Thina Sobabili: From the hard drive to the world

There is a grim scene about halfway through Ernest Nkosi’s Thina Sobabili that just makes your skin crawl. It is one of the most horrific, outrageous and disgusting pieces of cinematography your correspondent has witnessed.

In the scene, Skhalo, played by Richard Lukunku, verbally and psychologically abuses his partner Zoleka, (Zikhona Sodlaka) in such a vile, relentless fashion that the audience is left writhing in their seats, mentally begging the filmmakers for mercy.

Any film that can affect viewers to such a visceral extent has merit, and Thina Sobabili certainly does. Mercifully the rest of the movie is affecting in other ways.

The film is set in Alexandra and tells the story of a teenage brother and sister growing up in poverty, with only each other for support, and both determined to escape their circumstances, whatever it takes.

It is a strong, well-told story that will resonate with every black person in South Africa. And indeed that is precisely whom it is aimed at. Unfortunately, to date it has only been seen by a few hundred people.

There, as they say, is the rub. Producing a movie is one thing. Getting it seen by the people it’s aimed at is quite another.

One could make a case for producing a feature film being one of the most difficult things a person can do nowadays. It takes a rare combination of talent, skills, collaborative thinking, management ability and money. Ensuring that film is profitable is even harder. And sadly it requires an entirely different set of attributes.

“Distribution is actually the most expensive part,” Nkosi says. “We are still paying for it, one never really takes into account things like festival fees, media screenings, support materials, posters, DVDs international phone calls to sales agents and all the rest.”

With this in mind, Nkosi and his partners at production company The Monarchy Group are trying to pioneer an alternative distribution model that’ll expose their movie to the black middle-class eyeballs it’s so brilliantly suited to, and will also make money.

“If you exhibit at Ster-Kinekor cinemas, they take around 60 percent of the turnover. Then you as the filmmaker still need to pay all your marketing and your production costs from the remaining 40 percent.”

While Nkosi is still cagey about the exact mechanics of the Monarchy distribution model, he hopes to develop a model that fellow independent filmmakers can use and tweak in order to make films happen and sell them.

“I’ve spent four years trying to find a better way to do movie distribution,” he says. He’s currently doing his masters thesis on exactly that topic.

“We’re doing it Nigerian-style,” says his production partner, Mpho “Popps” Modikoane, who also stars in TS. Whether this implies a straight-to-DVD approach remains to be seen.

The production values are certainly several clicks up from Nollywood-standard. This is crisp, beautifully composed cinema, with a haunting score, and great performances – not least by Lukunku, female lead Busisiwe Mtshali and Emmanuel Nkosinathi Gweva as the super-edgy gangster Thulas.

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Nkosi envisages forging brand partnerships, including things like product placement that pay for the movie and ensure that audiences can watch the movie for free because it pays for itself.

But even then, the movie needs to be distributed. “It’s the most important part of the film,” Nkosi reiterates. “If that’s not right, you just have a hard drive of footage.”

For now, the team at Monarchy Group have something a good deal better than that. This is a township gangster tale in the tradition of Tsotsi and Yizo Yizo, witha strong, credible social commentary.

From here they take their film off to the Durban International Film Festival, and on to the Toronto International Film Festival. If the movie generates the kind of buzz it did at preview showings, they might even have an international hit on their hands by the time Thina Sobabili has its official premier in Alexandra Township later this year.

This story first appeared in Mahala.

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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