Some three decades after ‘Asinamali!’ first appeared on stage at The Market Theatre, Mbongeni Ngema’s play about the lives and suffering of black inmates in an apartheid-era prison has been adapted into a film that is as beautiful as it is still heartbreakingly resonant.
Ngema has managed to effectively transform this intimate stage experience into cinema. Like the play, the film has received great praise since its New York premiere at the city’s African Film Festival in May earlier this year.
After the New York screening, longtime friends and collaborators, producer Voza Rivers, and actor and producer Ron Kunene spoke about Ngema’s work. Kunene also brought news of Ngema’s new project – a musical about Nelson Mandela.
Ngema, who also wrote the much acclaimed musical ‘Sarafina!’, not only directed and produced ‘Asinamali’, but also stars as Comrade Washington, a black struggle activist who returns to South Africa to work with convicts through drama and dance; eventually they stage a musical play in the prison that takes the audience through how they each of them ended up in that unforgiving place. Ngema also wrote an original score for the film.
“Mbongeni’s vision is brilliant, Rivers said. “He is a genius at creating music, and with all of our struggles, especially for people of colour all around the world, music plays a very important role. Ngema understands this all too well. He is, after all, also a choreographer, a composer, a musician, a songwriter, and an unbelievable spirit.”
“In some of the scenes, I couldn’t help but remember what our mother of the struggle did for us,” said Kunune. “Winnie Mandela was arrested constantly. With the conditions that you see here, art imitates life. It’s not just a social justice story. It’s a story that’s rooted in Mbongeni’s own experience. He spent a lot of time in jail himself.”
Kunene describes the film as remarkable and says it “really shows the vitality and the resilience of the African people facing apartheid. We’ve lived that life.”
It’s tragic that Ngema’s story about oppression and hate is still relevant all across the world, added Rivers. “But it also speaks to the classic nature of his work. We believe that most of his work is timeless. It really captures a moment that is repeated over and over again. His work touches a responsive chord in all of us, and when you are exposed to it you feel that you want to do something. It’s motivating.”
‘Asinamali’ screened at the Toronto Black Film Festival earlier this year, and also at festivals in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
The film opens in South Africa on Friday, 3 August.