Asinamali, meaning “we have no money” was a phrase coined by ANC activist Msizi Dube, who founded the rent boycott movement upon returning to KwaZulu-Natal after his release from Robben Island. He was assassinated in 1983.

Mbongeni Ngema, who was part of the movement, wrote about the events, with his play, Asinamali, first performed at the Market Theatre in 1985.

He has now transformed the play into a film, and the conversion walks a fine line between realism and musical drama.

Ngema features as director, scriptwriter, lyricist, composer and actor. He plays a theatre director who has returned from exile with the goal of producing a musical in prison. The prisoners are each linked to Dube’s assassination in their own way.

Given the freedom of Ngema’s “workshopping” direction style, the script functions as a story within a story, as the actors develop their characters through drama and the healing power of song and dance. The antagonist, Sergeant Mgwaqaza, played by Boitumelo “Chuck” Shisana, delivers an outstanding performance. The soundtrack features music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, jazz arrangements by Brian Thusi and a score by Chris Letcher.

Ngema believes Asinamali brings a new vocabulary to South African film. “We South Africans are known to be very musical and full of expression. We’ve shown the world what we can do with music and theatre – and film brings those elements together,” he says.

Asinamali was on Broadway in 1987, paving the way for Sarafina!, a play about the Soweto riots, which introduced many Americans to Nelson Mandela’s name and was converted into a film in 1992. Ngema believes the USA would be a good launchpad for the movie and plans to get the film to Africans across the diaspora. It will be screened at the Pembroke Taparelli Arts and Film Festival in New York and Los Angeles and the Toronto Black Film Festival this year.

This multi-talented dramatist believes Asinamali has the power to inspire future generations. “Perhaps if we reflect on where we come from, it will help us shape the road forward,” he says.

Asinamali will be screened in Jo’burg and New York from 2 March.

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