“Welcome to Knuckle City. Where the boys are rough and tough and the girls are a knock-out.”
Dudu (Bongile Mantsai), aka the Night Rider, is aging out of his sport. He trains at the local boxing gym with much younger competitors and when its time to assign boxers to new matches, gym manager Bra Links (Owen Sejake) leaves him out. Dudu needs the boxing gig to keep him going emotionally and financially. He’s got several mouths to feed and a disabled mother (Faniswa Yisa) to care for. But in the highly corrupt world of “Knuckle City”, the name for the boxing community in Mdantsane Township in South Africa, he’ll have to partake in some dirty dealings to get back into the ring.
Whether Dudu realizes it or not, he’s following closely in his father Art Nyakama (Zolisa Xaluva), the former boxing champ turned gangster who ran the gym where Dudu trains. Flashbacks show Dudu and his younger brother Duke (Thembikile Komani) and their difficult upbringing that turns tragic when Art is assassinated and Mother Hen is left a paraplegic. Dudu inherits his dad’s love for boxing and women and the motto that you’re not a true man if you don’t take care of your family. Duke has grown up to be a professional criminal and when he’s finally released from jail, Dudu seeks out Duke’s help to re-enter the world of boxing and for a chance at the highly coveted championship. This new partnership comes with incredibly high stakes putting everyone in Dudu’s life in grave danger.
Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Knuckle City is absolutely riveting and just plain brutal. This film is gritty and intense and it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. The world of Knuckle City serves as a study of toxic masculinity. There is plenty of machismo however the women are not to be messed with. While they don’t match the men in screen time they do match them in strength of character. These women include Nosisi (Awethu Hleli), Dudu’s daughter who serves as caretaker for her younger siblings and grandmother and is having a romantic relationship with a thug from a particularly dangerous gang, Mother Hen (Faniswa Yisa) who survives an abusive marriage and an assassination and Ma Bokwana (Nomhle Nkonyeni), the counterpart to gangster kingpin Bra Prat (Patrick Ndlovu).
“Growing up in the township of Mdantsane in the 80s and 90s was an experience that has shaped the entirety of my life. The energy of the landscape and the visceral fight for survival that is palpable on the streets has inspired in me a deep yearning to chronicle the lives of its inhabitants through cinema… [Knuckle City] is an ode to my formative years and an exploration and fundamental dissection of the toxic masculinity that continues to purvey in this space.”
Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
Knuckle City is both boxing movie and family saga and Qubeka presents both in a balanced and compelling way. I was captivated by this film and its easily a new favorite for me. Mantsai is brilliant as Dudu and I loved the scenes between him and Duke played by Thembikile Komani.
The actors speak a mix of Xhosa, a native Bantu language with a series of clicking consonants, English and what I believe might be Afrikaans. Xhosa is a fascinating language and I was particularly intrigued in how it fits in the social fabric of the local community. If you’re a fan of boxing films such as the Rocky and Creed series, Raging Bull, The Fighter and The Set-Up, Knuckle City is not one to miss.
Knuckle City had its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their contemporary world cinema program.
Ever since I missed the opportunity to watch Rafiki at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve been meaning to rectify that mistake. The good folks at Film Movement recently released Rafiki on DVD, giving me an opportunity to watch this beautiful film.
Directed by Wanuri Kahiu, Rafiki follows the story of two Kenyan girls, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). One day Kena spots the stunning Ziki. She stands out with her brightly colored long hair. The pair lock eyes and are instantly smitten. Kena and Ziki come from two different worlds albeit in the same community. Tensions between Kena’s divorced parents heighten when Kena and her mom find out that her dad’s new girlfriend is expecting. Ziki and Kena start dating and soon begin to fall in love. The risk of being caught comes with potentially severe consequences. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and looked down upon in the community. Not only that, Kena and Ziki’s fathers are political rivals and in a small town with an election on the horizon, rumors fly and the two must face the possibility of being found out.
Rafiki is a gorgeously haunting film that is equal parts heart-breaking and hopeful. The two stars Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva shine and I hope to see much more from them. The actors alternate between Swahili and English and Kena and Ziki mostly speak English to each other. The film has a strong sense of place and beautiful color palette. It’s vibrant and full of life. It’s simple yet bold.
The story lingers on Kena and Ziki’s relationship giving the audience an opportunity to spend a lot of time in their world. We develop an appreciation for their attraction to each other on a physical and emotional level which makes their separation all that more painful. Don’t worry. This film will not destroy you. It will fill you with hope for Kena and Ziki and for the future. Rafiki was banned in Kenya and soon became a darling on the festival circuit. We need to keep championing this film. Watch it. Love it. Share it far and wide.
Film Movement’s DVD includes a beautiful presentation of the film and includes subtitles. A bonus short film, Hudson directed by Shae Xu is included. That film tells the story of a divorced mom who struggles to introduce her teenage son to her new girlfriend.
Director Ben Asamoah’s new documentary Sakawa explores the underground world of Ghanian internet scammers. They gather in a room sharing one source of internet and electricity and using smartphones and computer equipment that they’ve salvaged. The scammers work individually on different projects but advise each other on how to improve their techniques to get the most money out of their victims. By creating fake online personas and focusing on profile types, mostly caucasians in the U.S. and the U.K., they build relationships with their targets and work towards the big pay day.
Viewers will feel conflicted. This is a community of people living in a third-world country. They have few options available to them so they find an alternate way to make money to support themselves and their families. But on the flip side, they’re scamming innocent people out of their hard-earned dollars. These aren’t multi-millionaires, these are middle or lower class people who are gullible enough to fall for these elaborately crafted schemes.
“We use what we have to get what we want.”
There are no in-depth interviews and we don’t learn their names. The film holds the viewer at arms-length which is necessary I believe to keep us in as neutral a space as possible. Some might find the film and its subject matter off-putting but I found it fascinating.
Beyond the internet scams, we also get a look at the religious/cultural practices and home life of Ghanians.
Sakawa is a compelling documentary that offers insight into the little-known world of internet scammers of Ghana, Africa.
Sakawa had its North American premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Visions series.
Joshua Magor’s We Are Thankful is a meta docufiction movie about a young man from the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, who aspires to become a professional actor. Siyabonga “Siya” Majola dreams of a career and life outside of his small township of Mphopomeni. When he hears that a director, Joshua Magor, is shooting a film in a nearby town he sets out to meet him. We follow Siya as he navigates thrown his township, borrowing Wi-Fi, getting help writing an e-mail in English, asking locals for funds to help pay for his trip, etc. He finally meets the director who is interested in Siya and his story. Majola and Magor play themselves as they reenact the circumstances that led up to their meeting. Magor was going to film another story but was inspired by Majola’s journey that he decided to make the film about the making of the film instead.
We Are Thankful is an interesting experiment in blending documentary and narrative feature in a self-referential way. It’s only confusing if you think too much about this aspect of the film. Accept it as is and enjoy the journey. Dwelling too much on its existence will take you out of the story.
The cinematography in We Are Thankful is stunning. There are lots of great shots of the township and in one scene the camera lingers on a waterfall allowing the viewer to take in the beauty of the setting. This gave the film a strong sense of place. It’s very much a slice of life kind of movie and a way for the viewer to experience Siya’s world. It’s a quiet film and some might find that off-putting. Not much happens and the pace of the story is rather slow. Settle in, be patient and you just might be rewarded.
We Are Thankful/Siyabonga was part of Slamdance 25 as a Narrative Feature Official Selection.