Review: uNomalanga and the Witch (2014)


uNomalanga and the Witch is a film leading the way for women in African cinema having won Best Short Film at Durban International Film Festival (2015) and The Baobab Short Film Prize at Film Africa, UK (2016). Normanzi Palesa Shongwe’s 26-minute short film explores feelings of closeness through a virtuous newlywed and mysterious neighbour.

The opening of this short is key in presenting the titular character, Nomalanga, and her husband, Sibusiso. In the first minute the dynamic of their marriage is depicted and, crucially, it features a scene of them thanking God that they have each other. Throughout the film, there is never any doubt that Nomalanga’s love for Sibusiso will ever falter. The way she smiles after him when he leaves for work in the morning tells us that. However, just because the newlyweds are happy together, doesn’t mean the people in the relationship are happy as individuals – and that’s what this film delicately communicates.

Nomalanga has recently moved to a new neighbourhood in South Africa after living in Vrede, a town in the Free State, which we learn from an exchange she has with Sister Reba, an affable but speculative gossipmonger. The conversation with Reba is more like an interview, checking where the happy couple have come from, what Sibusiso does for a living and what is expected of Nomalanga as a wife in their household. Sweetly obliging with the thinly veiled interrogation, Nomalanga comes across as humble, gracious and keen to please. She also takes the opportunity to ask the local busybody about the neighbour that lives opposite her, who she only knows exists from a momentary glance.

A slammed door across the road prompts a visible curiosity in Nomalanga as she steps out of her comfort zone to find out who her elusive neighbour is. The enigmatic ‘witch’ as Reba calls her, is a widow named Salome. For whatever reason, it is widely rumoured that she killed her husband and thereafter struggled financially (“eating filth out of rubbish bins”), and intensely grieved (“she’d gone raving mad”). It quickly becomes clear that Salome was ostracised from this South African community soon after the death of her husband and has since responded by retreating into solitude.

In many ways, Salome acts as the antithesis to Nomalanaga. Where Nomalanga bakes scones and wears pastel cardigans with floral print dresses, Salome chain smokes and wears bold, deeply pigmented clothes. Namalanga’s composure and dedication to decorum emanates from her go-to smile, whereas Salome is cynical, critical and cares very little about what people think of her. Seeing this duality in action is captivaing, even more so as the space between them closes.


Despite their differences in approach and belief, both women are troubled with loneliness. Salome’s skill as a hairdresser draws them closer and they become each other’s antidote for the respective oppression they are both experiencing, albeit in completely different circumstances. Though in a happy marriage and carrying off the ideal South African wife role perfectly, it is clear that Nomalanga is not fulfilled in other areas of her life because doting on her husband takes up the majority of her time and headspace. On the contrary, Salome has been branded by society as a result of her own unfortunate experiences and, because of her refusal to meet the patriarchal standards unfairly bestowed on her, has effectively been banished from her local sisterhood. But it’s okay, because her and Nomalanga craft their own.

When Nomalanga sits down to allow Salome to style her hair, it is momentous. Shongwe utilises every technical element of filmmaking she can to convey the sensual revelation that these two women are experiencing in a moment of blissful intimacy. There is a shift from the second that Nomalanga picks up the hair oil: the ambient sound reduces to the tweeting birds rather than the passing traffic and soon transitions into a dreamy instrumental score, while the cinematography itself echoes the warmth of the characters by featuring more close ups – of just-touching hands and drops of oil. As Salome massages Nomalanga’s head, the cutting rhythm speeds up, with cross cuts of an orange being opened and squeezed. These visual associations are abstract and open to interpretation, but evoke ideas of newness, freshness, perhaps signalling an awakening in Nomalanga.

Besides her newly found relationship with Salome and marriage, Nomalanga’s relationship with God is one of note too. Christianity and Jesus Christ permeate every element of her life, providing a structure and moral pathway for her. Religious imagery regularly takes up entire frames, and her faith provides something for Nomalanga to hold onto – literally – she takes it with her when she visits Salome for the first time to read her a passage (Revelation 7:14). When we see Nomalanga and Sibusiso eating dinner together on their sofa, a huge portrait of Jesus sits between them. The composition, especially with the burnt orange coloured walls, is certainly striking. Interestingly, this is the same shot and location of several personal rituals between the couple, one of which shows Nomalanga kneeling before her husband and offering him a bowl to wash his hands. Serving her husband appears to be something that Nomalanga accepts with pleasure and she does so happily, and as a result it seems to be the case that director Shongwe is not criticising this act, but is instead demonstrating the multidimensional nature of this character, and indeed women. Cultural sensitivity in cinema does not equal the diminishment of feminist perspectives.



Complex feelings are hard to convey, especially in a short film, but this one succeeds in doing it thanks to the intense screenplay and brilliant female leads played by Mmabatho Monshto as Nomalanga, and Ferry Jele as Salome. The way the film questions the place of a black woman, the way it redefines rebellion, and the way that it balances matrimony with patriarchy has surely given women characters to engage with because they reflect their lives and their stories so beautifully.

 

Verdict: The collision of two women who are both victims of unfair judgement in a sexist world makes for a compelling South African drama. A feature length of this story by Normanzi Palesa Shongwe would be most welcome.


Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚

 

Watch the entire short film here:

 

This post is part of an Instagram event where 15 accounts watch and review two short films in the month of October. Check out the #FFSFF tag to read more short film reviews. Thank you to @the_aspiring_film_maker for organising and asking me to take part!

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