Award-winning director and producer Sihle Hlophe’s latest project, “Lobola, A Bride's True Price?”, is a thought-provoking two-part documentary which seeks to explore the transactional, patriarchal and heteronormative elements of lobola.
Hlophe, who’s currently engaged, unpacks the cultural concept of lobola before making her own decision on whether to embrace the practice in her own journey.
“Putting the film together was a lot of hard work,” she says. “As a first-time feature-length documentary director, it was a struggle to raise the funds, but I am eternally grateful to the Hot Docs Blue Ice Group Fund (Canada), the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film & Video Foundation for believing in me and my dream.
“It was also imperative to choose the right team to work with. I was surrounded by a lot of talented and hard-working people, such as our consulting producer Xoliswa Sithole, our cinematographer Kutlwano Mabusela, and our senior editor Jason Thorne, who helped me finish this film.”
The film was supposed to be about the Iron Age Bantu people who lived in the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe. But when Hlophe couldn’t get funding because potential funders wanted a contemporary spin on the story, she had an idea.
“One thing that we still hold in high regard as Bantu people is cattle, and that manifests itself through the practice of lobola. I was recently engaged at the time and highly conflicted about going through the lobola process.
“The people who were assisting me with the story development process encouraged me to turn the camera on myself. Initially, I was reluctant, until I realised that I am the conduit through which this story must be told.”
As she began to unpack the practice, the biggest takeaway was that lobola is a deeply spiritual process that unites two families, as well as those two families’ ancestors.
“Lobola, A Bride’s True Price?” has been receiving international recognition in the past year – it premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
In February, it was runner-up for the Adiaha Award for best documentary film by an African woman at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival (2022) and a nominee in the best documentary category at the Africa Academy Movie Awards (2022).
I ask her how fulfilling this recognition has been for her: “Deeply fulfilling,” she says.
“The team worked extremely hard on this film and it’s deeply affirming to have our work recognised in this way.”
Hlophe said she wanted the film to air on a free-to-air channel to ensure that it was as inclusive as possible.
“We wanted the film to reach the people it was meant for, the Makotis and the Mkhwenyanas, the Gogos and the Mkhulus. What’s the use of making such a relatable film and only making it available to a handful of people at film festivals?
“I run film-driven social enterprise, Passion Seed Communications, and our distribution model is inclusive – our aim is to close the knowledge gap between information-rich and information-poor audience members.”
Hlophe’s work has become synonymous with addressing pertinent social matters such as this.
When I ask her for her take on how she thinks we, as a society, can move away from the patriarchal elements of lobola, she says that collectively we need to do a lot of unlearning.
“Patriarchy is oppressive to both men and women, actually,” she says.
“Patriarchy dictates that the worth of a man is determined by the depth of his pocket. Patriarchy says a man must provide. A man must not cry. Patriarchy also dictates that a woman must be submissive, desirable, ageless.
“So we’re all affected by patriarchy at the end of the day. We all have a lot of unlearning to do.”
In terms of what viewers can expect from part 2, she explains, “In part 2, we attend the lobola ceremonies of three couples from different cultures and different parts of the country.
“We learn about the four steps of lobola: 1, asking for consent to negotiate; 2, the negotiations; 3, accepting the groom; and 4, accepting the bride. The series is aimed at challenging, provoking and enlightening people about this ancient cultural practice.”
There’s a lot more to come from Hlophe and her team this year, too. “I am currently directing two feature-length documentaries and both of them are about music. I’m really excited about these films as they will allow me to shoot outside of South Africa as well.
“Insofar as ‘Lobola, A Bride’s True Price?’ is concerned, we’re screening the film at festivals around the world and our Lobola Impact Campaign, headed by our impact producer, Nondumiso Masache, is going to be shown to under-served audiences in rural areas, townships and urban areas as well.
“We want audiences to know their marital rights and the implications of getting married under customary law.”
Part 2 of “Lobola, A Bride's True Price?” airs on SABC1 on Monday, April 3, at 9.30pm.