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IN THE light of the tragic mining-related events in Joburg, there couldn’t be a more apt time for Vickus Strijdom’s new film Zama Zama to hit the big screen.
Set in the underground world of illegal miners, or zama zamas, the film (which opens at cinemas today), tells the story of two brothers and how their lives are affected by the underground tunnels.
Malcolm (Lindani Nkosi) is a successful businessman who discovers that there are men delving the depths of his newly-acquired gold mine unlawfully. He plans an operation to catch the invaders, only to realise that his estranged brother Joseph is one of them.
“This film isn’t just about illegal mining,” says Presley Chweneyagae, who takes the role of Joseph.
“It’s also about humanitarian values, brotherhood and family bonds. It’s a story about people.”
Chweneyagae says that the role seemed to come at the perfect time for him as he had been reading about the problem of illegal mining in SA just a week before he landed an interview for the part.
His preparation for the role began with writer and director Strijdom’s extensive research. “I saw that and I was very keen and wanted to be involved immediately,” he says.
Another factor in ensuring a realistic performance and portrayal of the character was that scenes were filmed underground in several mines, at least one of which had been inhabited by zamas.
“We’d be shooting a running scene and you’d really need to know the space like your character would. I’d never been underground until that time. It was quite a learning experience. I don’t know how many times I bumped my head,” Chweneyagae laughs.
He likens the three or four weeks they spent in the mines to boot camp. “Physically it was very challenging. We literally spent eight to 12 hours a day walking bent over. We couldn’t use big equipment and the lighting wasn’t easy. It tested all of us.”
Hardships aside, there were many special moments for him. He recalls with a chuckle one scene where, unscripted, fellow actor Israel Makoe splashed a bottle of water in his face and they managed to carry on seamlessly with the shot. There was also one night when they finished a little later than usual and thought they had wandered into the wrong tunnel by mistake while on their way out.
A lot of collective work went into Zama Zama, a fast-paced action drama.
“We put all of our effort into it. I like the way it’s an interracial film and it’s not about politics. And it also doesn’t say nationalise or don’t nationalise.”
In addition to input from people with ample (legal) mining experience who were able to shed light on how the zamas operate, Chweneyagae says that the actors drew a lot from themselves and their own life experiences, lending the film an emotional weight that a documentary wouldn’t necessarily have.
“For me, it’s important to make stories that people can relate to. Whether you’re a woman, or a man, if you’re in the lowest class or you live a superb life, you must be able to take something away with you when you watch this film,” he says.
“It’s something you see in the news everyday. And as much as the story is fictional, it’s based on real events. It offers perspective more than anything.
“We’re looking at the news now, and people are dying, the unions are fighting. That’s not the way of doing things. It should be done through negotiations – you could really achieve a lot.”
Judging by the film’s performance at the recent Durban International Film Festival, he thinks that SA audiences are going to respond well.
When it comes to watching film, Chweneyagae does not have a favourite genre.
“We must stop making movies thinking that they excite people. We must make movies people can identify with.”
Asked whether he dreams of one day sitting in the director’s chair, he smiles.
“Probably – with growth. I think Clint Eastwood has done it very well. It’s an aspiration, but I can’t rush it. At the moment I’m enjoying myself as an actor.”
l See www.zamazamamovie.com