The 24th New York African Film Fest opened with "Vaya," directed by South Africa-based Nigerian director Akin Omotoso. Set in the bustling, seductive, and often dangerous city of Johannesburg, "Vaya" follows the stories of three strangers on a train traveling from the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal to Jozi, where their lives collide with grave consequences.
We meet Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka), a young woman chaperoning a girl, Zodwa (Azwile Chamane-Madiba), en-route to reuniting with her singer mother, Thobeka (Nomonde Mbusi); Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang), a son charged with retrieving his father’s body from a coal mine for burial; and Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba), a gullible fellow hoping to strike it rich in the big city like his gangster cousin Xolani (Warren Masemola). Each character could have her or his own standalone film, but Omotoso interweaves the narratives cleverly with plenty of twists and turns--like the portly Madoda (Mncedisi Shabangu), Thobeka’s boyfriend, who turns out to be Nkulu’s half brother from his father’s secret second family.
The synopsis notes: “Each appointed with their own task to complete, their separate quests intertwine in a series of gripping narratives: Nkulu is unaware that a whole other set of relatives have their own plans. Zanele is given an exciting offer to appear on television that may be more than meets the eye while Nhlanhla gets caught up in criminal activities. As they struggle for survival, they try to hold on to their integrity and dignity in a city in which they hoped to find protection and solace.”
Beautifully shot by first-time feature cinematographer Kabelo Thathe, the film’s visuals alternate between stunning aerial views of the city and gritty low-angle shots of the city center, market, and environs. It imparts the feeling that the characters are pawns in a game in which the powerful rule the powerless, manipulating their lives maliciously, or with utter indifference.
Harkening back to movies like "Tsotsi," "Four Corners," and "iNumber Number," "Vaya" satisfies the seemingly unquenchable appetite for South African gangster films that represent the challenges, sociopolitical conditions, and tensions of a post-liberation society searching for a new identity. But far from falling into cliches, the film puts several women at the center of the story and explores the guilt and shattered innocence of a man committing his first act of murder, a story that’s rarely told.
But what was most fascinating is the story’s origins. "Vaya" grew out of a homeless writers’ project started by co-producers and co-writers Robbie Thorpe and Harriet Perlman. Eager to share the participants’ stories with a wider audience, Thorpe and Perlman combined them into a screenplay.
"Vaya" is drawn from the life experiences of David Majoka, Anthony Mafela, Tshabalira Lebakeng and Madoda Ntuli, all whom experienced homelessness and hardship in Johannesburg. With an eye toward authenticity, Omotoso shot some of the scenes in the locations where the real events occurred, and some of the real people who inspired the film are in it, though the intersection of the main characters’ lives was purely a work of fiction.
Perhaps the strongest performance of the film comes from Nyoka, who combines physical vulnerability and naivete with wisdom and an inner strength that made her feel like the central character, although she wasn’t fully developed given the amount of competing characters and storylines. In the end, that alone made it feel both too long and not long enough to be fully realized, although there’s plenty of drama, danger, and even laughs on this entertaining cinematic ride.