Exploring cities through film: Vaya captures Joburg’s ‘monstrosity’

How do films influence our relationship with cities? What is the relationship between cinematic representations of cities and maps? Could a film help someone navigate a city or give a sense of its spatial relations?

These were some of the questions that arose in the discussion of Vaya, a film directed by Akin Omotoso and screened by the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town earlier this month. The screening brought together academics from urban studies, film and media studies, and anthropology to explore how film might help us explore how we understand cities and people’s relationships with them.

Vaya tells the story of three people who travel from rural KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg and their relationship with the city. Unsurprisingly, shortly after they leave the train station everything goes wrong for all of them. Litheko Modisane, one of the panellists in the discussion following the film and author of South Africa’s Renegade Reels, took issue with this narrative structure. Modisane suggested that the well-rehearsed narrative—in films such as Jim Comes to Jo’burg (1949), uDeliwe (1975) and to some extent Lucky (2011)—in which black South Africans arriving from rural areas are swallowed up by a monstrous Johannesburg full of vice and crime — emphasises an urban-rural dichotomy where the rural represents innocence and goodness and the city represents vice, decay and depravity.

It certainly isn’t incorrect to suggest that cities like Johannesburg can be monstrous. The danger with this monstrous-city narrative, however, lies in the suggestion that black people do not belong in the city and that they should stay in the rural areas where they will be able to maintain their innocence. In his book Modisane describes this as the “ideological alienation of Africans from the city” (p.79) which has its origins in the apartheid ideology of separate development.


Still from Vaya. Supplied by Harriet Perlman.

In spite of the reproduction of a potentially damaging narrative, Vaya also manages to represent Johannesburg’s monstrosity sensitively and humanely. This is a credit to Vaya’s writers. The film was written over a number of years by members of the Homeless Writers Project—a project working with people currently or formerly living on the street in Johannesburg—and the stories, according to producer Harriet Perlman, still closely resemble the experiences of the writers themselves.

Reminiscent of the anti-apartheid workshop plays of Barney Simon and his various collaborators, Vaya’s treatment of people’s relationship with Johannesburg is grounded in the lived realities of some of its most marginalised residents.

A striking element of many ‘Johannesburg films’ —Jerusalema (2008), Tsotsi (2005), Vaya (2016) and in a very different way Necktie Youth (2015)— as well as films set in other African cities—such as Djibril Diop Mambety’s Le Franc (1994) and La Petit Vendeuse la Soleil (1999) both set in Dakar— is the way mobility is foregrounded in the films’ narratives. Many of these films literally take you on a tour through the streets of the city in which they are set. Interestingly, in spite of the attempt at showing the viewer the city, this is often more disorienting than illuminating.

There are moments in Vaya where the viewer is offered a god-like perspective, such as the aerial shot over central Johannesburg, lit by the setting sun and glowing an ominous red, with Nelson Mandela Bridge and the Park Station shunting yards in the foreground. But these do little to locate us within the city. The disorientation and lack of perspective offered by the film’s view-from-the-street are, perhaps, central to the urban experience. This is represented brilliantly when one of the characters, instructed over the phone to find his uncle in Dube, Soweto, responds in frustration that he has no idea where Dube is. The viewer is just as ignorant and distressingly unable to offer any help to a character we have come to like.

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Still from Vaya. Supplied by Harriet Perlman.

For urban practitioners who have grown used to a cartographic representation of cities where the city can be seen and taken in as a whole system this view may be particularly unsettling and, for this very reason, an important one to take into account.

The images we see of cities, and the meanings they have for us, are central to the way we experience urban space. Lots of research has been done on how cities are represented in media but comparatively less work has been done on how this affects everyday practice in the city. Films can offer us a unique view of cities and, if we pay attention to the way the films are received by the public, can offer insights into the ways people relate to their cities.

Vaya is a visceral, humane story of Johannesburg which is at the same time illuminating and disorientating, redemptive and desperate. Vaya will be released in South Africa in October this year.

The trailer for Vaya is available on youtube.


James Clacherty is an editorial intern with urbanafrica.net

All photos supplied by Harriet Perlman.


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