Cast of Asinamali. Picture: Supplied

The Academy Awards Foreign Film guidelines ruled that "the submitted motion pictures must be first released theatrically in their respective countries between October 1, 2016 and September 30, 2017". 

So, local filmgoers have been getting a sneak preview of films only slated for a full release next year. Vaya, Inxeba - The Wound, and Five Fingers For Marseilles have met the requirement, as has Mbongeni Ngema, who jumped into the Oscar submissions race with a one-week qualifying run at Cinema Noveau of Asinamali, his movie of his play, with him in the lead.

The five-man protest musical was first performed at the Market Theatre three decades ago before touring the US, where it was a Tony-nominated hit, played Broadway and launched Ngema’s career at the age of 30. 

It was 1986 and celebrated New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote, “In Asinamali, five black men sing, dance and shout unceasingly for 90 frenetic minutes - almost as if they feared that to stand still might be to surrender or to die.

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The men of Asinamali turn not only their harsh experience but also their voices and bodies, their every sound and gesture, into protest art. In this kinetic theatrical event, each rapid-fire breath is a volley of defiance against the repressive state.”

The set-up involved five men who meet in a prison cell: a political activist, a pig farmer, a migrant labourer, an assassin and a man accidentally caught in a security raid. 

They entertain one another with their life stories during apartheid, at work, in protest, confronting apartheid and arrest under the Immorality Act. All are linked in some way to slain Lamontville activist Msize Dube whose rallying cry was "Asinamali" - Zulu for "we have no money".

The play was a kick in the gut that stunned theatregoers and critics alike. The next year it was filmed by South African Ross Devenish for a co-production between the BBC and PBS called Great Performances. 

Asinamali cast. Picture: Supplied

Co-produced by Eric Abraham, now the man behind Cape Town’s Fugard theatre, it was a reverent, accurate and historical record of the play, its first performers and their unique breakout stage routines.

Thirty years later, Ngema decided to team up with long-time friend, executive producer David Dison, to make a proper cinema version of the piece which was shot in Kwa-Zulu-Natal and Gauteng late last year. 

As a first-time director, Ngema felt he needed guidance on how best to capture his ideas on film and asked film-maker Darrell Roodt, who helmed the movie version of Ngema’s Sarafina!, to help produce and advise on cinematic ways to transform the play’s powerful onstage dynamics for the screen.

The film works as a play within a play as it follows Comrade Washington (Ngema) returning from exile to create a prison theatre project for Amnesty International. He guides the inmates, is silenced by prison authorities, the workshops are suppressed, but eventually the men get to act and sing out the stories of their lives.

It is a challenging film, incredibly intense, at times working as hallucinatory cinema and at others unapologetically theatrical.

Ngema’s company Committed Artists bring their unique communal power to some of the set pieces, Danica De La Rey radiates a stage power and Boitemelo Shisana brings the cinematic hallucinations back to the energised immediacy of theatre performance.

The film version of the play is not a traditional opening out of the stage work and works more as an exploratory filmic journey into the psyche of the prisoners. Like all of Ngema’s works, it involves characters struggling against repression and, in this case, personal demons. 

Through their imaginative inner strength and talent, they triumph over adversity. Cinematographer Dino Benedetti’s hallucinatory imagery combined with Lucian Barnard’s contrapuntal, dazed editing make you feel as if you’ve been on a brutal, kinetic trip into a kind of madness, a similar reaction perhaps to those stunned theatregoers in 1986.

As for the Oscars, South Africans should just be grateful that we have four vastly different movies, all realised by independent film-makers, that are vying for the chance.