What does modern Africa look like? For the American film audience, this is not a common question. The narratives of contemporary African countries and their inhabitants remain marginalized, which makes the concept of a film like Sara Blecher’s “Ayanda” all the more exciting, especially when it’s being released under the banner of Ava DuVernay’s film collective ARRAY. And indeed, the mere prospect of a South African woman director, teaming with a woman producer to tell the fictional, coming-of-age story of a woman mechanic is thrilling. As a result, one’s expectations for this film might be unfairly high. And although “Ayanda” does not deliver on all fronts, this is a fun, flirty and compelling tale, centered on a complex character who grieves, creates, and sometimes destroys—all with great conviction, and within a community of people doing much the same.
It’s always thrilling when the form of a film feels so intentionally and organically married to the content. A movie about a talented and tenacious woman trying to save her recently-deceased father’s car garage could have been presented with a more straightforward approach. Instead, Blecher chooses to include artwork and animation throughout the film. As one member of Yeoville (the Johannesburgh suburb in which the film is set) tells the story of how he came to this vibrant melting pot of a city, an artist’s rendering in stop-motion animation—popping with colors and tapestries—brings it to life. It’s the perfect reflection of the way that Ayanda (played by a very green, but capable Fulu Moguvhani in her film debut) creates and recreates the furniture, cars and various other materials she’s eager to get her hands on. These moments weave in seamlessly with depictions of Ayanda’s work and family life. Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse made similar additions to his 2013 indie film, “What If,” producing the same effect—where a small story, centered on quirky young people becomes a more ambitious project with a few delightful details.
As Ayanda navigates a series of complications and sabotages against her plan, the audience is treated to that rare, nuanced storytelling in which her family members, her lover David (well, it’s complicated) and various other individuals, are celebrated as full characters with their own narratives. Writer Trish Malone does excellent work in cultivating stories that would have surely been marginalized in another film. Unfortunately, Malone’s script has other flaws that work against these strong character presentations. It is guilty of a certain clunkiness at times, explicitly telling the audience far more than necessary. In one scene, Ayanda explains to David (O.C. Ukeje, in a solid performance) precisely why she’s put so much on the line for her father Moses’ garage: “This place, it’s my sanctuary. It’s my coffin. It’s my home.” This is, in essence, the heart of the entire film, and it’s a grave error to so heavy-handedly state it.
Similarly, the documentarian whose camera works as another lens to the confessional-style stories presented, winds up feeling like a prop for Blecher and Malone to conspicuously celebrate the art and power of photography. The inclusion of Ayanda’s neighbors is significant, but this important element is cheapened by trope-ish monlogues from the nameless filmmaker. Had he been a more useful character—a storyteller à la “City of God’s” Rocket—the effect would have been different.
Still, Blecher’s second feature film is, ultimately, a wonderful story. With its many moving parts and its bright, intoxicating cinematography (by Jonathan Kovel), it succeeds in bringing this inherently and organically feminist tale to life. It might have been organized and edited with a harsher hand for more impact, but strong performances from Ukeje and Nthati Moshesh as Ayanda’s mother, work to smooth out those flaws.
If “Ayanda” is any indication of the stories Ava DuVernay plans to get behind, we have every reason to be excited about the work ARRAY is doing, as well as any future projects from Sara Blecher.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a contributor to Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on “Twitter” – @shannonmhouston