By and large, The Tribe is about rampant alcoholism, marijuana abuse and betrayal. It’s also a film that is bare (there is no background music) and simple. Sometimes this bareness works, other times not so much.
The Tribe is set in a Johannesburg suburb and sees Vundla, who doubles up as the writer, director and producer, star alongside Terry Pheto and Louis Roux. Pheto and Vundla previously worked together on 2011’s How to Steal 2 Million, a box office success which was written and directed by Vundla and starred Pheto.
In The Tribe, Vundla’s character, Smanga, is a troubled university professor who’s still smarting from his wife Laura (Pheto) leaving him for another man due to his infertility. This sense of loss leads him down a perilous path of self-destruction.
After being suspended from work, Smanga spends his time drinking, watching porn and smoking marijuana. He even has a garden full of flourishing marijuana plants.
When he meets Jon (played by Louis Roux), an old high school friend who is now a vagrant “life coach” living out of his car, he gains a bit of hope as the two form a strong friendship. For Smanga, this offers him companionship and some much needed distraction from his toxic lifestyle. And for Jon, he has a place to stay and, essentially, free marijuana at his disposal. It’s a win-win situation.
Soon afterwards, Smanga gets another break when his estranged wife comes back home – and this where the fun begins. Somewhat surprisingly, she takes to Jon, and the three form a strong bond.
At Jon’s advice, they eventually decide to commercialise Smanga’s marijuana garden, selling bags of weed around the neighbourhood.
The sex scenes in The Tribe are raw and explicit, perhaps more explicit than any mainstream South African film to date.
Pheto’s emotionally fragile character has a dark side, which we’re exposed to early on, and which lingers until the end. She plays her role well, her versatility on full view in what must have been a challenging setting to shoot a film. Vundla’s commitment in playing the role of an underweight professorial figure must be commended, too.
But commitment and versatility alone does not a good movie make and, in this instance, the plot and its predictable climax lets them down. As the film drags on, you are waiting for a mind-blowing revelation that throws the cat among the pigeons – but it never comes.
Nevertheless, The Tribe has screened at several festivals around the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Pan African Film Festival Los Angeles, the Atlanta Film Festival, the New York African Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival.
It’s an admirably bold vision for Vundla, but I suspect it will leave a lot of local audiences a little bewildered and underwhelmed. That said, it’s a boldness that may ultimately lead to a warming up to new ideas and create an industry in which our most successful films aren’t just weird rom-coms, but daring and adventurous films across a range of genres.