New York - A hungry little girl, a tired young woman with sleep in her eyes and two young men – one with dreams of riches and the other tasked with ancestral duty – arrive on the same train in the City of Gold.
They have never met, save for the quick glances between two of them at the very moment the young woman steals a vetkoek for the girl in her care. After they step off the train and into the streets of the saturated city, their paths will briefly cross again when a jarring calamity strikes.
Director Akin Omotoso unspools this story in the South African film Vaya that, as the opening night film for the 24th New York African Film Festival, leads this year’s charge of African stories on foreign soil. The Nigerian-born Omotoso’s film interweaves the stories of three different characters that travel from small rural towns to Johannesburg, the city that he has called his home for over two decades.
eGoli, the city of gold, jumps off the screen as a character in its own right with wide and fast-moving aerial shots that take the viewer away from a close proximity to the besieged mass of bodies that fill the city to show how very big this city actually is. The swooping camera shots serve as a reminder of how easy it is for this big city to swallow even the biggest small-town dreamers.
"Johannesburg is a mythology that is, I guess, similar to New York," Omotoso says outside the Lincoln Film Center in Manhattan.
Vaya’s first American screening started only minutes before, after an apt red carpet roll-out. "People come here (to New York) for work, for the opportunity. And also, just the bigger point of people that leave desperate situations for greener pastures,” he says, before adding: "But sometimes it only becomes more desperate."
Eight years in the making
Vaya’s strength lies in the its gritty authenticity – the film, which took eight years to bring to the screen, is based on the lives of four men, David Majoka, Anthony Mafela, Madoda Ntuli and Tshabalira Lebakeng.
They penned their stories as part of the Homeless Writers Project and the weekly writing workshops they attended for nearly a decade. Reflecting these four men’s real-life experiences of traumatic betrayal by their families and a fight for survival in an urban snake-pit, the characters each face challenges that chew away at their moral fibre and veracity. Consequently, says Omotoso, the casting process had to take an intensely rigorous approach.
"It had to be people that you could believer were actually coming from the rural areas, so they had to have that authenticity," he says as he rubs his index fingers and thumbs together on the last word. For most of the actors that were cast, among them Sibusiso Msimang, Zimkhitha Nyoka and Sihle Xaba, Vaya now counts as their first feature film experience.
The film, shot in 2015 and in post-production in 2016 before its worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, extended its run on the festival circuit after its selection to be part of this year’s Berlinale in February and now the African Film Festival.
"The film resonates because of the humanity of those characters," he says. "That was always key for us going in. We had to make you feel something for these characters and there is also the universality of trying to attain a better life and getting knocked down time and again."
Omotoso, who refers to himself as a storyteller, first and foremost, has recently been signed by the talent agency APA, marking an important moment in his career. "It opens up the world to me. I’ve had a lot of great meetings to discuss opportunities. People are excited about Vaya and excited about me."
He returns to screens later this year – as an actor – in Catching Feelings alongside Quantico star Pearl Thusi and is also finishing up production of a documentary that looks at the history of South Africa through the lens of the wine industry, called The Colour of Wine.
Watch the trailer here: