that for me was a really beautiful thing that we had the freedom of doing.

Ntosh Madlingozi (Shakes) and Tony Miyambo (Brutus) in Wonder Boy for President.

Why do you think it’s an important film for South Africans to see?

It’s fearless and it’s trying to turn a mirror to ordinary South Africans and allow them to laugh at themselves, but also to be aware of the world that we live in and the contradictions that it has.

And people should go and laugh, and they can decide what they do from that point onwards. It’s an important voice to add, and I think the form gives it the freedom to explore the three-dimensionality of issues as opposed to trying to engage in issues in one particular way. Which is what I think people who don’t want other people to know the truth want to do. They want you to explore the truth in their own way. The film is our truth. It’s the truth of many young people. It’s an important way to start a conversation.

What do you think it’s inherently a film about?

For me it’s a film about what the individual can do to stay true to themselves. The pressures of wanting to be part of something and allowing whatever it is to take you astray. Brutus chose his evolution in a certain way. Wonder Boy chooses his evolution in a certain way. It’s about the choices that the individual makes and how those then become a combined narrative of a greater number of people.

The film is about being aware of the power. There’s always an agenda, there’s always certain power relations, there’s always a particular way in which we need to unpack that before we enter a space where we’re directly responsible for the lives of a municipality, of a ward, of a province, of a country. It’s about personal accountability, and really understanding the self before you put the self in a place where they make the kind of decisions that affect a whole lot of people.

Would you vote for Wonder Boy?

I wouldn’t [laughs]. Unfortunately I’m a bit more politically conscious. Wonder Boy, as well meaning as he is, his manifest was a little bit pathetic, and a little bit on the odd side. But funny thing is it depends on what context I’m voting for him in. I wouldn’t vote for him nationally, but in a ward, give him a few years and I think if he learned the structures, with his well-meaning heart, then maybe I could vote for him there. It’s complicated. But it’s always good to have new opposition. The masses love Wonder Boy, but you also have to question this mass mindset where you just want to be part of something so badly that you don’t actually think about the repercussions of what it may mean in the long term.

Wonder Boy For President opens in cinemas across South Africa on 29 July.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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