Like it’s Tsotsitaal namesake meaning “to go”, Vaya, Directed by Akin Omotoso, literally begins on the move. Opening on a train bound to Johannesburg Vaya follows the intertwining paths of three young South Africans journeying from their rural homes in Kwazulu-Natal to eGoli, the city of Gold. All three are tasked with their own promises to fulfil not only to themselves but to their home towns. Unfortunately this living breathing city, a character in it’s own right, tempts them away from their honourable duties as soon as they disembark the train.
Once the characters set foot in Johannesburg the pacing of the film ramps up immediately with the cinematography almost chasing the characters as they try to navigate their way through the wild, unpredictable and, at times, treacherous city. Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba), a gullible, well meaning young man in pursuit of his cousin Xolani, finds trouble waiting for him at the station. Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang), tasked with the responsibility of bringing the body of his deceased father back home find that the body has already been taken. Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka) a young caretaker has to make sure she young daughter is safe at her mother’s new home. Each narrative explores the tension between the character’s personal struggle with family, respect and tradition within the walls of this secular, class climbing city. It’s in this way that the city preys on these naive newcomers with all three become increasingly curious and drunk on promise of quick money and “a new beginning”, recklessly giving in to the temptation of the city of Gold.
Frenetic and suspenseful, Vaya is a film full of loaded guns. This is meant not just literally but also theoretically through the use of the story device, “Chekhov’s gun”. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Chekhov’s gun” refers to the dramatic principle that every element in a story must have a necessity, or else it is meaningless; that is, a film shouldn’t show a gun unless a character is going to use it. Vaya’s structure is almost a further exploration of this technique, using repeating themes, characters and motifs to construct a tangle of webs around the devil’s playground of Johannesburg. As well as this, the cinematography, shot by Kabelo Thathe, is incredibly important to the overall tone of the film. The camera literally chases the characters through the city, stalking and preying on the characters. Instead of liberating the characters from their maze, the aerial shots that pierce the film paradoxically trap the characters in an infinite cityscape. Again, these cinematic aspects help create a suspenseful tone, but more interestingly they establish the true antagonist of the film to be that of the city itself.
However, amongst this chaos of this seemingly unforgiving city, Vaya also explores redeeming moments of honesty, selflessness and trust. These pure and innocent moments allow us to forgive the unforgivable. It is no surprise that the film is ultimately a microcosm for a greater narrative of social classism; the struggle between the naive characters to fulfil their honourable tasks reflects the greater tension between tradition and economic survival in Johannesburg.
Review Score: FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS
Vaya screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed.