The sensibilities in Farewell Ella Bella are evocative of independent films such as Garden State, The Station Agent and the teamwork of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody. The charm and success of these films stem from their makers’ determination to tell human stories with resolute devotion to universal truth.
Film graduate Lwazi Mvusi, 28, wrote and directed her first feature film, Farewell Ella Bella, in the same vein.
Her voice adds to the surge of young, contemporary filmmakers telling SA stories in a fresh visual language.
“Sometimes we make films we think people want to see and not films we want to see. I enjoy stories about real people trying to figure it out in the best way that they can. For me, it was important to make a film that I wanted to go see,” says Mvusi.
She is one to watch for her perceptiveness and care for nuance. She has an old ear and the articulation of her visual and narrative intent is impressive.
This is also visible in her 2014 sci-fi short film, The State, produced under the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF) Women In Film initiative. It’s a clever, well-thought-out and visually polished take on the national and personal politics of a post-apocalyptic SA.
With Farewell Ella Bella, Mvusi has created a film that does not seek to be perfect but takes its cue from the resolution of its text. The story, about loss, love and unique family dynamics, follows Ella (Jay Anstey), who travels from Beaufort West to Johannesburg to bury her father (Lionel Newton), driving with her absent godfather, Neo (Sello Maake ka Ncube). The road trip forces them to grapple with ghosts of the past.
While film lenses tend to focus on the Johannesburg metropolis, Farewell Ella Bella shifts the focus to the open landscapes of the Karoo and the nameless streets of the Northern Cape’s capital city.
Drone shots of the barren lands of the N1 and N12 are juxtaposed with intimate glimpses into slices of life.
With the political turmoil that now has Kimberley in tatters, zooming, however briefly, into the grunge and pulsating humanity of Galeshewe township, the film pays a timely, poetic tribute to Kimberley.
The implications for this cinematic inclusion are as important as the existence of Omphile Molusi’s play Itsoseng for its community in the North West.
Inspired by a road trip Mvusi took with her family, the film’s geography shaped the story and determined the race of its protagonists. The pairing of the characters and their race should not be important, but in the SA context it provides subtexts for what is left unsaid.
The film’s silences are as important as its exchanges. This adds to the quality of the performances, where some actors have minimal scenes to relay a message and they do so with tactful care.
Mvusi’s cinematic choices are a result of her interest in the interrogation of race relations in post-apartheid SA. Born and bred in Durban, she moved to Johannesburg to study film at Afda. She did her honours in creative writing at Wits University. Her film and television master’s dissertation is a critical analysis of the influence of political agendas in the cinematic representation of interracial desire in SA. It specifically focuses on the representation of heterosexual interracial desire between black and white characters.
“I’m interested in how we always privilege the political as opposed to privileging the personal relationships we have in the country. As South Africans we understand the politics inherently, so they don’t need to be stated, Mvusi says.
“I trusted that inherent knowledge while making this film. What I found out is that race relations are different outside of the big cities, and I was interested in a different narrative of how we relate to each other.”
In some scenes, the film narrowly escapes the pitfall of racial stereotypical caricature that many storytellers fall into when looking for comic relief.
The slow and meditative pace is complemented by the moody and soulful soundtrack of an SA and global identity, provided by ingenious musician and film composer Chris Letcher and captivating indie folk singer-songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou. Filling space when words are no longer necessary, the music is an additional character.
Before showing at the Durban International Film Festival in July, Farewell Ella Bella had its African premier at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and there it formed part of the discussions on what constitutes an African film. It is Mvusi’s ambition to challenge perceptions of what African cinema is. “There isn’t only one way to tell African stories. And there isn’t only one way to be African,” she says.
“There are all these other different textures and shades to who we are as a people that is specific to SA with our history and position in the continent. If the film can be part of those kinds of conversations, it’s a win for me.”
This film leaves a mark on the psyche. It’s a dedication to Mvusi’s father, who taught her to value the pursuit of happiness.
Farewell Ella Bella will be screened in theatres nationwide from August 17.