Without being overt with social commentary and political treatise, the film gives voice to these economic issues. The film also relies on minimal visual art to pass its political points.
By Seyi Lasisi
Two South African films that are now streaming on Netflix, have moved away from the trite and conventional South African film identity. The Andy ‘Admiral’ Kasrils-directed Big Nunu’s Little Heist and the Kagiso Lediga-directed Republic South Ah Sh**t, with their knack for comically passing a social commentary, are worlds apart from other South African films, which are more crime thriller-oriented. The attractive aspect of Big Nunu’s Little Heist is the way the film subliminally subverts its political tone to accommodate a comical tone. The film articulates its humour with the aid of admirable working-class characters. The film is plotted over the course of a weekend but manages to cram decades of citizens’ agony and plight.
Within minutes, the film introduces its first conflict. Thirty-Six (Jefferson Tshabalala), a delivery man working for Bra Joe (Ntosh Madlingozi), is in transit to deliver a stove to a bar owner in Sgodiphola – an abandoned town on the outskirts. Moments after getting to Sgodiphola, the stove gets stolen. When Thirty-Six reports the situation to the barman, he does not bat an eyelid. Robbery, like poverty, is a familiar occurrence in Sgodiphola. As he vigorously questions the barman, Thirty-Six discovers the group responsible: Puntsununu’s Boys. In his defiance, the numerically named Thirty-Six moves towards the den of the notorious gang.
Big Nunu’s Little Heist obeys Andy ‘Admiral’ Kasrils tightly -written script. Without delving into an expansive backstory, the film trudges along, relying on Puntsununu (Big Nunu) played by Tony Miyambo, the leader of the gang, to introduce his gang of “freedom fighters.” The group consists of eight oddly-named characters: Mancane (Duncan Mbambo), Workshop (Daniel Hadebe), Bulletproof (Thulani Micking), Notch (Isaac Gampu), spiritual guide of the group, Christmas Tree (Zigi Ndhlovu), Mafia (Thulane Shange), and Innocentia (Amahle Khumalo) – the only female on the team who also doubles as Big Nunu’s lover. They are planning a heist as we infer from their conversations. Since Sgodiphola’s residents and the once-thriving town factory have been neglected, Big Nunu’s planned heist aims to provide some succour to Sgodiphola’s residents. Meanwhile, the town’s representative, Mayor Tshabalala (Celeste Ntuli), attempts to restore hope to the residents by donating an Internet cafe on Workers’ Day. Ironically, unemployed citizens are celebrating Workers’ Day.
Although the team members occasionally doubt Notch’s visions, his visions are a utopia to the team members. Mafia and Bulletproof are team members more inclined to violence. Christmas Tree seems expendable in the film’s plot, but his attentiveness when watching TV advertisements provides a subplot to the film. Though there is a loose sense of hierarchy among the team members, one still gets the perception that Big Nunu’s words hold importance. Big Nunu’s words hold authority, despite how fragile, slurry, and timid his speeches are.
Behind the film’s comedy lurks an omnipresent political undertone. The unemployment crisis, constant robberies, the economic decline, and the abandoned factory that once provided employment for Sgodiphola’s residents, are casually mentioned. Without being overt with social commentary and political treatise, the film gives voice to these economic issues. The film also relies on minimal visual art to pass its political points. In two different scenes, the visual paintings (titled “No Condition is Permanent” and “Hard Times”) are subtly placed to not attract much attention. Without showing the details of the paintings, the titles give a vivid depiction of the prevailing dissatisfied mood of Sgodiphola’s residents.
Courtesy of Khulekani Zondi’s editing, the fast-paced scenes in the film attract attention. Trevor Calverley’s cinematography is mostly domiciled in Big Nunu’s “office space,” but when it gracefully moves through the street of Sgodiphola, it captures how bleak the future is for the residents. The film’s sound design relies on drum-ladened, Amapiano-heavy soundtracks to carry the prevailing urgency in the film. Aside from instilling a sense of immediacy, the soundtrack invites audiences to move their limbs in both reflex and voluntary actions. Vallery Groenewald’s production design duty is also greatly felt, and all of the production departments make the film a success.
Big Nunu’s Little Heist is a film that demands viewers’ attention. When one passively pays attention to the plot and characters’ dialogue, one may lose the conspicuous visual metaphor and physical comedy. To appreciate the film, one needs to constantly interrogate and piece together the metaphors littered around the film. While these metaphorical languages do not need vigorous cerebral activity, it needs, at least, the audience’s attention. Despite the characters’ poverty and odd behaviours, their dialogue is rich and ladened with poetry. The film also uses poetry in its language, pictures, and editing.
There is a recurring motif between Republic of South Ah Sh**t and Big Nunu’s Little Heist. Both abandoned the crime thriller path that has been taken up by South African filmmakers and that is now prolific on Netflix. There has been a rising demand, especially in virtual spaces, for Netflix’s South African film production to explore and diversify its content beyond crime and sex. It seems the protesters’ demands are being reluctantly met with films such as Big Nunu’s Little Heist and Republic of South Ah Sh**t. These films are different from other South African Netflix productions, yet they are uniquely South African. The films embrace recurring issues in South Africa, such as the country’s political, social, and economic concerns.
The film’s conflicts, though not explicitly named, welcome keen viewers to engage in introspective sleuthing. Although the comic tone of the film belies the urgency of its political undertone, it is still a watchable film. The non-complacency of Nunu and his boys with their social reality gives the film a poignant tone. While their heist makes them similar to the English folklore Robin Hood, they prefer to be addressed as freedom fighters seeking Uhuru – a revolution.
(Big Nunu’s Little Heist is currently streaming on Netflix)
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex.