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“Abomkhulu” Review: The Kganki Mphahlele-Directed Film is Fresh, Funny and Filled With Lessons

“Abomkhulu” Review: The Kganki Mphahlele-Directed Film is Fresh, Funny and Filled With Lessons

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Written by Caroline Kganyago Ralefeta and directed by Kganki Star Mphahlele, Abomkhulu is a film that is replete with didactics. 

By Joseph Jonathan 

The era of apartheid stands as a watershed moment in South Africa’s history, prompting a multitude of films and television series portraying the period in the wake of newfound freedoms. Some of such portrayals in recent times include Amandla (2022), Silverton Siege (2022) and Soon Comes Night (2023). However, unlike the aforementioned titles that explore the theme of freedom in a serious manner, Abomkhulu takes a rather unconventional route — comedy. For most freedom-themed titles, the focus is usually on the events of the apartheid and the struggle for freedom or the early stages of post-apartheid South Africa. In Abomkhulu, we’re introduced to the challenges faced by former freedom fighters as they navigate an unfamiliar free society after spending three decades in prison.

The opening scene sets the stage for the events that take place in the film. Three friends, Mahooks (Jeffrey Sekele), Taozen (Sello Sebotsane) and Shishi (John Lata) lead a not-so-peaceful protest that gets hijacked by miscreants who loot a provision store in the process. Unfortunately, when the police come, it is the angry-looking band of protesters that pay the price as Shishi gets shot at, while Mahooks and Taozen get arrested. Three decades later, Mahooks and Taozen are released from prison due to efforts by Onke (Khojane Morai), their friend’s son, and they get reunited with Shishi whom they had thought to be dead. Still finding their feet in the ‘new South Africa,’ the trio try to find their families and make up for the lost time. 

The first thing which strikes me about this trio is the dynamic of their friendship. Having spent the last 30 years together in prison, Mahooks and Taozen are so close-knit that they forge ahead without Shishi. During their first exchange in the prison cell, they make a joke about how they’re like a couple; knowing how each thinks and talks. Despite this closeness, they both have distinct personalities, with Mahooks being the more introspective one while Taozen is more carefree. One area where this film excels is in its ability to weave the thread of friendship between the trio such that Shishi, who could pass off as the outlier of the group, is not left out. 

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Stills from Abomkhulu

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This thread of friendship is so strong and evident in the way they resolve the differences in their interests. The whereabouts of Mahooks’ family are unknown and his main priority is to find them, unlike Taozen who’s already met with his family and is hell-bent on having as much fun as he can. For Shishi, his friends are the closest thing to a family he’s had in 30 years, so he just wants to spend as much time with them. This consequently creates an impasse, but it is ultimately resolved and they get on track to find Mahooks’ family. 

Written by Caroline Kganyago Ralefeta and directed by Kganki Star Mphahlele, Abomkhulu is a film that is replete with didactics. While the main theme is freedom, the film tries to remind the audience to make the most of the time available to them as time lost can never be regained. The trio try to relive the fun of their youth but they soon find out that being stuck in the past is only an effective time waster. 

The film also makes a genuine effort to be funny and succeeds, unlike the drab nature of slapstick comedy that is common with most African films, which relies mostly on slow-witted characters who get into embarrassing situations. Audiences would appreciate the thought that went into writing the dialogue of Abomkhulu, drawing most of the comic relief from it. 

However, there are still some frailties which are noticeable in the plot, such as the implausibility of certain scenarios and the pacing of the movie. Firstly, in the latter scenes of the film, Onke is invited to the Ministry of Justice for an interview as part of his dissertation research process. He is accompanied by the trio but they’re denied entry on the basis that they pose a security threat — Shishi was caught with his favourite pen knife. In an ideal world, Onke would present the invite from the ministry and gain entry, even if it meant going inside alone. However, there was nothing to show that he had been invited even after he had been sent a confirmation. This throws the verisimilitude of that scene into question. Also, the third act feels rushed. There was a steady build-up from the first scene, but events come to a head rather quickly. From the moment we get the big reveal about Mahooks’ son to sometime later when there is a celebratory gathering, it is as though either the writer or director is fatigued, thus resulting in the hurried pace. 

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Like the plot, the acting performances are also a mixed bag. While the lead actors give a good account of themselves, the supporting cast doesn’t offer enough support in terms of a convincing performance. Sebotsane deftly portrays the carefree and easygoing nature of Taozen. Sekele is somewhat convincing in his portrayal of Mahooks, a man who lost both time and family in prison. Lata makes a good showing of Shishi who is the glue that holds the friends together. On the other hand, the unspoken romance between Morai as Onke and his boss, Thandeka (Simphiwe Ngema) is as cringe as it gets. Morai’s mannerisms are too robotic for someone who is supposed to be in love but unable to express his feelings, especially when he is around his love interest. Even when they finally get together, there is not enough emotion for the performance to be believable. 

“Abomkhulu” is a Zulu word that means grandparents, however, it could also refer to the elderly or respected individuals. While this film might be about an elderly trio of friends, it can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages as it is fresh, funny and filled with lessons. 

Rating: 2.7/5

(Abomkhulu is currently streaming on Showmax)

Joseph Jonathan is a historian who seeks to understand how film shapes our cultural identity as a people. He believes that history is more about the future than the past. When he’s not writing about film, you can catch him listening to music or discussing politics. He tweets @JosieJp3.

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