From stories about contemporary dance in South Africa to deeply moving and tragic tales about love, resentment, anger and redemption – this year’s South African short film slate at the African Film Festival in New York (NYAFF) entrenched itself in history. by Rozanne Els
The same is true of South African actor Atandwa Kani’s performance as Philemon in The Suit, one of the five short films to be showcased this year. Kani, speaking to a packed theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) where the second leg of the festival took place, shared a deeply personal story that he says helped him give life to Philemon.
“As an actor, I walked into this film having raised twin boys that I found out after four years weren’t mine,” he said, referring to his relationship with Thembisa Mdoda. Like Philemon, he had resentment in his heart and says the film was not an easy process for him.
The Suit, written by the prolific journalist Can Themba, and originally published in 1963, was adapted as a play and performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1994. Later it headed to BAM’s own Harvey Theatre. Director Jarryd Coetsee is the first to adapt Themba’s story into a film. The story is set against the backdrop of Sophiatown in the 1950s shortly before the apartheid regime started its forced removals.
After Philemon discovers his wife’s (played by Phuthi Nakene) affair, he forces her to treat the suit her lover left behind as a person.
The feelings of betrayal of resentment that Philemon grapples with is something that Kani relates to. “I was constantly in a state of aggravation, of being irritable, of being heartbroken. This man is heartbroken,” he says of Philemon.
“He isn't necessarily angry and he doesn't know what to do or how to act, so he does what he thinks is best and acts out.” It does break you down from the inside, and as hate starts to eat away at you, resentment grows, he continued. And then, just like the tragic end of Themba’s story, “you start to resent yourself.”