Vaya: based on true stories

Three strangers, one journey – Vaya unpicks the stories of three characters who are travelling to Joburg. It explores their expectations – and the realities – of the big city.

Zanele, played by Zimkitha Nyoka, hopes to change her life by moving to Jozi. (Image: Rififi Pictures)

Sulaiman Philip

People have always been drawn to the big city, and this pull is at the heart of the new feature film from award-winning director Akin Omotoso.

Vaya tells three separate stories of three passengers travelling from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg. They are strangers on a train whose destinies are intertwined as they navigate the foreign and exotic world with which they are unprepared to deal.

His film was about the challenge of not losing yourself in a new place, Omotoso told Variety. And it is based on the true stories of writers in the Homeless Writers Project, a writing workshop for people living on the streets of Johannesburg.

Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) is drawn to Jozi by the promise of easy wealth. (Image: Riffifi Pictures)

Vaya is the story of travellers who arrive in Johannesburg with different hopes and plans, only to discover the hard realities of life when you’re not in control of your own destiny. I wanted to explore the feeling of arrival – with its built-in expectations and fears – in a way that’s true to a lot of places.”

Sibusiso Msimang is Nkulu, the oldest son changed by the journey to collect his fathers remains. (Image: Riffifi Pictures)

Nkulu, played by Sibusiso Msimang, is travelling to fetch his father’s remains so they can be buried in his rural home. Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka) is chaperoning a young girl on her way to meet her mother. For her, the trip is a chance to change her life and make her dreams come true. Sihle Xaba plays Nhlanhla, a young man attracted by the prospect of quick and easy money. Unable to pay his dowry, he accepts a job from his cousin that promises to solve his financial woes.

Eight years in the making, Vaya premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and had a limited run to qualify for Oscar consideration. It opened in South Africa at the end of October. “Many filmmakers have utilised the network narrative to relay broad social commentary,” said Cameron Bailey, director of the Toronto International Film Festival. “Omotoso, bolstered by brilliant performances and Kabelo Thathe’s sizzling camerawork, wisely focuses on tension, character and milieu, leaving the conclusions up to us.”

Omotoso holds that his belief in story-telling, as opposed to action-driven moviemaking, makes Vaya a better film. It gives audiences, he says, a way to identify with characters who live lives very different from their own.

“You’ve gotta find something in the stories that resonates with its people, and just the idea of what it’s like to not have your own urgency, what it’s like to be at the mercy of other people – that is the key element explored in Vaya.”

The long creative process has resulted in a film of which Omotoso and his team are rightly proud. It gave the production team, and its first-time script writers, the opportunity to flesh out a story that has been described as “amazing”.

“Having walked with this film for years, I felt a bit like a marathon runner, who prepares themselves for everything, including the emotional roller coaster to come. The shooting was not easy, as we shot in real locations with real challenges but the readiness and vision shared by everyone involved was there.”

Akin Okomotso at the Vaya screening at the Berlinale in Germany. (Image: Berlinale)

Vaya’s international success has shone a light on the quality of African film. Omotoso says new technologies and new platforms make this an exciting time to be an African filmmaker. The world, he argues, is ready for African filmmakers telling African stories.

What is needed to build a sustainable film industry able to create high-quality content is easier access to funding, growing audiences, holding down costs by improving infrastructure, and improving distribution and marketing.

“Sustainability in the long run means that multiple projects can be developed and given the utmost opportunity to be successful. And somebody has to fund your film, and hopefully you want to give that person their money back.  And the distributor has to put the film out and they too want to get their money back. How you get your content to the audience is still a compelling discussion. But it’s a very exciting time to be a filmmaker.”

Okomotso says African filmmakers must continue to build on the foundations laid by pioneering African artists. A Nigerian, he has lived in South Africa for a decade. He points to his own multicultural life experience to explain the edge African filmmakers have.

African artists must not “squander the opportunity to tell (African) stories”, he says. They must take advantage of the opportunities that are now available. “It’s important for the world that African cinema exists.”

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.