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Themba: A Boy Called Hope
Genre Drama
Year: 2010

Themba: A Boy Called Hope is an inspirational coming-of-age drama about a young South African boy's escape from poverty and the pursuit of a dream. The film couldn't have come at a better time, releasing in the aftermath of the hugely successful 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. However, this isn't any ordinary South African film and if you're expecting Hollywood formula in this sports drama, you'll be disappointed. While football forms the backdrop to this emotional journey, it's simply a theme and a driving force for our title character. There are soccer matches, but Themba: A Boy Called Hope is more about the triumph of the human spirit against social, economic and familial adversity.

The film is a German/South African co-production based on Lutz van Dijk's novel Crossing the Line and directed by Stefanie Sycholt (Malunde). The production values are much higher than most locally-produced films and the rich, powerful and uplifting storytelling overcomes insignificant flaws. The writing is homegrown and one can sense an inherent cultural understanding from the film-makers.

The cast is primarily made up of local talent with several debuts, including German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, local soccer legend Doc Khumalo as himself with a well-cast cameo from Rapulana Seiphemo as Themba's estranged father, Vuyo. African pop singer, Simphiwe Dana delivers an outstanding debut performance as Themba's mother, Mandisa. Veteran SA talent, Patrick Mofokeng (Invictus) tackles a difficult and complex role as the tragic and detestable substitute father figure, Luthando. The older Themba is played by Nat Singo, who embodies the role with a calm, quiet strength, while the younger Themba is given life with a spirited performance from Emmanuel Soquinase.

Themba has a strong sense of authenticity with on-location shooting and local dialects complemented by English subtitles. The majority of the film was shot in the Eastern Cape, set against the beautiful Port St. Johns coastline and also features much of Cape Town in the second half, purposefully representing urban squalor rather than famous views for an ironic contrast between rural and urban South Africa.

The soundtrack fits in perfectly with a selection of distinctly original African music by Annette Focks, providing a heartbeat to the landscapes as Themba grows into a young man. His dream to play for Bafana Bafana and become a national soccer star slowly unfolds before our eyes, opening the film with an older Themba about to slip into the official soccer jersey and using a graphic match to transport us back in time to a young Themba playing barefoot with a handmade plastic bag soccer ball on the dusty playing fields of the Eastern Cape.

Themba: A Boy Called Hope is not a sports glory story, it's a coming-of-age drama. The themes are universal, contentious and localised for this film - touching on crime, unemployment, poverty, HIV, Aids and urbanization. There's no finger-pointing or outright racism, demonstrating a maturity and presenting a more optimistic view of South Africa. These social issues may be a direct result of South Africa's blemished history, but they're presented with a can-do attitude rather than a wallowing self-pity. It's refreshing to see a South African movie that addresses problems with the insight of a documentary, whilst maintaining entertainment value to connect with the audience on an emotional level.

Izulu Lami had a similar slant with two young children moving away from a pastoral rural environment to the big bad city in a fable. Izulu Lami was beautiful but ultimately distressing, trying to draw our attention to the street kids and their hostile environment. Themba also highlights hot topic social issues, but the perspective is different. Themba wants to improve his situation, despite his setbacks and there's a sense of entrepreneurial hope rather than despair - even in the most severe conditions.

Themba: A Boy Called Hope is an amazing South African production, in the same league as Yesterday and Tsotsi for drama. The film raises the bar for local productions, composing a truly South African film and making it accessible, while retaining a distinct South African flavour and authenticity. The film is just as brave as its title character and doesn't stray away from taboos, but seems somewhat inconclusive. It's currency is hope, but there's still a haze of uncertainty and concern as the credits roll. Perhaps this open-ended conclusion is a way of passing the ball and future onto us? 

All in all, Themba: A Boy Called Hope delivers on performance with a solid ensemble effort, strong storytelling from Sycholt, a rich score and set against the beautiful natural backdrops of South Africa. It's a spirited sports drama with a powerful message that showcases South Africa, while drawing attention to important social welfare issues on an international platform. A triumph of the human spirit and a film South Africans can be proud of.

The bottom line: Uplifting.


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