Mbongeni NgemaSouth Africa’s most famous film director and playwright, Mbongeni Ngema, celebrated his 62nd birthday on June 1st with a screening in Johannesburg of his new movie, Asinamali. This was the first time the movie, which played last month at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, has been screened to the public in South Africa. The only other time it has screened here was a private viewing for senior government officials on Africa Day.

The Gauteng Film Commission, which receives a credit in the movie, helped provide locations, most notably the Johannesburg Fort, which forms the backdrop to the movie’s prison scenes. Film-goers who are familiar with the Fort, which is now a museum open to the public, will be able to spot its high walls and barred cells.

Asinamali was originally a stage play, written in 1987. It won a Tony Award in the USA for Best Direction and it also played at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. A brief scene in the movie pays tribute to the Market Theatre’s founder, Barney Simon, for supporting the play at a time when its content was risky and controversial.

Set in the late eighties near the end of the apartheid era, Asinamali (We are hungry) deals with the township unrest that had started to flare at the time, and with issues of the day such as necklacing, political activism, street violence and prison brutality.

Ngema himself, wearing his trademark black beret, stars in the movie as Comrade Washington, an ex-MK soldier who has turned to music rather than violence. He arrives at a South African prison as an Amnesty International representative, with a proposal to put on a musical inside the prison. There is much prison violence on display, lush visuals and entertaining music, but the real focus is a love interest: Washington’s secret motive is to try and find a former girlfriend, a singer, who is being held in the prison.

David Dison, the executive director who raised the money for the movie and negotiated the locations with Gauteng Film Commission, said he had known Ngema for more than 30 years and the two had long wanted to make a movie together.

The screening was held at the Killarney Mall, where the cinema is owned by Avalon Cinemas, the oldest surviving cinema chain in South Africa. Before the main movie began, there was a tribute to the Moosa family, which have owned Avalon Cinemas for over a century and can trace their history back to a close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. They also offered their theatres as venues for political meetings during the apartheid era.

Those who want to watch Asinamali in South Africa will need a little patience: it will not go on the main circuit until February 2018.