TIFF: Interview with Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and the cast of Knuckle City
I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and the cast of Knuckle City, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa ahead of the international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Knuckle City is a gripping film about an aging boxer trying to get back into the ring and his difficult relationship with his family, especially his father and his brother. The film was chosen as South Africa’s entry for Academy Award consideration. You can read my review of Knuckle City here.
Raquel Stecher: How do you keep the balance of Knuckle City being both a boxing story and a character drama?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: The human story was always the main thread there. The thing that always resonated with me in that world was essentially that the fight at home was bigger and more brutal than any you can essentially find in the ring. Boxing requires a lot of discipline. Training for a fight, when you get in that mode, it’s insane the regime that these guys have to go through. What’s interesting to me is the direct contradiction to that. There’s none of this discipline in their personal lives. The world our story takes place in our township Mdantsane also has the prestigious honor of having had 18 world champions. Since post 1944. World champions in different levels and different divisions. Yet the majority of them are in a place of poverty or dead or in jail.
Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a bit about the corruption in the boxing world?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I don’t think guys are necessarily pouring salt into each others eyes but I’ve heard horror stories. Even in America and at top levels… The sport is synonymous with corruption and… these nefarious elements. Which for me what I found was a great metaphor for the fundamental story: this broken man. I say man holistically. It’s the idea of the inappropriate dinosaur trying to find himself in our current space and climate. What do you do with a dinosaur in the age of the woke? What contribution does he have to the conversation?
Sivuyile Ngesi: [Muhammad] Ali was involved with Malcolm X. Even Ali at his peak of his boxing was involved in pure brute corruption…
Raquel Stecher: How important was it to make a film in your home township of Mdantsane?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It was very important because that place is essentially quite unique in terms of having these particular archetypes: the gangster and the boxer. Sure boxing is fairly popular across the country in this one particular space it really is huge. Even historically the boxers of that region… boxing was brought there by the colonialists through missionaries.
Faniswa Yisa: Mandela was a boxer.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: Part of that colonization… the missionaries were concerned what the boys partook in on day to day which was stick fighting. The missionaries said take away the sticks and give them boxing gloves, something we know. That we can at least measure in one way or another. It became very popular in that region. But it’s in a space that is very frustrated as well. The sport itself from an administrative perspective is at its weakest. Even in terms of attendance and popularity. It’s at its weakest right now. And I think that’s a beautiful metaphor what we were talking about is the male dinosaur.
Raquel Stecher: How important was it to explore toxic masculinity in the story?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: Without putting an indictment on any one particular sex the idea around toxic masculinity is a construct of society as a whole. Primarily with the male. I’d say like 97% with the male but there is a little 3% of engagement from the other side. I found the situations that we depict in that particular family has a level of that complexity. Those two young boys stopped growing the day the father died. The moment on they just found a pseudo sense of self. Constructed from their father’s bad habits. The only indictment in terms of the mother in this particular perspective is that somehow after the father’s death it wasn’t addressed. She didn’t help them chip away at the pseudo self that they had. It’s not her fault. Hence I’m focusing on part A: the male image and his own destruction.
Raquel Stecher: Can each of you speak about how you came to the project?
Bongile Mantsai: I worked with [Jahmil] on his previous project Sew the Winter into my Skin. I liked his style as a director. There are two types of directors that I like. There are those that are traffic cops: they tell you to sit down stand up direct you in that sense. And the directors that can bring something out of you as a performer. I think why I was particularly interested in this particular one was first I’m not a boxer. Secondly I was told I have three months to prepare for this character. Within that three months I was thinking of the physical fight but it was more a psychological fight. Because going into training, I was thinking boxing but when I went to Mdantsane I looked at the community. There is a saying that a child is raised by a community. So my interest was to move away from my comfort zone and start to go to a place where you’re being challenged. Not just as an actor. I’m a father. And when I go around and I see how we raise our kids it depends where are they raised from. For me it was just amazing just to observe how we judge communities and how we become part of those communities.
Sivuyile Ngesi: My biggest influence in my life has always been Muhammad Ali. I love him and I’m obsessed with him. I had boxed before. I had lunch with [Jahmil], we were all talking smack about boxing and then I got a phone call saying hey do you want a part in this film. Ironically the producer Layla [Swart], who is the editor as well, who is an incredible friend of mine, I worked with her on a project… It was one of the most difficult projects of my life…it was a terrible experience. But out of it came this. For me it was definitely a bucket list character. This is going to sound so cliche but the cast members and the team is family. We really are family. We chat every day. We love each other. We all come from the same Capetown. I’m known them for years.
Thembikile Komani: I was approached by a friend of Jahmil. I was asked if I was available to audition. Layla [Swart] contacted me and sent me a script. I read the script and I was asked to videotape myself.
[the cast jokes that it was an epic audition tape!]
I sent the video tape and I was there I was connected by Jahmil. I thought I was going to fight. When I read the script playing Duke. But I loved the challenge to play a character.
Faniswa Yisa: I’ve worked with Jahmil before in his short film Stillborn. There were a lot of conversations around… that’s one of the beautiful things. We actually had a conversation about the script on set. We had a conversation about what’s the way forward. Where do we take this character? If you have any questions. We bounced questions. And what [Sivuyile] is saying as well. It was such an amazing space where people were holding each other. He was holding the space most of the time. We felt like we could play more because the space was held. It’s such a beautiful space to be in as a performer when you really want to give.
Sivuyile Ngesi: You just see us all watching it. We all enjoy each others parts. We are celebrating each other in art. While we were on set it was like that.
Faniswa Yisa: All the time.
Sivuyile Ngesi: We all knew it was something special on set.
Bongile Mantsai: For me when I was in Cape Town I was watching my audience more than watching the movie.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I always watch my films with audiences. That’s who it’s for. Audiences are so different based on where they come from. [The Toronto] audience is particularly special for me because it’s an eclectic audience. It’s a very intellectual audience that is fundamentally free within itself. It’s my third time at TIFF so I can make that assessment. It’s the entire world in one room. It’s also part of the reason why this festival is the biggest and best in the world.
Raquel Stecher: Tell me about Xhosa and the other languages used in the film and how Xhosa fit culturally in the story.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s Mandela’s tongue.
Faniswa Yisa: Black Panther‘s tongue in Wakanda.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s indicative of South African society. We have 11 official languages. In the film we have Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. In the township it’s quite a homogenous society in regards to that language. It’s predominantly a Xhosa society. For me it’s quite indicative of the apartheid space and colonialism… separate and divide and conquer situation. I want to give a credence to that space and that conversation. We are essentially flying a flag for one group or another. Which is also convenience and also full of contradictions in itself.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I can tell you what I hope they don’t take away. I hope they don’t stay in its locker room allure. Because its far more than the locker room. If one doesn’t want to have an open conversation they can stop at that door. I hope they don’t stop at that door. I hope they realize that what is actually on trial here. That is what we’re actually trying to look at. I hope they go on that journey.
Faniswa Yisa: I hope they are asking questions like you. You asked about the language itself. I hope people understand the complexity because when you’re traveling around the world they think Africa is a country. For me being Xhosa, being from my parents, being from the Eastern Cape, the different texture. Finding a different texture.
Bongile Mantsai: Its high time we come full circle about stuff. Help discussion about stuff. For Knuckle City I think this is a key to open discussion.
Thembikile Komani: In S.A. there were different audiences, who wanted to change what the film was about because they’re coming from families that somehow in some way or another are going to relate to what [is in the film]… We from the townships we know those characters. I have neighbors who swear a lot. People must take the film as it is. It’s our story.
Sivuyile Ngesi: As a performer I’m keen for audiences to see the kind of quality actors that we have. Even some South Africans were shocked at the performances that they’ve seen in Knuckle City and the range of performances. I’m really keen for people to see the performers that we have. And the capabilities that we have and the point of view… act in your language. See what you can do. The filmmakers that we have…. It’s not an apartheid story. It’s not about the struggle. It’s about between 1994 and 2018. It’s character. I would love for them to be like oh let’s book those actors for something.
A big thank you to Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa for taking the time out to chat with me!