Early in Five Tiger, a short film from South Africa, the audience is confronted with a striking visual: a woman in a car passenger seat accepts a folded R50 (about US$3.50) note (colloquially known as a “five tiger”) from a man in the driver seat. The transaction is almost wordless, but the viewer feels the resigned movements of the film’s lead, played tenderly by Ayanda Seoka.
The beautifully shot short film, which was written and directed by Nomawonga Khumalo in her debut, is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of Fiona, a young woman living in the outskirts of Johannesburg, and how she makes ends meet for herself, her daughter, and sick husband. (You can watch the trailer here.)
Despite the film’s runtime of just over 10 minutes, we get a sense of the complexity of the protagonist—she engages in sex work to supplement the household income, finds joy in religion, knows how to wield a panga, and has a green thumb. She is a mother who listens to and cares for her daughter, especially her education. This vignette of Fiona’s life is told with generosity and sensitivity, which is a testament to Khumalo and the team’s dedication to representing the contradictions and nuances of black women’s interior lives.
In a Sundance Institute interview Khumalo says that “the fetishism of violence enacted upon the black, female body creates a type of compassion fatigue. It was important that Fiona’s dignity took precedence over her adversaries, poverty being the most urgent one.”
In South Africa, all aspects of sex work are illegal. Yet, as the film demonstrates, transactional relationships abound even in the most righteous places. Fiona’s pastor, Fumani Shilubana, is revealed later to be the man in the driver’s seat.
According to Khumalo, Five Tiger “takes an intersectional approach at unpacking feminism in the religious context.” At the end of the film, there is a scene where Fiona and her church congregation are sitting in a field, all dressed in white. The tray for tithes comes around, and with a content smile, Fiona takes a folded R50 from her Bible, and places it on the tray. Seeing as that was where she put the eponymous five tiger from earlier in the film, we are led to reflect on the cyclic nature of patriarchy, and how religion often plays a role in sustaining it.
Khumalo was inspired to write this short film in 2018, after she met sex workers who were waiting for clients—truck drivers mostly—in the scorching heat. The road wasn’t busy, and in their downtime the women would “collect reeds to make grass mats and firewood to sell,” says Khumalo.
“A thin piece of fabric tore, and the fallen sticks presented me with an opportunity to engage a woman that my culture and religion would prefer I’d treat as invisible. A shy, timid smile revealed bright pink gums and a few stained teeth as she spoke softly—praying, speaking a blessing over my work and my health. She told me […] about how one day, God would look favourably upon her because she tithed and kept her faith. ‘God loves us all’ were her parting words and that just made me livid.”
This story grounds the film in a reality many would prefer to ignore and adds dimension to ways in which Five Tiger makes visible religion, patriarchy, and African women living in the shadow of the city.