Five Tiger is a South African drama written and directed by Nomawonga Khumalo. A short film clocking in at just over 10 minutes, it comes across as an excerpt from a broader work. This observation is even more accurate when you consider that Khumalo used her short as a stylistic proof of concept for her upcoming feature film, The Bursary.
Khumalo was inspired by a conversation with a prostitute, who revealed that her daughter had spent all of her day’s earnings on buying sweets. While involved in the sex trade, she went on to say “God loves us all” and that God would look favourably upon her because she tithed and kept the faith.
This woman’s words had a profound impact on Nomawonga, who channeled her seething anger into the spark that led her to write and direct Five Tiger. Committed to social change, Khumalo is using her creativity and passion to tell stories with the power to provoke thought and inspire audiences.
Her debut short film journeys with Fiona, a God-fearing woman and plantation worker who becomes involved in a transactional relationship with a church leader. Tirelessly threshing sugar cane, Fiona’s forced to do back-breaking work to afford her daughter’s education and support her ailing husband. Living out her days as a conduit to her family’s welfare, the burdens weigh heavily on her as she navigates the challenge of scraping together what little money she can muster.
“Five Tiger” is slang for a R50 note, which becomes the central story device in Khumalo’s film. Reminiscent of Lord of War’s story of the bullet montage, it’s handled with more subtlety as it weaves in and out of frame to draw together a beginning, middle and end.
While Five Tiger has more storytelling scope than your typical short film, it’s been cleverly focussed to touch on big issues in a poetic way. The cinematography underwrites this vibration, photographing scenes that echo the work of contemporary great, Steve McQueen. Treating her characters with an enigmatic quality, she keeps us at a distance, offering intimate details without breeding a sense of familiarity. Five Tiger has a docudrama realism that grounds this story in its universal themes, only really anchored by its currency.
It stars Ayanda Seoka as the tireless Fiona, who immerses herself in the lead performance. While we only get glimpses, made all the more fleeting by the short running time, you can sense the star’s non-judgemental and soulful empathy for the character.
Trying to give her daughter the life she never had, Fiona’s quest for love is one of self-sacrifice. Being completely other-centric, there’s a painfully tragic and human element to Five Tiger as a woman tries to honour her many roles.
The performances have emotional resonance, dealing with characters who are personal enough to reel us in yet aloof enough to keep the drama’s social issues front and centre. The hypocrisy and duality of Fiona’s actions speak to the societal structures that continue to oppress the disenfranchised. Asked to trust her church leaders and continue harvesting with no end in sight, this slippery slope is where she finds herself – compelled by her beliefs, committed to her family’s well-being yet corrupted by the curse of never having or being given enough.
Five Tiger is a beautifully composed short film that hints at overarching social issues, touching on universal themes in a poetic and visually compelling fashion.
The ethereal storytelling comes across as an excerpt from a feature film, which doesn’t offer a full bouquet but does capture the essence of Fiona’s story with a haunting afterthought. Driven home by emotive performances, Five Tiger sets the platform for a promising feature film debut for Nomawonga Khumalo.