As urbanization continues to rapidly take place across the globe, it is critical to consider how cities “figure in” our thinking about identity and its formulation. Cities have and continue to be widely conceived as sites that provide the opportunity for a better life and allow individuals equal access to self-determination.
Still, cities have proven to be sites that produce rampant inequity and are a reality that increasingly, and indeed alarmingly, is viewed simply as a derivative of structuring society around a free-market global economy. In other words, there are winners and there are losers but the game includes more players than ever.
Invoked by the film’s title, that translates ‘to go,’ Akin Omotoso’s fourth feature film explores this very tradition — the movement of people to urban localities. Vaya follows the story of three young South Africans who leave their rural homes on a train bound to Johannesburg.
From the establishing shot of Omotoso’s pulsating drama, audiences are taken on a journey. Cutting across vast rural farmland on route to Johannesburg, what is nicknamed ‘Jozi’ in the film, it is in this opening sequence that viewers are introduced to the film’s three main characters, each of whom, come with their own agendas and aspirations in their journey to the city.
Zanelle (Zimkhitha Nyoka) has the task of delivering a young girl to her mother. Nkulu (Msimang Sibusiso) must retrieve the body of his father and return him home in order to reconnect his father to his homeland. Then, finally, Nhlanhla’s (Sihle Xaba) incentive to migrate is the promise of work by his cousin, Xolani.
However, once they arrive in Johannesburg, each character shares the experience of being betrayed, abused, exploited or abandoned by those they’ve entrusted to protect and provide for them. Although the characters never meet, their lives are intertwined.
The film forces us to guess and approximate the agendas of the people the characters encounter. Vaya’s interweaving narrative structure powerfully aligns the audience with the characters’ subjectivities. We actively piece together and decipher the little information that is disclosed to us by moving through the urban milieu with Zanelle, Nkulu, and Nhlanhla.
We feel their anxiety as they desperately navigate the city and feel their hope in the limited times it is provided and then crudely stripped away. Everything is filtered through them.
Even the drone shots of Johannesburg bears semblance to Vaya’s crisscrossing narrative. Exquisitely executed by cinematographer Kabelo Thathe, the aerial shots of Jozi’s train lines and intersecting highways foreshadow the obstacles the city has in store for the three characters. At the same time, these stunning floating shots seem to carve through space and time in a way that is illustrative of the flowing movement of people and goods under globalization.
While time seems to accelerate, space seems to compress. With the stakes continually raised, the uncertainty over the fates of the characters increase, as the internal frontiers of the cityscape seem to close in on them. Plus, the continual presence of othering dichotomies, between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that is to say, between those who live ‘here’ and those who live ‘there’ further elucidates the power of the film’s title.
With the city’s nickname being “The City of Gold,” the film taps into the mythology around Johannesburg. The three characters come to the city with a set of lucrative expectations and dreams already set in motion by public discourse.
Yet, the three interweaving stories show the city as loci for crime and the creation of informal economies (drug trade and prostitution). In this sense, the characters of Vaya are betrayed not only on a human level but also by a larger false promise. Vaya, however, is not presenting the city as utterly devoid of morality.
There are moments of compassion enacted by other city-dwellers and locals who lend a hand out to the film’s three main characters. Though the audience observes the three characters constantly on the move, their social or economic mobility, however, struggles against the confines of the cityscape and Vaya’s open ending prompts audiences to ponder the safety and wellbeing of the characters.
In this sense, Vaya speaks to the effectiveness in crafting a narrative that is so specific while it simultaneously has the capacity to speak about universal themes. Indeed, it is this message of universality that instrumentally shapes Omotoso’s commitment to storytelling, as he described in his interview with KultureHub,
“I am always trying to find the thing that connects us. Of course there are things that are culturally specific, but on the whole, our experiences, for the most part, are not that far apart.”
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Vaya underlines that not everyone is in control of one’s own destiny, as Omotoso asserts,
“People who are on the fringe of society do not control their narrative.”
Vaya came about through the continuation of an important dialogue. After Omotoso’s media company produced the South African television series, A Place to Call Home, co-producer Robbie Thorpe started ‘The Homeless Writers Project,’ which is now ran by Harriet Perlman, as a way to provide visibility to the invisible; the many homeless individuals who originally came to the city of Johannesburg in the search for a better life.
In speaking to KultureHub, Omotoso described the ‘The Homeless Writer’s Project,’
“It was a space where we people could come together and tell their stories and share their experiences of coming to Johannesburg and living on the street. So, it started as an exploration, a continual exploration of our neighbors; the people who inhabit Johannesburg.”
Meeting every Wednesday to share their stories and experiences, the project started off with a large number of contributors. As the years went on, the group got smaller and it was via a process of elimination that the group eventually became comprised of four individuals whose stories ultimately translated into a screenplay for Vaya.
In asking if Omotoso felt the pressure in creating a film based on the lives of real people, he said,
“Absolutely, but I would like to call it a challenge or opportunity. There was a pressure because you want to make sure it’s authentic as they wrote. But they also said ‘don’t sugarcoat our story.’ We were all working toward the same goal. The whole time they were along with us on the journey of dreaming up the script.”
Omotoso emphasized how the writers David Majoka, Tshabalira Lebakeng, Anthony Mafela, and Madoda Ntuli were involved every step of the way. He recalls how they took the producers to the places where they actually lived when they first arrived in Jozi.
Omotoso relayed in our interview how he went through line by line of the script with them, asking what they were feeling when they delivered those words that are now inscribed on the film’s script. The filmmaker’s attention to detail has certainly paid off as there is a level of authenticity that exudes out of the screen.
The migrant legacy of Apartheid echoes in Omotoso’s film. Vaya offers a commentary, albeit subliminally, on post-Apartheid public discourse’s heralding of social progress via a neatly bookended and linear narrative of South African history. Importantly, Vaya puts a face to the countless disenfranchised that live on the street.
In crafting an interweaving story that focuses on the gap between cause and effect, Vaya draws attention to our collective responsibility, complicity, but crucially, our common humanity in order recognize how a set of circumstances or events cause people to occupy a position in the margins of society.
Vaya is the 19th film to be picked up by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing. Vaya made its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and garnered Mr. Omotoso the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Director.
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