We Are Thankful (Siyabonga)

The interesting thing about Joshua Magor’s Slamdance entry We Are Thankful (also known as Siyabonga) is that while touted as a documentary, it both is and isn’t. It’s both experimental and impressionistic in its formatting. At the beginning of the film, we meet Siyabonga AKA Sights and his friends rehearsing for a musical performance. The conversation flows pretty naturally but at the same time, everything is far too perfect for it to have been taped live in the moment.

Essentially, We Are Thankful is a re-enactment of the events that led up to the film being made. Sights is an actor in the Twist Theatre Development in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The entirety of the film is Sights’ attempt to get an audition with Josh Magor, who is coming from the UK to direct a film. This plot may seem incredibly simple, but the complexities sneak up on you as Sights’ journey unfolds.

Sights and his friends live in a poorer area. Most people don’t have much, but everyone is hopeful. The sense of community is incredibly strong. Sights walks around to a lot of his friends’ houses to ask for money for cab fare. He needs to reach the audition with the director. Most people don’t have it. His friends ask if he is going to be “the next Leonardo Dicaprio” and if he’s going to the Oscars. Finally, a friend’s mother gives him the spare change that she has, which is still not enough to get a taxi.

“…the film is Sights’ attempt to get an audition with Josh Magor, who is coming from the UK to direct a film.”

Once Sights finds the taxi, he asks if he can open the door for customers to pay for the rest of the fare he doesn’t have. The driver says he can collect money from other customers and he’ll be able to go where he needs to go. Something about this scene struck me. This would typically NEVER happen in the US, especially not in the city. The fact that people are so much more involved in their communities in places like Pietermaritzburg is comforting. It’s also disconcerting that the concept of neighborliness is so awkward and foregone in a large sense here.

There are two other scenes of note that are interesting to me as an American who has only been to Europe once. I have no real concept of the typical South African experience. There’s a scene where Sights walks up to a nice looking home, there’s another man outside on his cell phone talking, propped up against the gate.

Sights’ asks “Are the white people home?”

The guy says no but the maid is and to say “you’re selling King James Bibles.”

The maid says “okay, okay” and walks outside. She is selling wifi access to the house where she works as a side hustle. Sights buys some wifi time and emails the director.

“…a very interesting look at our universal culture and the lines between fantasy and reality.”

Another interesting anecdote is the fact that one of Sights friends has an old Furby chained to his bicycle and says he has it on there “for protection.” It’s very cool to me that a late 90 ’s children’s toy ends up being some kind of spiritual totem on another continent.

The culmination of the film reveals to us that this happy go lucky guy, Sights, suffered extremely terrible ordeals throughout his childhood. The fact he still has hope and ambition is extremely uplifting. We also know that Siyabonga did get to fulfill his childhood ambitions of being an actor by telling the story of his own life. Not very many people get this honor, but you’ll discover by watching We Are Thankful, that Siyabonga, or Sights, definitely deserves it.

Joshua Magor delivers a very interesting look at our universal culture and the lines between fantasy and reality. It’s beautifully shot and even though a lot of the “documentary” is staged, it doesn’t seem any less real and immediate than one that is less so.  I hope it gets a wide audience beyond Sundance, because it’s a very uplifting story, told from an original, refreshing perspective.

We Are Thankful (2018) Written and Directed by Joshua Magor. Starring Siyabonga Majola, Sabelo Khoza, Xolani “X” Malinga, Amanda Neube, Percy Mucedicy Zulu, Ntokozo Mkhize, Sibusiso “Sbu” Nzama, Thembalihle Mucadi. We Are Thankful screened at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

7 out of 10 stars

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