“This is not “another apartheid movie”
South African filmmaker, Mandla Walter Dube, makes his feature directorial debut with the human drama Kalushi – The Solomon Mhlanga Story.
Sacrificing his short life, through a brutal death in the hands of South Africa’s apartheid police has made Mahlangu a celebrated struggle hero in the revolutionary fight or freedom.
“Our movie follows the journey of this young man who, at the outset, is not at all involved in the politics of South Africa and was not involved in the student uprising on June 16, 1976. He was trying to make a living as a hawker on the streets of Mamelodi and on the trains in Pretoria. When he had the hero’s call, he refused it, and then, something tragic happens to him which changes the entire course of his life. When we are hit with adversity we have to start making certain decisions to help us change. You either going to change or change is going to change you.”
Kalushi is a true story about a nineteen-year-old hawker, Solomon Mahlangu from the streets of Mamelodi a ghetto township outside Pretoria in South Africa. He is brutally beaten by police.
Kalushi goes into exile following the 1976 Soweto uprisings to join the liberation movement.
He returns from military training in Angola en route to their mission, his friend and comrade, Mondi, loses control and shoots two innocent people on Goch Street in Johannesburg. Mondi is severely beaten & tortured; Kalushi is forced to stand trial under the common purpose doctrine.
The state seeks the highest punishment from the court, Death by Hanging.
Kalushi has his back against the wall and uses the courtroom as a final battlefield. His sacrifice immortalizes him into a hero of the struggle and an international icon of June 16, 1976.
Dube, makes his feature directorial debut with the human drama, from a screenplay co-written by Dube, and Leon Otto. Kalushi is produced by Walter Ayres (co-producer of Diana, starring Naomi Watts). Dube also serves as a producer. Kalushi is lensed by American cinematographer, Tommy (Maddox) Upshaw (Iron Man 2, as camera operator) with Chantel L. Carter in charge of Production Design, and Costume design by Ruy Filipe (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).
“This is not “another apartheid movie” the canvas that we are using to tell the story is not set in Apartheid South Africa alone. It’s about events that fuelled him to be able to leave the country, that and tragedies that happened to him and he transitions in a different country, Mozambique where he finds new challenges; he meets a child soldier who is an orphan and that’s the avenue that he uses to escape the challenges that he had as a kid. However, another change has to come, he can’t stay in Mozambique for too long, there’s a reason he went into exile and that’s was to get training to be equipped to fight against oppression.
“Initially, when he gets into the struggle it is because he wants to avenge what happened to him and then he learns that revenge is not a good thing, instead, he learns about the human spirit; being able to accept certain things and then to do something about the things that you can actually change.
“After 6 months he’s rescued from Mozambique, and in his new terrain, Angola, he witnesses civil war where black people are killing black people. This makes him question ‘why are we even doing this, why are we getting into the struggle against apartheid back home?’ He is exposed to literature such as The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed, The Art Of War, Ché Guevara, and he becomes cognizant about what love is: it’s not just about loving yourself, it’s being able to retain love and make it tangible, and you have to fight for it. So the loss of his family back home begins to grow in him, and he questions the reason why he left South Africa.
“The toughest task as a filmmaker was deciding which point of view to tell this story from, and from which angle to approach it. What we did is we played with it a lot, because it’s Court room drama as well. Our points of view include the system structure at the time; Solomon’s; his mother’s, his friends, as well the investigating officer. The entire story embraces human rights, and the strength of the human spirit triumphing over obstacles.
“Growing up we always look up to certain heroes; all of us need a hero to give us hope and courage. This is someone who comes from humble, poverty stricken background, yet he gets up to try to help his family and there are all these trials and tribulations that he overcomes, until he is eventually executed. I think there is universal appeal here, about personal valour and triumph.”
The People In Solomon Mahlangu’s Life
Dube was determined that the entire cast would feature South African performers. “It was critical to find a performer to play the pivotal role of Solomon, an artist who could have resonance from scene to scene, somebody who could carry the emotional beats”, says Dube. He had already settled on an actor when he came across Thabo Rametsi. “Actually I had cast somebody and just before we signed him up Thabo walked into the room and tore it apart. He has the look of innocence.”
“The themes of courage, hope and tragedy run hand in hand in this film. We see it not only in Solomon’s character, but also in the characters of Brenda, Van Heerden, Priscilla and Martha Mahlangu. The film focuses on 3 phases in Solomon Mahlangu’s life: his transition from youth to adulthood, his journey as a struggle hero and finally his significant and consequential rise to manhood, so it wasn’t just a matter of Solomon the “struggle icon”, he also represents the voice of all the young people who participated in the Soweto Youth Uprising of June 16th 1976, so I incorporated a lot of characters and let them sing their song through him.”
Expressing admiration for his director, Rametsi says, “Mandla’s vision and passion for the film was an interesting thing because he didn’t want to make a documentary, a docudrama, or an apartheid movie. He wanted to make a movie, to tell this story through film”.
Rametsi says his approach to playing Solomon was partly inspired by comments from his own brother. “He told me that Solomon never portrayed any emotion, he was very still even to his death he never showed any emotion whatsoever. That was a challenge for me as an actor because that ‘down’ type of character is not very interesting for the audience. So instead of playing him as Solomon Mahlangu I decided to play him as a young man of that generation.”
Perhaps one of the saddest implications of Solomon’s execution is shown through Solomon’s mother, Martha Mahlangu, who not only loses her youngest child but has to live with the advanced knowledge of the date and time of when he will truly be taken away from her.
Dube considers his fortune in casting acclaimed storyteller and poet, Dr. Gcina Mhlophe, in the role of “Martha”, Solomon’s mother. “Martha was a quiet woman and I always wanted a storyteller to play the role, and Gcina brings to this character something I don’t think I could have found in any other lead. She comes from a stage, not film or television background. In her personal life Gcina has had to overcome many challenges and this is reflected in her writing. She is a strong matriarch and I specifically wrote the role for Gcina.”
“Mandla’s vision for Mama Mahlangu was a character who managed to endured unimaginable emotional agony. Martha did not actively fight in the struggle, but she wanted to keep the family together no matter what, pray for them and make sure they live as normal a life as possible. But, to hear the day when your child is going to die….? We know that everyone is going to die but to know the date and the time must have been unbelievable pain for her to endure.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with Mandla,” says Gcina, “he was very clear about what he wanted from day one and throughout filming he stayed with his original vision. He cares very much about this story and he wants it told with the authenticity, respect and dignity that it deserves.”
Dube also specifically wrote the role of Brenda, Solomon’s girlfriend, with Pearl Thusi in mind. “When I met Pearl I knew she had something we could develop”, says Dube. “She goes through many changes from a privileged 17 year old who is very unaware of the political situation, to witnessing police beat and kill children during the Youth Uprising and then becoming a totally different person.”
“Brenda represents a beacon of hope for Solomon while he’s in Angola”, says Thusi. “She is his reminder of the life he still has to live when he returns, but he never really gets to experience that, nor does he end up with her”. Here we are faced with one of the tragedies of Solomon’s life. We see what was taken away from him was not only his life but also the life he could have shared with others”.
“It’s about the relationships that we created within apartheid, where there was love and there was happiness. Some sort of happiness, some sort of goodness that people could focus on and the difficulty was how they dealt with that when it was taken away from them, even the little they chose to have in that time could be taken away from them at any time and they could do nothing about it. And it was just the strength of character in that situation, how they dealt with it and how they moved on or how they didn’t move on. It’s all about emotions and experiences.”
The theme of hope is significantly seen in the role of Solomon’s defence lawyer, “Priscilla”, played by award-wining stage actress, Shika Budhoo. “Priscilla plays a very important role in the story by encouraging Solomon to not give up the fight for his justice during his 2 year legal battle for justice. She’s a gutsy human rights lawyer, and you can see the fight in her as she fights for Solomon. She’s very close to him and they find a bond. I think all human rights lawyers have that, that otherness, it’s not just about you. She’s got this hope in her pocket that she almost transfers to him. I think she’s very important in the story in getting him to fight through the struggle.”
Kalushi looks at many aspects of South African life at the time and these multiple layers it apart from other stories set at the time. Dube affirms: “It is the story of many people not only about those who struggled and suffered. We see that the struggle transcended race and creed and this is captured by the role of security police officer, van Heerden (played by Louw Venter) who was handed Solomon Mahlangu’s case. Van Heerden represents white Afrikaners of the time who have all been painted with the same brush by both history and art”.
Louw Venter unpacks “van Heerden”, a chief inspector forced to investigate this political incident. “I think he’s an empathetic character and it’s a very fresh and original approach to how the ‘apartheid policeman’ is generally portrayed in film. I was very attracted to it because I’m an Afrikaans person myself and I come from a family where there has been a number of policeman and in a sense my motivation of the character is quite human, and quiet noble”. Venter’s approach has been to create a multi-dimensional character on the screen.
Tommy London was another young voice of the struggle and is portrayed by Welile Nzuzas. “He is the exact opposite of Solomon,” says Dube, “when we first meet Tommy he is murdering a man in an alley, and we know immediately that he is not as innocent as Solomon and we can only wonder what their journey together will bring”.
Nzuza notes that his character is far savvier than Solomon’s and he has experienced far greater oppression at the hands of the government. “I think having seen oppression and being forced to speak a language that they didn’t want to speak affected Tommy’s brothers and sisters, and he joined the movement against apartheid at a very young age. He immediately stood up and decided to be an adversary of the system and he ended being the guy who took people to the military camps across the border, to Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland. With police all over we understand that he risks the danger in helping Solomon become the man that he was”.