Busisiwe Mtshali as Zanele in Thina Sobabili
Busisiwe Mtshali as Zanele in Thina Sobabili. (Image: Thina Sobabili: The Two of Us)

In just over a month's time, on 14 January, South African film fans will be holding their breath as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prepares to announce the nominations for the 2016 Oscars.

South Africa has only twice had films nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category: in 2004 with Darrell Roodt's Yesterday, and the year following with Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, which went on to become South Africa's first - and so far only - Oscar winning movie.

Attempting to follow in their footsteps in 2016 is the country's official entry, Ernest Nkosi's powerful drama Thina Sobabili (The Two of Us) - and patriotic local movie fans can be forgiven for holding out high hopes of being among the contenders come Oscar Awards night in Hollywood, Los Angeles on 28 February.

Small budget, big heart

The story of the film's making is extraordinary enough: set in Johannesburg's Alexandra township, it was filmed in the space of seven days on a budget that would barely have covered the catering bill for most productions coming out of North America or Europe.

But the film's remarkable production values and stirring performances - not to mention its haunting soundtrack - are what's really struck a chord, and not only with local audiences.

A gritty coming-of-age story set in a slum neighbourhood from which there seems to be no escape, Thina Sobabili tells the story of teenager Zanele and her over-protective older brother Thulani, who is both her guardian and a criminal on the side.

When Zanele begins an affair with a much older "sugar daddy", in an attempt to break free from the cycle of poverty in which she feels trapped, it puts new pressure on her already strained relationship with Thulani. As Thulani moves to break up her affair, Zanele is faced with difficult choices.

Thina Sobabili won the audience choice awards at both the 2015 Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and the 2015 Jozi Film Festival in Johannesburg, and the award for best feature film at the 2015 Rwanda Film Festival.

'Raw, dramatic, funny, heart-breaking'

In an article published in Huffington Post on 9 December, entertainment journalist Margaret Gardiner writes: "Make sure you see Thina Sobabili: The Two of Us, South Africa's Foreign Film entry for the Oscars and Golden Globes. Raw, dramatic, funny and heart-breaking, it is worth the time it will take you to find it."

While the opening 10 minutes may have you thinking you're watching "a traditional tale, often told, it quickly segues into a compelling character-driven drama, with unpredictable twists that have you constantly second-guessing the intersecting story lines."

The website of the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), where Thina Sobabili recently made its Canadian debut as part of the festival's official selection, describes the film as both fitting into and breaking the mould of recent films by black directors from South Africa.

While it has features in common, VIFF states, including "a bracing mix of theatricality, naïveté and innocence that is often punctuated by shocking violence … the way Nkosi deals with common experiences and clichés head-on, while treating them deadly seriously, even tenderly, marks this debut as something special".

Scripted by Ernest Nkosi and Mosibudi Pheeha, directed by Nkosi and independently funded by The Monarchy Group, Thina Sobabili features an all-South African cast headed by Emmanuel Nkosinathi Gweva as Thulani and Busisiwe Mtshali as Zanele.

They are supported by Zikhona Sodlaka, Richard Lukunku, Mpho Modikoane, Thato Dhladla, Thembi Nyandeni, Hazel Mhlaba and Kope Makgae.

Source: staff reporter

Contact the Gauteng Film Commission