Thirty years after Mbongeni Ngema first staged his protest musical, Asinamali, at The Market Theatre, he decided to team up with long-time friend, executive producer David Dison, to make a cinema version of the piece that was shot in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

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 was at the helm of 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 and the workshops are suppressed, but eventually the men get to act and sing out the stories of their lives. It is a challenging film, intense, at times working as hallucinatory cinema and at others unapologetically theatrical.

Ngema’s company Committed Artists bring its communal power to the set pieces, Danica de la Rey radiates stage power and Boitumelo Shisana brings the cinematic hallucinations back to the energised immediacy of theatre.

Like all Ngema’s works, the film version 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.