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Shane Slater

When it comes to international film festivals, it’s almost a given that there will be at least one dark multi-narrative film among the lineup. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was no exception. Hailing from two countries as vastly different as South Africa and the Czech Republic, respectively, directors Akin Omotoso and Petr Václav brought a pair of harrowing ensemble dramas.
vaya-movie-posterIn Omotoso’s “Vaya,” Johannesburg is the city of focus, where the lives of three strangers collide in unanticipated ways. Much like the numerous immigrant dramas about achieving the American dream, it follows these South Africans as they journey to the city from their more rural homes in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Unaware of what’s to come, they are in for a rude awakening when they find themselves in an unfamiliar, cutthroat world.
The first character we meet is Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka), a caretaker tasked with bringing a little girl to her mother, a failed singer who migrated to the city. Next we’re introduced to Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang), who is sent to retrieve his deceased father’s body, who worked in the city’s mines. While Nkulu’s mother warns him of the city’s dangers, Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) is more optimistic, expecting to experience the high life his cousin Xolani has bragged about. All aboard the same train, they are heading to the same destinatio ...

When it comes to international film festivals, it’s almost a given that there will be at least one dark multi-narrative film among the lineup. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was no exception. Hailing from two countries as vastly different as South Africa and the Czech Republic, respectively, directors Akin Omotoso and Petr Václav brought a pair of harrowing ensemble dramas.
vaya-movie-posterIn Omotoso’s “Vaya,” Johannesburg is the city of focus, where the lives of three strangers collide in unanticipated ways. Much like the numerous immigrant dramas about achieving the American dream, it follows these South Africans as they journey to the city from their more rural homes in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Unaware of what’s to come, they are in for a rude awakening when they find themselves in an unfamiliar, cutthroat world.
The first character we meet is Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka), a caretaker tasked with bringing a little girl to her mother, a failed singer who migrated to the city. Next we’re introduced to Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang), who is sent to retrieve his deceased father’s body, who worked in the city’s mines. While Nkulu’s mother warns him of the city’s dangers, Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) is more optimistic, expecting to experience the high life his cousin Xolani has bragged about. All aboard the same train, they are heading to the same destination. Little do they know, they will indirectly change each other’s lives forever.
Indeed, all three become sidetracked soon after they arrive. And before long, they are all unwillingly caught up in an underworld of organized crime leading back to one powerful gangster. Putting the trio through the fear of abandonment, torture and even death threats, the script is brutally honest about the perils of this dog-eat-dog world.
And it’s a world we get to know quite well throughout the film, thanks to the work of cinematographer Kabelo Thathe. Like a helicopter tour of Johannesburg, his stunning aerial photography takes us from the high-rise buildings, to the suburbs, and all the way down to the dump, where the city’s poorest are left to scavenge. The imagery is truly the film’s star, conveying much of the plot’s underlying tensions through Thathe’s indelible images.
Director Omotoso is also aided by the strong work of his cast. Indeed, all three of the main roles are perfectly cast, effortlessly conveying their small-town naivety and vulnerability. In particular, Nyoka is so affable as Zanele that you feel the urge to reach out and protect her from her inevitable misfortunes.
The filmmaking on display in “Vaya” is far from groundbreaking, but the empathy it engenders through characters like Zanele is what sets it apart from other similarly gritty dramas. Its vision of Johannesburg isn’t restricted to just the sordid, cliché details surrounding crime and poverty. To the film’s ultimate benefit, Omotoso also uses “Vaya” to define Johannesburg by its music, rituals and other positive aspects of its vibrant culture.

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