Sophiatown was what many may call now the culture capital of Johannesburg. It was where the young, cool and edgy, regardless of colour and creed, interacted.
It was a melting pot of culture, music, dreams and amazing fashion. It was a place where one could forget about the cruelty of the apartheid regime, be allowed to dream of a life beyond the South African borders. But it was also a place of pain and crime, where petty criminals ran amok, and gangsters had a grip on everything.
"Back of the Moon" is an exploration of both.
Directed by Angus Gibson, "Back of the Moon" is a period drama set in 1958 and tells the story of a brief encounter between a gangster Badman (Richard Lukunku) and a music sensation, Eve (Moshesh), that he quietly loves.
It’s the eve of Sophiatown being demolished by apartheid police, and even with despair in the air, the party is not stopping. It’s also the evening where Eve says farewell to her South African audience and will be leaving to join a theatre show in London.
I meet Moshesh an hour before the film’s premiere at the Durban International Film Festival. Dazzling in a white gown worthy of a Hollywood premiere, she couldn’t contain her excitement and nervousness.
“This is a huge deal. It’s my first film and my first lead role. I can’t believe it. It’s such a great honour. I consider myself an amateur, so for me to be handed this kind of opportunity is amazing. I’m happy, proud and overwhelmed, all at the same time,” said Moshesh.
While she is well known for a melodious voice and music, including her hits songs "Isibhanxa" and "Love More Than You", she proved her acting chops in the short-lived "The Road", which was also set in Sophiatown and from Angus Gibson’s "The Bomb Shelter". But that’s where the similarities lie. Eve Msomi is a feisty, strong and empowered songstress in Sophiatown. Loved and revered by many, she is the closest thing Sophiatown had to a celebrity. And yet, even with her fame and success, she is forced to depend on an abusive man to survive, which is a reflection of what life was like in the 50s for many women.
“The minute I read the synopsis, I fell in love with her. Eve was a character/someone I loved playing. She’s a singer, and so am I. She is feisty, strong, empowered and liberated in her own little world, but in the real world, she needs to depend on a man to survive in Sophiatown,” said Moshesh.
In preparing for this role, she said it came naturally to her.
“I didn’t have a routine that I followed in preparing. I just made sure I completely understood the character synopsis. And I thought that she and I had a lot in common. Playing her was not difficult, because I didn’t feel I was playing someone far from myself. It felt like I was playing myself, but in a different era,” she said.
Moshesh said she had to understand what it was like for Eve during that period, where women didn’t have so much power, freedom, and weren’t as liberated as they are now.
“Women in that era didn’t have as many opportunities, and weren’t taken as seriously as we are now. Even though it is still difficult now, back then it was worse. I put myself in her shoes as a strong woman who feels so empowered, has a strong sense of being, wants so many things, but has to limit herself and has to jump from guy to guy to survive. I asked myself what that must have been like, and how frustrating that must have been for her,” she said.
The film was released in cinemas countrywide on September 6. Moshesh hopes that people enjoy the story being told.
“I really hope I did my character justice. I tend to overthink things. I was happy when I watched the film for the first time. However, I am also my biggest critic, so there are certain things I picked up on, and I hope nobody else notices (LOL), but ultimately, I am going to be harder on myself than anyone else,” she said.
She said working with Gibson was great, and he often asked for her input while directing.
“I liked that he wanted our opinions on certain things. It’s not like he grew up as a black woman. He has a lot of experience, so he doesn’t necessarily have to rope us in. He is an Oscar-nominated director, so it was nice to work with someone who cared about our opinion,” she said.
During filming, Moshesh said she was often the only female on set. And while that can be daunting, the all star male cast made her feel right at home. “They were complete gentlemen. They are also a whole bunch of crazy men who are goofy, funny and energetic all the time,” she said.
Among the lessons she picked up while filming was that hard times come with tough decisions to make, and one has to be very careful about what they decide to do.
“Another is, sometimes even the most beautiful love stories don’t end in happily ever after, and that’s ok,” she said.
Currently, Moshesh has put her music on the back-burner, and is busy promoting the film.