‘Matwetwe’ Captures The Essence of South African Life Without Conforming to the Hollywood Gaze
South African comedian Kagiso Lediga and DJ Black Coffee have produced a frenetic but heartwarming ode to boyhood
Lefa and Papi race through the township and almost stumble over each other as they pursue the guy who's just stolen their bag containing all the weed they've ever cultivated—thousands of Rands worth of weed. The gag is, the thief has a gun (they don't) and keeps looking back to try to shoot at them. The tension is palpable. At the last possible minute, the thief jumps into a getaway car which appears out of nowhere, mind you. The two boys drop to the floor and simply lie on the dusty street in frustrated defeat.
Executive produced by DJ Black Coffee and written and directed by the seasoned comedian Kagiso Lediga, Matwetwe (wizard) is about two best friends Lefa (Sibusiso Khwinana) and Papi (Tebatso Mashishi), who live in Atteridgeville, a township in Pretoria, South Africa's capital city.
Papi is the street smart cool-kid whose father, a former taxi boss, was gunned down and murdered, whilst Lefa is the shy and reserved nerd who is set to go and study Botany at Wits University. Papi's entrepreneurial spirit and Lefa's botanical know-how allows them to cultivate their own weed (which they name Matwetwe) and sell it all over the township as part of their hustle.
The film starts off on a high (excuse the pun) from the get-go. DJ Mujava's classic banger "Mugwanti wa Pitori" opens up the first scene where there are beautifully shot aerial views of the township. It captures the authentic essence of the township with images of shacks packed closely together as well as brick houses in the better parts of the township.
Right from the beginning, the film isn't attempting to be what it's not - some Americanized version of what South African life looks like. It's right there in the trenches so to speak and authentically so. This is what other popular South African films such as Mrs Right Guy and even Happiness is a Four-Letter Word failed to do.
What Matwetwe has achieved, unlike other South African films, is capturing the true essence of South African life as it is without needing to conform to the Hollywood gaze. There are no forced American accents save for two characters (but they're just trying to act cool) and no tired stereotypical tropes of what it means to be South African.
Three narrators describe the events as they unfold. This particular 'theater style' allows for more engagement with the viewers and brings in comedic relief when Lefa and Papi's thrilling escapades have you on the edge of your seat. The fact that the three narrators sometimes interject with other stories, for example, Lefa's neighbour (who is hiding his dead wife's body in their house) or Barotho (who lost his sanity after his girlfriend died in a car accident) speaks to the multifaceted life of the township. There is no end to the peculiar characters who make daily life just that much more interesting.
"Mugwanti" is just the first of several South African musical classics to add vibrancy to the film. You'll be singing along to hits you'd almost forgotten. This includes Khuli Chana's "Mnatebawen," Bugzito's "Maratong," Black Coffee and Nakhane's "We Dance Again" and Stogie T's "Going Gorilla," among others.
The film has a refreshingly fresh-faced cast which is important at a time when South Africans have been debating the opening up of the entertainment industry to new talent. The two young stars of the film show that a production doesn't always need veteran actors and actresses at its helm to make it a success. What's also important is how Tebatso Mashishi, who has albinism, is one of the main actors in the film. In a country where people who have albinism are still stigmatized and even physically harmed because of their condition, seeing Mashishi on the screen is so fitting because representation matters.
At the heart of the film is also the theme of absent fathers, something many South Africans can relate to. Whilst Papi's father is absent because he died, Lefa's father is absent because he has unsurprisingly started another family elsewhere. Lefa is now left in the care of his grandmother who is always visibly worried about whether Lefa's father will eventually pay his university fees or disappoint him yet again.
Perhaps the most obvious and poignant theme of this film is that of friendship. But more so, friendship that has to exist in a sense, in two different realities. While the one young man, Papi, is well-off, he seems comfortable with life in the township, as long as he can make some money for himself. On the other hand, his friend Lefa, is tired of that life, and the opportunity to go and study is one he wants to seize with both hands.
In one of the last scenes of the movie, Papi expresses how he is going to miss Lefa when he goes off to university. It's sad that many a friendship has not survived because of just that. We talk about the ones who get to leave the township with tremendous excitement, but we often forget those who stay behind.