Malusi S. Bengu's short film tells the story of loss and longing in Joburg

Filmmaker Malusi S. Bengu has debuted his latest project 2 Grams and a Sunrise, a short film exploring desire and displacement in one of Johannesburg's most notorious neighbourhoods. The name, derived from a Frank Ocean lyric about longing for sex and drugs on the road, has been reapplied to the story of a former gqom star who leaves the plush suburbs to look for her long-lost father in the haunts of Hillbrow. The neighbourhood, once a multi-ethnic hub for globally-minded South Africans, now a high-crime melting pot for displaced people from across the continent, slowly engulfs her.

Bengu cemented his place on the South African independent movie scene as the co-writer of The Wound, the harrowing tale of a closeted factory worker (played by Nakhane) who returns to his remote hometown to oversee an initiation ceremony for adolescent boys, and the resulting fallout. The John Trengove-directed film was critically acclaimed, yet subject to unrelenting protests from a public who objected to its homosexual content and raw depictions of Xhosa traditions. The film won appointments at Sundance and Berlin and a roster of awards including the Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at the LesGaiCineMad Madrid International LGBT Film Festival in 2017 and the Best Achievement in Scriptwriting for a Feature Film at the South African Film and Television Awards in 2018. So it’s safe to say Bengu is no stranger to controversy.

As writer and director of 2 Grams and a Sunrise, he picks up where The Wound left off, this time trading emotive conversations about manhood for a slower-paced drama about gentrification, class, and parental abandonment as experienced by a woman. The tug of war between modernity and tradition lies at the heart of each. "I hope this film speaks to the digitised youth of today,” Bengu says. “It is about a young person trying to find their identity and redemption on the streets of Hillbrow, a metaphor for a world of abandon."

The narrative opens with the Zee, played by South African actress and sex symbol Nomzamo Mbatha, applying red lipstick in her car, a single moment of solitude before she hits the jostling streets, armed with a fistful of photographs of her father (modelled by Bengu). Mbatha departs from her typical casting as the lead to portray an unglamorous woman with a desire to know where she comes from. “I’ve come to understand that people are never just one thing and I thought she was perfect for that,” Bengu comments on Mbatha. “The country has come to see her as the great flower that we all love and adore.Your aunt loves her, your uncle wants you to marry her. This is story is what happens when you place a flower in the dirt.” As the story progresses, her affinity to the colour red appears in new places and comes to symbolise the need to sacrifice for change.

She ends up at a Hillbrow Ponte Tower hotel, which she's spotted in the pictures. There she encounters a series of women who represent the evolution of the neighbourhood: an unwelcoming mother admonishing her rapidly gentrifying area; her young pop-culture-obsessed daughter who happily warps her mouth to say gentrification; and a cheeky barkeeper who informs viewers that Hillbrow is where people come to disappear. "It's a love letter to a place that has changed over time, and that is now seen as an important part of African culture,” Bengu explains. “Documenting that in a narrative that is carried by a pop star allows you also to analyse the consequences of capitalism, especially as the forces of gentrification come in to rob the neighbourhood of those qualities."

The short is pierced with the sounds of a saxophone, and the evocative soundtrack drives the story forward. "The horn has been haunting me for a lifetime, from growing up listening to jazz with my grandfather. It also relates to the evolution of the African horn, a symbolic tool used to workshop or glorify. It could be a call to action or signal mourning. The jazz horn, as we know it, is a mere extension of that. I think jazz (from an African American perspective) is a tool to document your culture and to almost stay alive in a world that is trying to run you over."

“The film is about a young person trying to find their identity and redemption on the streets of Hillbrow, a metaphor for a world of abandon”

The film debuted at Festival De Cine Africano (FCAT) in Spain in early 2019 and Durban International Film Festival in South Africa in July. Critical reception, specifically from the country’s youth, has been overwhelmingly positive with new conversations about the historical significance of Hillbrow ignited. And while Bengu hopes audiences on the continent connect with the story, he also leaves space for other diasporic communities to find themselves in the film.

The filmmaker was born in Port Elizabeth in the 1970s, just before the tides against Apartheid began to turn. As a child, the budding artist found himself drawn to radio dramas, which addressed South Africa's wounds through layered narratives. He moved to Johannesburg, the country's beating heart and centre for civil unrest in the 1980s. There he was immersed in the country's conflicts and its unfair depictions of blacks in the media. As a youth, he decided that his life's goal would be to serve Black South Africans, rejecting the narrow representations of them as victims of colonialism or victims of each other. He wet his feet as a writer on the long-running TV series Jacob's Cross and Isbaya.

Since leaving television, Bengu has established the Film & Vinyl Club, a digital arts cooperative with a focus on African storytelling. Under the Film & Vinyl umbrella, Bengu has released a series of short films including Date Night, a short film about a date between lovers gone awry. The male lead evolves into a monster, leaving the female lead terrified for her life. He ultimately kills her and the final frame sees him walking away from the scene with the South African flag on his back, revealing Bengu’s feelings about the state and the treatment of its people.

In 2 Grams and a Sunrise, which is already set to be made into a feature length film, his childhood goals are realised. As Zee begins to lose hope and is ultimately consumed by Hillbrow, we are reminded that it's easy to get swept up and forgotten in the world, specifically the corners where your history is under the threat of being erased. "What you find is that gentrification is quick to push people to the edges and takes away their voice. We're hoping that 2 Grams be a little whisper from the Hillbrow community and the global African diaspora.”

Words Amber Nicole Alston

Published on 06/08/2019