Thina Sobabili director Ernest Nkosi

In one of the early scenes in Thina Sobabili, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, a huge cat stands in the street. It’s ravaging another animal, almost as big as itself, and lapping up blood in the process. Wait, is the cat devouring a rat? The local film’s director, Ernest Nkosi, laughs at my disgust as we catch up over coffee.

“It’s a metaphor,” he starts, “about fat cats coming to the township to prey on the ’hood rats. It may seem disgusting (on screen) but often, people don’t find it disgusting to see old dudes with very young girls. So the film is saying, ‘you’ve got to watch yourself.’”

Thina Sobabili, which is a Zulu title meaning The Two Of Us, is a beautiful ghetto noir flick which tells the tale of a brother, Thulas (played by Emmanuel Nkosinathi Cweva) who will do anything to make ends meet while looking out for Zanele (Busisiwe Mtshali), his teenage sister.

A turning point in this coming-of-age story occurs when Zanele starts to look for everything she can’t find in her brother, or her surroundings, in a much, much older man. This then tests her relationship with her brother, but also exposes the crookedness of certain things that have become the norm in South African townships. That’s why Nkosi’s fat cat metaphor hits home.

Shot in Alexandra township, which is a bridge away from the swanky Sandton suburb, Nkosi said he wanted to tell the story of “people who look like me and come from places like me.” The Katlehong-bred film-maker who studied at AFDA says it’s fair to take Alex as another character in the movie.

“That Alex dynamic is interesting because you’re literally a few kilometres from Sandton. That highway separates the haves from the have-nots. That’s why you don’t see actual Sandton in the film, but you see its bright lights. I wanted you to feel the claustrophobia, that 90 percent of young, black people feel trapped in the ’hood.”

This is a debut feature-length film for Nkosi, who is a creative director in the advertising industry as well as the chairperson of the Young Producers Forum.

He tells me “over the course of three years, I wanted to make this movie”. So he and The Monarchy Group (which are the producing company of the film) created financial literacy movies for clients like Stanlib for years.

He and stand-up comedian, Mpho Popps Modikoane – who not only is a part of The Monarchy Group, but is one of the stars of the film – also took to selling DVDs of a comedy called Triple O after Modikoane’s comedy gigs. All this over four years helped to raise the R2 million that Thina Sobabili – which was shot over seven days in Alexandra – was made with.

The film premiered at the Durban Film Festival (DIFF) last year and then showed at film festivals overseas before it will open in South Africa for a longer run. DIFF left a bitter taste in Nkosi’s mouth.

He shares: “When we get there, there are six South African features at DIFF, but we aren’t in competition. We’re the only South African feature not in competition! Why? Because we’re not affiliated with any funding bodies.”

Although he won’t get into it, it’s clear Nkosi is referring to South Africa’s funding body, the National Film and Video Foundation.

“You know South Africans,” he explains. “Unless you win internationally, no one is trying to hear anything from you. That’s why you struggle to get funding – especially for a crew that’s all under 30. Young people are trying to get jobs, but no one is trying to hire them so the odds are always stacked against us.”

But if there’s one thing he wants those young people to know, it’s that “dreams do come true. People who come from where I do don’t get to do a lot, but we kept ploughing through and finding our way, so it’s never too late for you and your dream. I’m living proof of that.”

Thina Sobabili opens in cinemas tomorrow.