Thabo Rametse plays Solomon Mahlangu. Picture: Supplied

It's been nearly a decade since cinematographer Mandla Dube conceived the concept of Kalushi. 

The idea of telling the story of Solomon Mahlangu came as a result of several indicators that he felt were directing him towards making this film.

The first came during his time at Wits University, where he was a cinematography lecturer.

“I just saw the apathy among the students who were just not at all interested or engaging in the politics of what was going on at campus, within the department that they were in, and also in general.

“I would say certain names that I would expect them to respond to and there was just no response. It was as if they were thinking, ‘There you go again with those stories from the past – we’re not interested.’ ”

Dube was later introduced to struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu’s family through a mutual friend.

Also, over time, the disinterest among students became more and more apparent.

“That’s when I decided that these stories needed to be told,” he said. “As a filmmaker, it’s my responsibility to tell these kinds of stories because they are important, not only for remembering who we are, but also to rekindle that spirit and know where it is that we’re heading, which is informed by what happened in the past.”

At this point, Dube realised that he was under-qualified to work on the project alone. And so, with no prior directing experience, he took his concept to the South African State Theatre, where he directed a stage play, in collaboration with the theatre’s artistic director, Aubrey Sekhabi.

Dube not only directed but the two of them wrote and produced it together. Through the production of the play, Dube discovered that there was an appetite for this type of content.

Energised by the response, he soon got his students involved and had them making excursions to interview key figures in Mahlangu’s life. The idea was to make a four-part television drama series.

However, Dube abandoned that idea during the co-writing process with director and writer Teddy Mattera.

They were on the third draft, after writing in excess of 1,200 pages of script, when they realised that it didn’t feel right to have this story told on the television screen – or, as Dube puts it, on “a small canvas”. They both agreed that the scope of the story required that it be told in the form of a feature film.

Dube then approached several potential directors with the script and each one turned him down, because they didn’t resonate with the story.

During this painstaking process, Dube realised that if he were to make this film a reality, he had to do it himself. And so he set off to learn the ropes and hone his craft by seeking guidance from a director’s coach at Columbia University.

“It was very rewarding and very humbling to sit there and put on the cap of a director,” he said about learning the craft and putting it to practice.

“It’s a very lonely place because you have to sit there and question, ‘Why should this person do this at this moment of the story and how does it relate to other parts in the story?’

“I will definitely do it again. I enjoyed the process of working with actors and the excitement of discovering characters, both on set and off.”

Kalushi has screened at several film festivals around the world, including Zanzibar International Film Festival, Durban International Film Festival, Brics Film Festival, Film Africa and Festival Cinémas d’Afrique (African Cinema Festival).

Along the way, it won awards at a few of the festivals.

Recently, after a friend in Los Angeles sent him an email regarding the Oscars, Dube looked at the calibre of films on the nominations list and he thought to himself, “Kalushi can do this and go all the way. What stops us from being able to go all the way?

“Now I’m thinking,” he pauses for a brief moment, “that we have one hand out there to go and grab that Oscar.”

Cast: Thabo Rametsi, Thabo Malema, Welile Ndzunza, Jafta Mamabolo, Louw Venter, Dr Gcina Mhlophe, Fumani Shilubana, Pearl Thusi

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes