Review: Mthunzi (2019)

courtesy of Vilnius International Short Film Festival

Like many people, the titular protagonist of Tebogo Malebogo’s short film Mthunzi got hurt just because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The circumstances are even more sensitive when we have the broader context of the post-apartheid South Africa in mind. Malebogo’s film premiered before the incidents like the murder of George Floyd occurred, it was at Locarno 2019, but it shows the different aspects of the present time scaled down to a single situation.

After its long and fruitful festival tour, we got the chance to see it at the competition of Vilnius International Short Film Festival.

Mthunzi (Nala Khumalo) goes down the street, back from the store with a plastic bag in his hand, minding his own business. Suddenly, an older white woman (Inge Beckmann) comes out of her yard, while calling for a person, or more likely an animal named Chester. Soon enough, she suffers a seizure and falls right before Mthunzi, who does his best to help her. The woman’s daughter (Jamie-Lee Money) comes out of the house and Mthunzi helps her to take the mother into the house. She asks him to stay near her while she leaves the room to get something done. All the time, she tries to get the attention of her brother who is not responding. In the meanwhile, the injured woman wakes up and asks Mthunzi to find something for her which is supposed to be in the house. He, however, accidentally stumbles upon the lady’s son, Jesse (Russell Crous) and surprises him. Jesse’s reaction is harsh…

It is not hard to imagine all the ways a black person seen in the house owned by white people can get in trouble, even in the state which proclaims its post-racial status. Black people in South Africa still face discrimination, at least on an unofficial level, and are still the object of expectations how to act in certain situation. Both of the women, mother and daughter, mean no harm and see nothing wrong with ordering Mthunzi around their house because their orders are masked in the form of asking for help. On the other hand, he is no position to say no, partly due to the graveness of the circumstances, but also partly because, as a black person, he is not taught to say no to white people. His interaction with Jesse is a misunderstanding in its core, but would Jesse act differently if he was surprised by an unknown white man that had also “nothing to do” in the house?

Malebogo squeezes the maximum out of a relatively common and easily imaginable situation, asking all the right question by the means of the thrilling plot, without posing the questions directly. The actors are perfect in their roles, partly due to Malebogo’s nuanced writing of the characters. The idea to film it in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio is dramaturgically correct, and some of the beauty can be taken from Pierre de Villiers’ cinematography when the plot takes place outside. Once in the house, the lighting that is a notch too dim spoils the pleasure a bit. Still, Mthunzi is overall a good film that deals with complicated questions in a beautifully simple way.

Year: 2019
Runtime: 8’ 35’’
Country: South African Republic
Language: English
Directed by: Tebogo Malebogo
Written by: Tebogo Malebogo
Cast: Nala Khumalo, Inge Beckmann, Jamie-Lee Money, Russell Crous
Cinematography by: Pierre de Villiers
Editing by: Petrus van Staden
Music by: Elu Eboka
Sound by: Ruan Pienaar, Juandre Viljoen
Production design by: Lara Hattingh
Costume design by: Lara Hatingh
Colourist: Francesca Verveckken
Assistant director: Walter Mzengi
Produced by: Jamie Petersen
Production company: Vanishing Elephant
Distribution by: Eroin Corp.