Charles Mnene rides the refugee trail in Sunu Gonera’s movie 'Riding with Sugar'
Share this article:
Several hours before interviewing Charles Mnene, I watched Sunu Gonera’s “Riding with Sugar”.
Firstly, I was blown away by Gonera’s layered storytelling and adroit direction. This movie is a labour of love as it has been 17 years in the making. Secondly, I marvelled over Mnene’s brilliant performance.
He plays Joshua, a conflicted and broken young man, who uses knowledge to rise above life’s setbacks.
It’s an incredible journey and one he shares with Mambo, played by the inimitable Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
As a Zimbabwean refugee, Joshua hopes to turn his fortunes around by winning a BMX cycling championship.
However, his dream is derailed by an accident. But there is a silver lining to the unfortunate turn of events – he is helped by Mambo, an enigmatic teacher, who is also a foreigner.
By taking Joshua under his wing, Mambo helps broaden his view of the world while also pushing him to complete his education to secure a better life for himself.
On what drew him to the character and project, Mnene said: “I would start by saying it is the journey that fascinates me most.
“Following Joshua, there’s a lot of emotion to dissect, to find and a lot of changes that occur within him, within the story.
“Things that happen to him, that affect him, that affect others, and the challenge of finding these beats each day on set, working with Sunu, that’s what kept me going.
“It kept me on the back foot and I knew I had to be awake, be aware, listen to the people I’m working with. And the physical challenge of it.
“The journey of the character, too.
“I knew it was going to be a mental battle, going to be mental victories and mental lows, and it also affects the physical. That’s how I approached it.”
The British actor complimented Gonera on his treatment of this Afro-futuristic coming-of-age film, which, if it were in different hands, could have been torture.
The actor added: “You have a story being told of extreme pain and the extremities of life happening to a young man and young people in general.
“I found I was absorbed in trying to understand how this person keeps overcoming, overachieving, and is able to be set back one step and go forward by two steps.
“I keep saying that there’s great humanity and naiveté in Joshua.”
Following Joshua’s accident, he is unable to ride his bike. And he is on crutches until his leg heals properly.
He explained: “I find that with the walking, that was like a compulsory part of the research. We had to decide with Sunu which leg to focus on.
“There was a lot of stuff we had to work on. Without giving out a spoiler, I’ll say the research was historical research, trying to find a reference point to pull to why Joshua had to become a refugee, to build a backstory of what is his level of education, because where he came from, he was very educated, I presumed.
“I put that into the story. Then to look at the process of trying to understand a migrant situation.
“I could only remember the time I moved from different places.
“I moved from Africa to Europe and since I was very young, I was able to adapt, but there’s still that sense of wanting to belong.
“And I drew from that experience to try to understand what Joshua is going through or what he’s been through.”
Mnene also admitted to getting loads of support when it came to training for the stunt scenes.
The scenes between Mambo and Joshua are handled beautifully.
They share a kindred spirit but their values differ in some ways.
On working alongside Kae-Kazim, Mnene admitted: “Every scene with Hakeem, I credit him for the scene.
“Everything I’ve found in the scene wouldn’t have been possible without him and we talk a lot of about the characters, their relationship with each other.
“He has his own technique. “He’s a very experienced actor. Very experienced. I’d seen his work even before meeting him so I was going through a process of learning.
“He was very accommodating, very disciplined and, also, he has a relaxedness about him that allowed me to not feel intimidated by the fact that he is a much more experienced actor.”
“Yes, Joshua goes on a journey. But it is filled with love, a family and an attainable dream,” he added.
Mnene continued: “There are highly intense scenes and highly joyous scenes and there’s a subtlety in how it plays out. He can survive. This film is a visual caption of that. By the end, you see that that kid made it. That young man overcame so much and it leaves you on an upbeat note.”
The film explores myriad issues from politics, xenophobia, family, poverty to education. The casting is sublime and the story is relatable, inspiring and compelling.
“Riding with Sugar” is currently streaming on Netflix.