Donovan Marsh has done it again. Famed for his gritty storytelling, the director delivers another captivating feature with Netflix’s “I Am All Girls”.
Marsh is no stranger to masterfully exploring the criminal underbelly of South Africa.
He’s proven his Midas touch with the Safta award-winning feature, “Dollar$ + White Pipes”, back in 2005.
This time, he unpacks a global problem - human trafficking - via his two female leads: Jodie Snyman (Erica Wessels) and Ntombizonke Bapai (Hlubi Mboya). Both of them work for a special crimes unit tasked with looking into the perpetrators of this trafficking operation.
The unit is run by Captain George Mululeki (Mothusi Magano), who is facing a lot of pressure to close cases.
“I Am All Girls” opens with a vehicle transporting several young girls along a dusty road to Brakpan, east of Johannesburg.
The year is 1994 and a couple drops them off at a farm.
Not long after, the male culprit is caught and interrogated. He confessed: “They are gone, not just the five or six that you know off, more than 40.”
He added: “My girlfriend and I, we kidnapped them. It wasn’t for us. We were acting under instructions from a national party minister.”
When pushed for a name, he refused to answer.
During the interrogation, the man confirmed that the girls were smuggled to the Middle East. But not all of them. Some were used and then killed.
Back to the present day, Jodie, who has a penchant for not following rules and, in so doing, compromises cases, is tasked with looking into the murder of an elderly man.
While working the case, she maintains a beady eye on another involving child trafficking and a new lead takes her and her colleague, Samuel Arendse (Brendan Daniels) to Durban, where they uncover a major smuggling operation run by Salim Khan (played by the late Afzal Khan) and his brother Pharwaz Khan (Kaseran Pillay).
“I Am All Girls” follows the link between the smuggling operation and the recent string of murders.
At first, there’s a growing suspicion of a mole in the unit. But the truth is far darker, unsettling and hard-hitting - one of their own is seeking justice, vigilante style.
Marsh has adopted a multi-layered approach to his storytelling.
Through his characters, he explores lost innocence as a young girl is thrust into the seedy world of prostitution.
He also homes in on rampant corruption within influential circles, including that of the ruling National Party.
Sexuality is also a running trope in the movie, especially with Jodie and Ntombizonke’s relationship.
Throughout the movie, Marsh cleverly splices in breaking news inserts as well as images of several missing girls.
As outlined at the start of the story, Jodie and Ntombizonke are the anchors in this movie.
And they are compelling to watch, more so as both of them seem to be harbouring secrets and demons of their own as they seek justice in different ways.
Through flashbacks, the audience gets to understand Ntombizonke’s redemptive journey.
Although she was robbed of her childhood, she used her pain, hurt and anger to pull herself out of a hopeless situation.
She educated herself and, with the help of a fellow prostitute, escaped her torturous existence.
“I Am All Girls” is based on a real event, where a damning confession never sees the light of day.
It is an intense, jaw-dropping and fast-paced movie.
While the subject matter is disturbing, it mirrors the shocking realities of today’s world.
And it also exposes the harsh truth that money, power and prestige often aid many pillars of society in defeating the ends of justice.
Given the cliffhanger ending, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel on the cards.
“I Am All Girls” will be available on Netflix from May 14.