For non-African audiences, Sara Belcher’s “Ayanda and the Mechanic” is an important and fascinating piece that is absolutely worth seeing for its representation of a modern African story, which is uniquely, distinctively African, but also urban, fresh, and contemporary in a way that is far too rare. Anchored by a standout performance by the magnetic Fulu Mugovahni, the vibe and milieu of “Ayanda and the Mechanic” is as refreshing as a light summer breeze — when it’s not bogged down by overwrought drama that nearly kills the momentum.
Mugovahni stars as Ayanda, a bright and bubbly young woman living and working in Yeoville, a township of Johannesburg, South Africa. We are introduced to her through a film-within-a-film device that runs through the course of ‘Ayanda,’ a documentary/photo project by a young man who seeks to capture the stories of the diverse people in his city. Ayanda is a creative jolt of energy, a designer repurposing old barrels and scrap metal into hip pieces of furniture in her dad’s automotive garage. He’s passed on, but she keeps his spirit in the space, working alongside the mechanics.
Of course, it’s not all that easy, as the film’s conflict rears its head in the form of her mother Dorothy (Nthati Moshesh) and family friend Zama (Kenneth Nkosi), who want to sell the garage — the former to let go of old memories, the latter to get the taxman off his back. Ayanda begs them to hold onto it for a few months, and starts a new venture refurbishing classic cars with her trusty mechanics David (OC Ukeje) and Zoum (Thomas Gumede).
While they have some success, it becomes more and more difficult to keep the garage running, and it soon becomes clear that Ayanda is not holding onto it in order to run the business or because she loves cars, she’s doing it to keep her father alive in some way, refusing to let go of the objects that keep him real in her mind. This theme is a moving meditation on grief, as Ayanda sacrifices some of the things that are most important in her present in order to hold onto the past.
As more and more soap operatic plot points get added into the mix (love triangles, robberies, stolen cars, crooked cops, secret real estate deals), the drama weighs down the fizzy energy that makes ‘Ayanda’ such a cool and original piece to begin with and the momentum drags to a halt. Of course, there have to be stakes and the story must be grounded in reality, but the film really soars when it is zooming around Yeoville, following Ayanda as she takes to the streets in one of her adorably quirky outfits, or when she passionately pursues a creative project, and the third act dramatics do nothing for it.
Mugovahni, as Ayanda, is the source of much of this energy. She is a deeply captivating performer, and a whirlwind in this role. Beautiful, spunky, and incredibly charming, one hopes to see her again in something soon, on a larger scale, because she’s got the chops and the charisma to drive this whole project. Veteran South African actors Nkosi and Moshesh turn in fine supporting work, and Ukeje serves as a compelling romantic interest for Ayanda.
While the film-within-a-film structure sometimes shows itself as as an exposition delivery system, the fast-paced editing and switches in aspect ratio and style make it one of the most enjoyable things about the film, especially the on-the-street interviews where different people share their stories. Belcher is a South African filmmaker, and her roots and local’s understanding of this place shine through. “Ayanda and the Mechanic” is a unique and enjoyable film, a fresh, modern, stylish take on 21st century Africa, deeply rooted in personal history, experience, and context. [B]