The Mtsweni family lives in a squatter camp in Mamelodi township outside Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. Seventeen year old Lerato, who goes by Moskito, tells young German director Benjamin Kahlmeyer: “It’s not a real city. It’s what we call a township, divided into many sections, like extensions and phases, just like in a science fiction movie.”
Lerato also lives with her much younger brother, Thabang.
It’s 2010. Stefaans runs a small store, and takes care of his wife and children. “I always keep on running up and down … seven days a week … twenty-four hours.” His wife suffers from an unnamed mental illness.
The family’s been displaced from formal housing where they had running water (presumably for not paying the rent) and a brick house; now they’re living as squatters—like nearly seven million other South Africans. The Mtswenis’ daily lives revolve around Moskito and Thabang getting ready for school, Stefaans running his shop and errands. The parents worry about Moskito getting pregnant, and reluctantly support her budding career as a soccer player. They also try to maintain some control over her movements (and her cell phone).
The film exists because of the World Cup, hence the title, which refers to the realities faced by South Africans, whose concurrent lives contradict the commercialism and profits that goes with the tournament.
Moskito scores a ticket to one of the matches at a nearby stadium (she is involved in youth soccer), but except for the noise coming from the annoying plastic horns (vuvuzelas) that became synonymous with the 2010 World Cup, the Mtswenis and their neighbors mainly experience the tournament as a television event.
The World Cup, it soon becomes clear, is more of a nuisance; an intrusion. Another recurring point, though never conveyed in a heavy-handed manner, is this: foreign tourists and fans never come to Mamelodi (Stefaans first anticipates tourists coming to Mamelodi, then adjusts his expectations). And white South Africans (who still largely shape the economic chances of blacks) are conspicuous by their absence, except as disembodied voices on the radio talking about South Africa’s chances on the field. (The film rarely ventures out of the township.)
“How long will this go on?” asks Thabang while they’re watching the over-anticipated final. And in a final indictment of the infamous finale match, Moskito falls asleep out of boredom. When Spain finally wins the title (in a dreary, uninspiring final against the brutal football of the Netherlands), Stefaans delivers a dry comment—he reinvents a local advertising slogan created for the tournament to better reflect his actual experience: “Can you feel it? It is gone.”
Director Kahlmeyer wants us to focus on Moskito (she gets the last word about being born the year before black South Africans voted for the first time and about being of “the new generation”), but this is Stefaans’s film. For all his friendliness, eternal smile and tendency to compose songs on the spot to make his point, he manages his emotions well, this as he deals with the routine and drudgery of everyday life and tries to make it on his own.
The film’s strength is in its ordinariness and the way director of photography Stefan Neuberger captures the mise-en-scène of a postapartheid city (the majority of South Africans live in townships or “informal settlements” like these).
“Meanwhile in Mamelodi” is not patronizing or cynical towards its subjects. This is their reality. And the Mtswenis and their neighbors don’t have unrealistic expectations of the tournament, unlike what sensational pre-tournament media coverage suggested.
Here’s the trailer:
* The film will screen as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Natural History Museum on Friday, November 30. This is an edited version of a review that first appeared in the December issue of Art South Africa.