Elelwani and her boyfriend are in love and have plans to spend the rest of their lives together. They are both educated and live urban lives with aspirations to travel abroad. After her university graduation Elelwani returns to her family in the rural countryside to introduce her boyfriend and announce her future plans. But the weight of tradition bears heavily on her family and they refuse to accept her union. The father wants his daughter to become the wife of the local king despite his daughter's insistent refusal. What unfolds is a secret hidden by the royal family from the community and Elelwani is destined to uncover these mysteries and deceptions. Written by
South African Cinema seems to be going through a bit of a resurgence in 2013. From a history of 1-2 films being produced every year, to now having over 5 SA film already passing through our screens and more still on the way before the year ends. The latest addition is Ntshaveni wa Luruli's Elelwani aka The Promise. A beautiful tale about love, tradition , self actualization and magic realism. This movie won't be everybody's cup of tea but it needs to be admired for the balls and guts it takes with its story telling. Let's dig in.
I went to see the movie without checking out the trailer or reading anything about it,why? Cause local is lekker and having an SA film on circuit is an event on it's own that needs to be supported(done my bit for advocacy).So I went into it blind. 15 minutes into it I thought the story will be about traditional values vs urban think ; ie the young Elelwani (played with passion and gusto by Florence Masebe whose not so young herself but pulls off a cool performance)m, I thought the movie would just be about Elelwani having to fend off her traditionalist parents who want her to kick Ashifa Shabba to the curb and go marry some old greaser king whose on his deathbed .Poor Elelwani will have to fend the family off for the whole movie so she can go to the US and continue her study but there was more to the story and I was pleasantly surprised.
The tale becomes like those childhood folktales about kings, mysticism, spirits and ancient powers meddling in our poor mortals life whilst also giving one insight into traditional Venda life and customs. In no time the magic realism just creeps ups on you. From a semi recognizable world that we live in today to suddenly finding ourselves in Wa Luruli's version of Westoros and Elelwani is our Daenerys Stormborn playing her own game of thrones and discovering her true self. The film unfolds these threads quite slowly and might loose those of us who accustomed to the quick and flashy pace of commercial films. Yet if you stick with it, the visual metaphors are a joy to see unfold, although some are steep in Venda culture and can go over our heads (for those who are as ignorant of Venda culture as I am), most are self contained within the film that makes them accessible to everyone.
It's not just the metaphors that are accessible but also the characters. From the lead Elelwani who happens to also be the co-executive producer of the film (go woman empowerment), one can understand and sympathize quite easily with Elelwani but I love how the parents ;who are steeped in patriarchy are not demonized but one sees where they coming from and kind of understands their predicament. The only character that is somewhat underdeveloped is the king and the king's mother.The story is filled with colourful characters even our own version of the Alexander Dumas's "the man in the iron mask" but make it "wooden mask".
Written and directed by Ntshaveni wa Luruli whose directed Muvhango the soapie on SABC 2 when it first started, the films Chicken Bizniss and the Wooden camera ,Elelwani is the first ever feature film to be shot entirely in TshiVenda. Wa Luruli a native of Venda enjoys showing off his knowledge of the customs and is able to point out the good ,the bad and the ugly about his traditions without being offensive or insensitive. Case in point a particular sex scene that is not a sex right up at the beginning shows how intune Wa Luruli is with his people's customs and sensibilities.Yet like Van Gogh this film may be ahead of its time for people bred on American three act structure and American story realism. Taking the magic realism by infusing the supernatural in an ordinary world, mixing a bygone era with a modern age was a very bold move by wa Luruli and he has to be commended for it.At times I wished that it was a series and a film that way ,we could get more of the world and delve more into some characters but I guess we have to start somewhere.
If you want to see something that explores African myths like the SABC 1 drama "Death of a Queen" , or you want something that asserts African identity and challenges it at the same time without being abrasive then Elelwani is for you. An interesting blend of stories that showcase that we may not have white walkers and dragons but we have plenty of our own myth, fantasy and lore to mine.
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