A portrait of Simphiwe Dana leaning on a gate and wearing red church uniform.

In Simphiwe Dana, filmmaker and director Mmabatho Montsho has found an actress that is as shapeless as a lump of clay, but is full of warmth and she has chiselled out of her a measured performance minimal in tone and effort.

Image courtesy of Showmax.

‘Joko ya Hao’ is Not Your Typical Apartheid Film

South African filmmaker Mmabatho Montsho doesn't rely on the politics of her new film to carry it along, but instead imposes her authorial voice on a tribute to Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

The defining flaw of the post-94 apartheid film is always its focus on the macro—the issues, the big political figureheads and so forth. The recently released short film Joko ya Hao (currently streaming on Showmax) signifies a continued stepping away from this conventional wisdom towards a more nuanced history from below.

Filmmaker Mmabatho Montsho does not linger on black pain, towering over it pornographically on Joho ya Hao. Instead, she zooms in; we see crying eyes and an attempt to wash hands red with blood. The objective is not to generate mere anger at the political moment as most films tend to do, but to do the more challenging work of making the viewer intimately aware of its human costs.

Montsho does not rely on the politics of the film to carry it along and instead imposes her authorial voice. In her, we have found a cinematic improviser who uses the camera as an extension of her own wandering eye. The faces are framed in warm close-ups, never always fully in focus. Faith is never static but is always fleeting and at times fading like the edges of the images on the screening.

Not your average apartheid film

In Montsho's peculiar yet accomplished take on the apartheid film, the eyes of God are always watching. The film is peppered with static aerial shots, the perspective of a higher power who is seemingly idle and unmoved by the events taking place within the confines of the frame.

Read: Netflix's '8' Is a Win for South African Horror

And what events are these? Set in 1955, Joko ya Hao stars South African musician Simphiwe Dana as Nozizwe, a widow who wants to be a priest. As expected, her ambitions are derailed by gender constrictions within the church as well as forced removals that threaten to upend her life and those of everyone she knows.

One of the opening shots of the film is of arms in a basin, washing, a cleansing saturated in hues of orange, but the tone of Joko ya Hao is a pastoral blue.

Its free-form scat tone is a bit jarring in the beginning, but once you settle into the groove, it moves like bebop and undoes our expectations of the film with its manipulation of time.

Simphiwe Dana's performance—minimal in tone and effort

Simphiwe Dana delivers a complex performance as Nozizwe, who holds on to memories of her dead husband via a wedding ring she doesn't take off. It's difficult to tell how long Nozizwe has been a widow. Not enough time has passed for her to stop wearing the wedding band, but enough time has passed for her to start holding hands with another man in her church named Yeni, played by Jet Novuka with a nudge, a wink and the most delicate of touches.

In Simphiwe Dana, Montsho has found an actress that is as shapeless as a lump of clay, but is full of warmth and she has chiselled out of her a measured performance minimal in tone and effort.

There is much to love about Dana's take on what becomes of a woman when supposedly the most important thing she was going to be, a wife, has come and gone. Her chemistry with Novuka is also undeniable. The scenes between the two are reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's My blueberry Nights and In the Mood for Love. Here, there is always sensual anticipation, but also a reluctance to do anything about it, beyond talking it through logically.

One moment in which the walls of Jericho fall takes place in a passage after Yeni arrives and finds a devastated Nozizwe who has just learned she won't be living her best life as a pastor after "failing" a portfolio submission. Yeni comforts Nozizwe, and they fall like Lego pieces into an embrace as the camera pans away. I found myself shifting in my seat, aware that I was eavesdropping on a private moment, a kind of discomfort I only last felt when the camera moved away the same way on Travis Bickle as he was being rejected by Betsy over the phone in Taxi Driver. The humiliation of the moment is made no less palpable by its invisibility.

Dana's voice is used sparingly at the start of the film to help the audience along, an editorial choice that is abandoned for the latter half of the film and Joko ya Hao is all the better for it.

A fitting tribute to Winnie Madikizela Mandela

The film's end credits declare that it is dedicated to late apartheid struggle hero Winnie Madikizela Mandela and like the woman who she is based on, by the end of Joko ya Hao not only has Noziwe found her voice, but she stands firm in it and becomes a kind of spiritual giant.

Joko ya Hao ends on a triumphant note. A kind of defiance against odds, but after the credits go up, the viewer is left questioning if Nozizwe really did become the woman of her dreams or if she too was eventually weighed down by life and its endless supply of disappointments.

Watch the trailer for Joho ya Hao below and stream the film on Showmax.

Joko Ya Hao | Drama | Trailer |