Acclaimed playwright Mbongeni Ngema turns hand to the big screen

Acclaimed playwright Mbongeni Ngema turns hand to the big screen

The man behind a host of successful Broadway theatrical productions is turning his hand - and his hits - to film. The international premier of the screen adaption of Mbongeni Ngema’s hit theatre production Asinamali closed the Durban Film Festival. By Shelley Seid

The film’s title translates to “We have no money”‚ a rallying cry coined by community leader and activist Msizi Dube during the rent boycott of the 1980s.

Dube was assassinated in 1983. His murderers were never found.

The play‚ and now the movie‚ focus on a group of prisoners reflecting on the events leading to their arrests and imprisonment during the time of Apartheid.

“This is the beginning of a new film vocabulary in South Africa‚” said Ngema. “As a people we have shown the world that we can do music but we need to bring together all the elements to tell the South African story.”

This will be the first movie directed by Ngema. His renowned musical Sarafina was turned into a film directed by Darrell Roodt.

Ngema said that movies such as 12 Years a Slave helped him undertake this journey. “Watching the development of Black American cinema over the last few years‚ I thought to myself‚ ‘Why are we shy of telling the story of where we come from?’ We have so many challenges. Things have not turned out as glowing as we thought they would.

“Perhaps if we reflect where we come from it will help us shape the long path forward.”

Ngema said that the process of creating the script and directing the music was exciting. “I wrote the script once‚ then twice‚ then three times and only then people began to like it. I took whatever criticism I could get.

“In the movie the prisoners convicted for their political views are stuck in a terrible prison in terrible conditions but it shows how people with nothing can create a flame and turn their situation into a joyous celebration.”

Ngema said this film is “the first of many”.

“Im currently working on an adaptation of ‘Township Fever’‚ a story set during the largest railway strike in the history of South Africa. I have so many products that are our historic stories and can be turned into film.

“Our kids go to school and no one tells them of our past. What will future generations be without a frame of reference?”

Ngema was inducted into the New York “Walk of Fame”‚ an accolade given to “revered writers of the 21st century” in 1998.

American singer and social activist Harry Belafonte once described Ngema as “The most famous man with the most difficult name in New York”.

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