Johannesburg - Award-winning film-maker and screenwriter Jahmil XT Qubeka went back to his hometown, East London, to pay an ode to boxing - the sport that catapulted young men from abject poverty into world champions.
Set in the streets of Mdantsane, the boxing “mecca” of South Africa, Knuckle City will set the perfect tone at the upcoming Durban International Film Festival’s opening film.
Qubeka’s fourth feature film, Knuckle City, had pumped-up fans setting social media ablaze with excitement and anticipation owing to its incredible line-up of top local talent such as Bongile Mantsai, Zolisa Xaluva, Siv Ngesi and the legendary actress, Nonhle Nkonyeni - who bagged leading roles.
This riveting local film explores the history of this illustrious, yet dangerous sport and its impact on the lives of boxers from this corner of the country. And while it has taken Qubeka a long time to explore this narrative, it is a tale that is fundamentally close to his heart, having grown up in that space.
“Knuckle City is a gripping drama that follows the tale of a 36-year-old down and out boxer named Dudu Nyakama. Quite often we hear of the rags to riches tales of the successful boxers, like Welcome Ncita, Vuyani Bungu and the likes, but what happens to the guys who don’t make it?” asked Qubeka.
With this film, he delved deeper into the effects of failed careers, specifically focusing on what makes a good fighter from a psychological perspective and also unpacking the idea of misplaced masculinity.
“Masculinity without direction, as we all know, becomes rather toxic. So through this one character we’re exploring, essentially, the idea of masculinity, looking at his personal life, and all of his relationships,” he adds.
The character of Nyagama - portrayed by Mantsai, whose body of work includes Inxeba - is fashioned around a collective idea of a boxer’s life, rather than zooming into a specific person and therefore is a composite of people that represents the many other that never make the headlines, said Qubeka.
And to adequately tell this story, the lead actor spent about four months immersed in the world of boxing, including being trained like a boxer and spending time in a boxing stable to observe the training regimes and to also glean into the physical and psychological aspects of what it takes to become a world-class boxer.
“The film itself is fundamentally a psychological study of the effects of living in poverty and crime-ridden townships and that will really come through,” Qubeka said.
As a recognition of its importance to the local film industry, Knuckle City will open the 40th Durban International Film Festival set for July 18-28 - before its debut in cinemas scheduled for October.
“It is exciting for me to be opening at the film festival, especially after I was supposed to open for the festival in 2013 with my first feature film Of Good Report, which was subsequently banned. It is quite interesting that all these years later my work will be back at that festival,” he said.
When developing the film’s characters, Qubeka wrote with a few actors in mind, like Ngesi who is said to be a good boxer and tapped into that experience for his character, he said.
Qubeka, who has been working in the film space for almost 20 years, counts himself privileged to be able to produce films in South Africa - an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted, especially considering how hard it is to make films in this country.
“Being in the industry for this long has given me an opportunity to first learn and explore different aspects of my creativity, but also to try and develop audiences for my films,” he said.