Vusi Kunene and Florence Masebe in Elelwani


DIRECTOR: Ntshavheni wa Luruli

CAST: Florence Masebe, Ashifadhabba Muleya, Samson Ramabulana , Salome Mutshinya , Vusi Kunene, Tovhowani Neluvhalani


RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

Theresa Smith

Several years in the making, Ntshavheni wa Luruli’s film is a slow-burning and lyrical exploration of the Venda culture.

Based on the novel by Dr Titus Maumela, it gives us Florence Masebe in a measured performance as the titular character whose name means “to remember”.

Sent off to be educated in the big city, Elelwani returns home to rural Limpopo to celebrate her university graduation and embark on a new course of study overseas. So when her parents tell her it is time to come home and marry the king – the price of her education which has been sponsored by the royal family – she tries to point out that: “my life here at home is no longer mine, it’s my past.”

The contest of wills between Elelwani and her father (Ramabulana) beggars the family to the point where she blinks first and sets off deep into the heart of Vendaland and back into time in a way. This is a place of deep ritual and even deeper secrets.

While Elelwani’s boyfriend Vele (Muleya) tries to persuade her that she shouldn’t be held ransom to her culture, it is eventually her father she listens to. As she leaves her childhood home he admonishes her to “remember to point out the wrong so as to avoid destructive consequences” which is exactly what she does.

Director of photography Lance Gewer keeps the camera low and still – a lot of the imagery we get is from the point of view of the women who lower themselves to move around on hands and knees when serving the men.

So too when Elelwani approaches the clan elders to try and explain her problem, you are put in her position, head bowed, not looking anyone in the eye in order to show respect.

From an outsider’s perspective the behaviour is almost servile, but director Wa Luruli (The Wooden Camera) isn’t making a judgement call here – he is simply showing a completely different way of life.

Adding a touch of magic realism to a very real problem of Western- educated children baulking against the cultural norms of their parents turns it into a fable, rather than a conclusion or opinion statement.

Chris Letcher’s score mixes a spare jazzy clarinet with a haunting cello and violin coupled with a bowed saw for an evocative sound-scape that does much to turn the almost exotically green landscape into something familiar.

With practically no marketing and very few prints made available to cinemas, this film is going to be a hard sell to the paying public. It is a South African art movie that is a study of a particular culture, no one gets blown to bits and it doesn’t end with a pretty bow ending. Doesn’t make it any less worth your time, though.

If you liked Vanaja you will like this.