It takes the viewer back to how the homeless became so and it all started with a TV series. Once we’ve settled into an office at the back of the building that houses Rififi Pictures, director, Akin Omotoso reminisces.
“We did a (SABC 1) TV series called A Place Called Home - 36 episodes. Out of working on A Place Called Home, Robbie (Thorpe, one of the partners at Rififi) set up an initiative called the Homeless Writers Project - a place where people from the streets could come and share their stories.
“He was later joined by Harriet Pearlman. There was an idea that a film would be made but for them, it was more about people actually hearing them. We pass them on the streets but here is a place where they could tell the story of how they came here.
“So eventually that group of writers got whittled down to these four guys and the film is based on their stories of coming to Jozi.”
These stories were written by Madoda Ntuli, David Majoka, Tshabalira Lebakeng and Anthony Mafela. Omotoso continues: “The film is based on their lives but the way in which the film presents the events is not necessarily how the events themselves happened because in real life, their lives didn’t intersect like that. They didn’t all come to Joburg at the same time.
"A lot of the stuff that happened in the film actually happened. That’s why we say based on real stories."
So what is the story? There are several. A troubled young woman (played by Zimkhitha Nyoka) with a hungry child in tow, heads to Joburg to find the child’s mother.
A naive young man (played by Sihle Xaba) is on his way to meet his cousin (played by Warren Masemola) under the assumption that his cousin has made it big in the city.
A woman mourning her husband sends their eldest son to Joburg to retrieve his body from the mines. But once there, he discovers that is not as easy as his mother expects. There are other stories that intertwine in the film and one of the best things about Vaya is that the stories feel real - because they are.
In how the film is shot, there’s also a sense of dignity restored to people who have had to endure much more than others. Omotoso presents the different perspectives in a non-judgemental gaze.
“I had an exercise book that had the entire script in it,” he says. “And then I had six or seven other exercise books that had just each of the character’s story in it. So depending on what night it was, I would read the film from this person’s point of view or from that person’s point of view.
"I was immersed in this world to make sure that they were heard. The thing that was important to me was that the humanity always shone through.”
This is put elegantly and in more detail in a book called Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg, which is available now in all book stores. It complements the visual aesthetic of the film. There are these glorious aerial shots of the city that - if you’re watching as a Joburger - make the city more endearing as a character.
Even when the drones draw closer to a dilapidated building, that dichotomy of this city is a visual representation of the love and hate relationship one may have with Joburg.
“With every project, you try to bring something to the table that continues a particular journey you’re trying to go on,” Omotoso says.
“I always take everything from the point of view of: what does the story demand? So the style of the story comes out from what feeling you want the audience to have.
“So what is contested? Joburg. So the shots of the city are like: ‘This is what’s at stake.’
“That informs how you visually interpret it. Where are these guys coming from?
“From the ground, almost at cockroach level. So we put the camera on the ground.
“That’s why, many times in the film, the shot is from the ground.”
The music also heightens the feelings Omotoso envisioned for the audience. From Skwatta Kamp to Skeem and even Reason, it’s a proudly South African soundscape.
“It was songs that I liked and thought could work and a combination of working with Lance (Stehr) from Ghetto Ruff. In imagining the film way back in the day, Rau Rau by Skwatta Kamp was always in the back of my mind. I’d always visualise this sound when we go to Soweto. Reason’s No Sleep always spoke to how Joburg was. We don’t sleep.”
Vaya - which means to go - was a title chosen by the writers. It’s especially significant because it represents the tightrope one walks in this city. To go to the city or to go from it? It’s a choice many face every day.
* Vaya opens in South Africa on Friday, October 27.