I clearly remember enjoying Zethu Dlomo’s performance in Fanie Fourie’s Lobola a few years back.
The romantic comedy, released in 2013, was about a Zulu girl who falls in love with a white Afrikaner man. For Dlomo, the role was perfect, but nothing like her latest.
In fact, the two are in stark contrast. The young actress plays Lerato in South Africa’s first Western film, Five Fingers for Marseilles. It’s a challenging role that took her out of her comfort zone, both literally and figuratively.
The film portrays the reality of South Africa in the style of the Western, highlighting issues of racism in a post-apartheid society, using the conventions of the Western genre, such as the wilderness, trains, outlaws, and life-endangering fights.
It stars Vuyo Dabula, Kenneth Nkosi and Jerry Mofokeng amongst many other star performers. It tells the story of Tau (played by Dabula), a troubled young outlaw - one of the Five Fingers gang - who returns to the town he fled as a youth, and is forced to confront his past (and the town’s difficult future), while also finding a chance for redemption.
Filmed in Sotho, the story takes place in Marseilles, a town in the Free State. The Five Fingers are a fictional group of young fighters that fought police brutality in the small rural town more than 20 years ago. When Tau returns to Marseilles seeking a quiet pastoral life, he finds it is once again under threat, and is in need of heroes once more.
“I auditioned for the role of Lerato back in March, 2016. I was still shooting Black Sails in Cape Town. A few months later I saw people that I knew were a part of the production team on Five Fingers posting pictures online, indicating that filming had started. I immediately assumed I did not get the part, but I was not upset, because that is the nature of the beast; you win some and you lose some. So I continued doing other work,” Dlomo said.
In August, her agent called with the good news.
“My agent was frantic over the phone. She just told me I needed to get on a plane and fly to Bloemfontein; she did not even say ‘Zethu, you got the part as Lerato’. I had to figure that out for myself,” she said.
The Black Sails star said when she arrived on set, she had the option of playing Lerato as a Xhosa or Sotho woman. She chose the latter.
“I am Zulu, and Xhosa and Zulu are similar, so I selected Sotho because I wanted something different. I wanted a challenge,” she said.
Describing Lerato, Dlomo said: “She is the rose among the thorns. Technically, she is the sixth Finger. They all grew up together and she loved Tau, but when he went away, things changed. She is extremely strong and independent. She grew up in her father’s tavern, where she still works.
"She had no mother figure, because her mother died when she was young. She also has a teenage son, so there are a lot of dimensions to her, but the main thing people will see is her strength; she has been through a lot of pain.”
Dlomo certainly found the challenge she was looking for with this role.
“It was so challenging, not just speaking in Sotho, but also going to certain places to embody the authentic Lerato. Places like her pain, then her gentleness, her protectiveness, being a mother. She really pushed me to a new level of performance.
“She reminded me very much of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; she keeps it all together when things are falling apart,” she said.
The film was shot on location at Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape.
Dlomo said one of the biggest challenges was dealing with the cold weather.
“Wow, I had no idea it would be so cold! We basically camped in Lady Grey. I was on set for three weeks and I was so sick, but the cast and production team were amazing. On certain days we were shooting and then it just started raining and we had to incorporate the rain into the scene, because we did not have the luxury of time,” she added.
Veteran actor Jerry Mofokeng, who played Dlomo’s father in Lobola, plays her father again in Five Fingers for Marseilles.
“I can’t explain how amazing it was working alongside Ntate Jerry again. He is such an incredible performer and is always imparting knowledge. With this production, he helped me with my Sotho because he is Sotho; he was like a father on set, even shouting at us, sometimes telling us to behave, with love of course,” she said.
She also said that working alongside Vuyo Dabula was great. “He is such a cool guy. Obviously very easy in the eye, but beyond his looks he really is a great performer. We had a lot of scenes together and I enjoyed all of them.”
Speaking on this being South Africa’s first Western production, Dlomo described it as “really dope.
“The genre has always been there, we have just never explored it until now. Even horror movies, we can do all of that. Nothing is stopping us. I feel like Westerns are actually great containers to tell our stories and we should be doing more films like this,” she said.
While the South Africans can enjoy the fast-paced action film in cinemas now, it will also be released in the US on September 7, starting in New York and Los Angeles, before moving to an additional 15 American cities.
“This is one of the first South African movies to have its very own cinema run in the USA, so this is huge, I am extremely happy,” Dlomo said. The film will also be released in Japan and Scandinavia, and was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dlomo, who was born and raised in Soweto and attended the National School of the Arts, said: “This is the best film that I have ever shot. You will be able to see that a lot of time and effort was put into it. The editing is going to blow your mind, the script is fantastic and so is the cast. This film really is for everyone and will resonate with a huge audience because of the social issues it addresses”.
* Five Fingers for Marseilles is on at cinemas countrywide.