One of the most tragic things that can happen in a person’s life is the loss of their innocence. Perhaps, if one could rewind the entire history of this world, we would find that the source of evil began just that way, with one innocent soul corrupted, spreading the impact like a fast-moving, all-consuming cancer.
In director Akin Omotoso’s powerful film “Vaya,” he takes us deep into one of the meanest streets in South Africa’s Johannesburg. Here we meet three, young strangers on a train traveling from their simple rural life, in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal to Jozi. Once they arrive, they quickly discover the cruel realities of what it takes to survive in a city where the streets are stocked full of con artists and pimps.
Built-in expectations and fears drive the story once they set foot in Johannesburg. It’s an adrenaline pumping culture shock for Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka), an attractive woman who’s chaperoning a wide-eyed girl, Zodwa (Azwile Chamane-Madiba), who is reluctating reuniting with her complicated mother, Thobeka (Nomonde Mbusi). Nkulu’s (Sibusiso Msimang) task is daunting, a grieving son given the responsibility of retrieving his father’s body from a coal mine for burial; and Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba), a naive young man dreaming of wealth and making a big name for himself like his gangster cousin Xolani (Warren Masemola). From the very second each character appears on the screen, you find yourself utterly absorbed in their journey and the director, Omotoso, deftly interweaves the narratives with clear purpose, while providing many compelling twists and introducing complicated villains like Madoda (Mncedisi Shabangu), Thobeka’s boyfriend, who turns out to be Nkulu’s half-brother from his father’s secret second family. Drama with a capital “D.”
The result is gripping and as you follow each character’s journey, you inhale, sharply, knowing they are being led astray, but wanting them to win, somehow and defeat the evil that’s pulling them deeper and deeper and pushing them closer to the point-of-no-return.
Nkulu has no idea that his deceased father had another family, who have their own plans for his body. Zanele is promised an opportunity to appear on television by a questionable talent scout. Nhlanhla gets caught like a fly in the spider’s web, entering into a life of crime with a bang, each struggle to keep their sanity and their souls.
Trying to navigate their way through a wild and unpredictable maze, we can feel their collective panic once they discover that they are just pawns inside a game where they are powerless.
On the technical side, it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Kabelo Thathe, making this living, breathing city a character in its own right, a type of ethereal beauty.
Chaotic and suspenseful, “Vaya” is filled with trigger-happy men with excellent aim. This could be described as a gangster film, but it’s deeper than most made in the United States. It has an authentic flavor, which Hollywood can’t duplicate despite its deep pockets, such as the power of the truth.
Director Akin Omotoso is a gifted storyteller. In this wicked and unforgiving city, he finds little pockets where we witness redeeming moments of honesty and trust. These people struggle and we feel the greater tension between their traditions and the economic survival that shapes modern Johannesburg.
Much of the film is based on the real-life stories of people living on the streets—some of whom appear in the film. To that end, it’s hard to say whose performance is best, since they are all equally outstanding. That includes every person that appears in every frame of this film. In the faces we see joy and hope, we see vulnerability, naivete and then we witness wisdom and an inner strength make their entrance, leaving us with hope.
“Vaya” is an entertaining cinematic ride and one that you will find yourself revisiting again and again.
An ARRAY acquisition, with distribution rights in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand territories, “Vaya” will debut on November 1, with a national screening tour and simultaneous release on Netflix.