As fun as it is to hint and tease at the expansive cinematic story that you want to tell in a short film, for viewers, it is honestly better if you can just tell the damn story. Few fantasty/sci-fi shorts are able to do so however, so, as you decide whether to embark on the viewing of the 25min long Umkhungo, know that you’re getting the real deal. Rare is it to see a short film set on such an expansive canvas as this. It is a film that, while whetting your appetite for more, is no less satisfying for it.
Set in in the slums of Hillbrow in downtown Johannesburg, director Matthew Jankes presents us with a fully realized story filled with impressive themes: moments of sacrifice, of fear, and of revelation abound, and while the mysterious paranormal fantasy at the core of the story is the main draw, the film is no less adept at moments of human feeling.
The core human feeling explored is guilt. After seeing his mother murdered, Themba, our young protagonist is wracked with it. He is an outsider now, turned upon by his family, scared of being locked up in a cage, but maybe even more scared of himself and his unique abilities. On the run, he connects with Mthunzi, a street thug who reluctantly comes to care for Themba. The relationship between the two takes up a large part of the film and fortunately that evolution is excellently handled. Mthunzi carries his own guilt concerning his lost brother, and Themba is a surrogate for him to work out his own feelings in that regard. The actor, Israel Makoe, is a striking figure. Tough, but capable of gentleness, with a drooping face that looks literally dragged down by the weight of his emotions.
Written by Jankes as well, the film is simply but effectively structured. Beginning with a crack of action, the first 90 seconds draw the attention in fully — a requirement for a film this length on the internet. The scene is incomplete however as we cut to Mthunzi’s introduction. This elision is effective, allowing Jankes to slowly intersperse it through the rest of the film as revelation, driving much of the emotional arc for Themba.
You don’t see a lot of genre filmmaking from Africa, so it’s interesting to investigate Umkhungo’s origin. The film was made through a now defunct program called Africa First, a project from the famous Focus Features. We previously featured one of these works with Julius Onah’s Big Man. Jankes wanted to create something that didn’t simply rip Hollywood off, but also had a big heart. Using the native attributes of Johannesburg helps to effectively accomplish this desire, and the blending of paranormal and supernatural feels like an area ripe for further exploration. As studios become desperate to find new talent, new ideas, it might be worthwhile to take a lesson from this, and famously another South African film, the work that kicked off the modern trend of vfx teaser pieces, Alive in Joburg, and look to rich cultural heritages outside of the US that are capable of being remixed. That’s what Umkhungo has done and it’s pretty impressive.