Asinamali: Sing together, live together
Mbongeni Ngema’s powerful movie Asinamali is a moving, musical look into the heart of apartheid.
Asinamali proves that music and dance are powerful story-telling tools.
Staying warm indoors this winter weekend? Get your blood pumping with music-and-dance-infused drama movie Asinamali (stream it here). It was released in 2017 and has an 18 parental rating – it contains scenes with sex, violence, nudity and adult language, so best send the small ones to bed.
The movie screenplay was written by Mbongeni Ngema, who also sits in the director’s seat. It’s set in an apartheid-era prison where inmates use storytelling to pass the time and give themselves hope. And it’s something you need to watch to feel and understand. Just ask critics, who’ve been watching it transform and inspire since it started out as a stage play in 1986.
“The cast members become a single vibrating organism,” says New York film and art critic Frank Rich. “To call the feat ‘ensemble acting’ doesn’t quite do it justice. Conventional dialogue flows into choral recitations, a cappella songs and sound effects that can alternately suggest the hubbub of contemporary black townships, the characters’ deepest cultural roots and the desolate wilderness of the itinerant worker’s road.”
From stage to big screen
The title means “we have no money”, and that’s true for the characters. They’re in prison. They have the prison uniforms on their backs and not much more. What they do have in abundance though is the power of word and song and dance.
The title also refers to the rallying cry of protesters in the 1983 Lamontville protests, which were sparked when unfair rent increases were instituted – an event to which several of the prisoners are connected.
In the movie, Mbongeni plays Comrade Washington, a struggle activist who has come home to roost, having lived in exile overseas for years. Washington hopes to use his musical talents to inspire the inmates and help them fight back against the oppression that would rather kill them than see them rejoicing in song. Even the prison guards are powerless to fight back when the inmates, who were once fearful of the baton-wielding wardens, stand up for themselves and declare their beliefs.
Man for the occasion
Mbongeni Ngema is no stranger to the big screen or intertwining music into his work. He wrote the screenplay and music for similar politically themed movie Sarafina! in 1992 after the theatre version made headlines around the world in 1988.
“At the time [while touring with the play], I didn’t have an actual story to work with but my home country was burning and in turmoil, and Asinamali was big news in the United States,” he says.
After working with director Darrell Roodt on Sarafina!, Mbongeni took control of Asinamali, saying that “we had to transform the stage version’s powerful dynamics onto film and I think that we have done that. Our message is there for all to see and feel.”