Johannesburg – South African pop culture is no stranger to world domination. Modern-day saint Nelson Mandela is a household name, Trevor Noah’s mixed-race life is about to become a Hollywood movie produced by Lupita Nyong’o. Die Antwoord spread the gospel of zef as they plundered the culture of the Cape Flats. And Shaka Zulu, the 1980s TV series, rotated so ubiquitously around the world that a gang of neo-Nazis in Germany were reported to have named themselves The Shaka Zulus.
Now it’s the turn of the tokoloshe, the diminutive, hairy, mythological spirit evoked for the purposes of evil and most commonly associated with sexual plunder. (Just ask the tabloid Daily Sun, which has mastered the art of the horny, twerking tokoloshe in today’s mainstream media.)
But a new South African horror movie The Tokoloshe is no joke. It’s a terrifying psychological thriller that draws on serious cultural research to tell the story of Busi (Petronella Tshuma, Of Good Report), a destitute young hospital cleaner who must confront her demons – manifest as a tokoloshe – to try to save a child. And it’s set to become a global horror circuit hit, already picking up prestigious screenings and significant distribution deals.
The Tokoloshe is the debut feature film from accomplished director of commercials Jerome Pikwane, who has spent 10 years writing the script with novelist Richard Kunzmann.
It’s been selected for its world premiere at BiFan (The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival) in South Korea, a country known for its quality films and fanatical horror fans, in three weeks’ time, and from there on to the Fantasia International Film Festival in Canada. It will head home where it has been selected to open the Durban International Film Festival (Diff) on 19 July and then it’s on to the prestigious London FrightFest Film Festival in August.
Producers Dumi Gumbi and Cati Weinek cannot announce all its invitations, but there are plenty – as well as solid distribution deals, particularly in Europe.
“We ended up hiring a festival strategist who targeted the international horror circuit to find a big enough audience,” Weinek told City Press this week. “It’s already picking up very nice sales in Asia.”
She emphasised how masterfully made the film is, with elaborate computer-generated imagery and a relentless score to up the terror.
“The tokoloshe means different things to different people and different cultures,” said Pikwane. “So we had to create our own mythology for it from our research.”
What may give some viewers as big a fright as the tokoloshe is that he regards his creature feature as a feminist project.
“The film explores patriarchy,” said Pikwane, who was born in Kimberley, raised in Joburg and studied film in New York. In his film, Busi must deal with her own childhood abuse to conquer the creature. “Horror films can be a catalyst to deal with ills in our society. Jaws took on Nixon, Get Out took on race relations in America, and The Tokoloshe represents the systemic abuse and oppression of women by masculinity. The black woman, in particular, is the most marginalised sector of our society,” said Pikwane.
Not everyone is delighted that The Tokoloshe is the opening film in Durban, especially after last year’s opening film was also a horror – Serpent – and a bit of a flop, soliciting the least applause witnessed at the country’s oldest film festival.
But DIFF manager Chipo Zhou defended her choice: “Having grown up in a traditional African household, with visits to the rural homestead, the story of the tokoloshe, our very own bogeyman if you will, is all too familiar. The film is not quite what I expected from its title and I dare audiences to see beneath the surface. It is a horror film, crafted so intricately, unveiling the menace that is our everyday burden as womxn in this country. It depicts the story of survivor, not victim. How is it to be sane, after such ordeals, which is sadly an all-too-normal South African experience.”
A few years ago another tokoloshe film Blood Tokoloshe played at DIFF, scoring a homerun with township audiences and stunning horror afficionados who had not seen blood being drunk from a calabash before. Only South Africa, land of zef and hunky Shakas, could unleash blood-drinking feminist tokoloshes to terrify the planet.