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Fantasia Festival: Glasshouse

It’s important that you keep wearing your mask.”

The women of the Glasshouse shield themselves from The Shred, a toxin that permeates the air and robs humans of memories when they breathe it in. The Shred turns its victims into a shade of their former selves. The younger the victim and the fewer memories they have attained, the more they are affected by the toxin.

Bee (Jess Alexander), Evie (Anja Taljaard), Daisy (Kitty Harris) and Mother (Adrienne Pearce) maintain the Glasshouse and its grounds. They work to protect themselves with hooded masks, they seal the Glasshouse from the toxic air, they grown their own fruits and vegetables and they kill, eat, and bury male intruders. The four women are tasked with taking care of young Gabe (Brent Vermeulen), a victim of The Shred who is prone to lashing out.

When The Stranger (Hilton Pelser) arrives on the grounds with a leg wound, Bee takes him in which goes against Mother’s strict rules. The Stranger wins her trust and her desire and takes advantage of this in order to further infiltrate himself into the small world the women have created. He’s as dangerous as The Shred, threatening their livelihoods and sanity. While Bee fails to see this, sharp eyed Evie knows something is not quite right.

Truth isn’t everything.”

Someone has to carry it. Otherwise nothing means anything at all.”

There is a lot to unpack with Kelsey Egan’s dreamy science fiction drama Glasshouse. It’s The Beguiled for the pandemic era taking the concept of strong women who must protect themselves from dangerous men during chaotic. The Beguiled takes place in the Civil War era South and Glasshouse appears to depict the same era but in an alternate world where a pandemic instead of a war keeps the women isolated. The film is introspective with lots of thought put into the importance of memory, the concept of truth, and how replaceable individuals are in a society. It’s difficult to come away from this film and not find yourself deep in thought. I enjoyed the fact that the film offers the right balance of story, character development and information about the pandemic.

Glasshouse is not a remake of The Beguiled, although it does seem to be inspired by it, but rather an original story by South African filmmaker Kelsey Egan and co-writer and associate producer Emma Lungiswa de Wet. According to Egan’s director’s statement:

“the South African philosophy of Ubuntu holds that identity is collective and that ancestral memory shapes the present.  As thought-provoking as it is entertaining, we believe that Glasshouse is a timely film, meeting a societal and market need for challenging, female-driven stories… Glasshouse explores two opposing coping mechanisms to trauma: holding tightly to the past as a form of preservation, and wilful forgetting…”

The film was shot on location at the Pearson Conservatory in St. Georges Park in South Africa and features a South African cast and crew.

Note: only white characters appear in the film.

Glasshouse had its world premiere at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.

Check out my reviews for two film adaptations of The Beguiled  (1971) and (2017).

Note to add: Glasshouse will be available on digital July 12th, 2022.

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

Back row: Left to Right: Thembikile Komani, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka,
Sivuyile Ngesi, Bongile Mantsai.
Front row: Left to Right: Faniswa Yisa and Raquel Stecher

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!

TIFF: Knuckle City

“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.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

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.

Slamdance: We Are Thankful

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.

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