• Fighting spirit

    Keith Bain discovers why Vuyo Dabula’s latest role as a tough cowboy may just change the course of South African film
    Fighting spirit

    lot can change in seven years. That’s the length of time it took to turn Five Fingers for Marseilles from a powerful script into a film that has already wowed festival audiences around the world and is about to ignite cinemas across South Africa when it finally gets its local release on 6 April. Told almost entirely in Sesotho, the film represents a paradigm shift; steeped in rich visual language and smouldering characters, it’s a slow-burn Western about redemption, shot against a lavish backdrop of looming Maloti mountains. It features gunfights, Basotho cowboys (and girls) on horseback, and a power-house performance by Vuyo Dabula.

    In the film, Dabula plays Tau, a reformed former outlaw mellowed by years in prison. Having renounced violence, he returns to the frontier-like town of Marseilles where he grew up, only to discover a rash of new evils requiring his attention. The resulting story may be the most intoxicating two hours you’ll spend in front of a screen this year.

    In character

    For Dabula and the rest of the cast and crew, it was a gruelling shoot on location in and around the Eastern Cape town of Lady Grey, where they endured the rigours of an extremely cold, wet winter and lived for five weeks with few luxuries. Dabula believes, though, that such harsh realities not only gave the film a grittiness, but also helped to hone his performance. ‘Sometimes, it’s better if conditions are not so comfortable that you get distracted by them.’

    It helped, too, that the script resonated so strongly with him. ‘It’s an incredible screenplay – a magical story with powerful characters. For years, I kept thinking, “Why is this taking so long? Why is no one seeing the greatness of this story?” I knew I had something incredible and couldn’t believe people weren’t jumping to fund it.’ Once they did, Dabula was ready. ‘Generally, when the camera starts rolling, I just get into it. That comes from reading and rereading the script. And asking the right questions.’

    And, of course, there was the effortless contribution of his dynamic physicality. Besides his chiselled face and strong jaw, there’s the matter of his much-discussed washboard abs and the fighter’s physique that bestows an unmistakable screen presence – strong, commanding, and even menacing when called upon to play tough, which is precisely what Five Fingers demanded.

    ‘Tau is a tough dude – a fighter. One thing I did was have conversations with boxers. I asked them about their process and their toughest fights, and I did a bit of sparring. I let myself into the fighter world, because Tau is one of those guys who is weirdly able to command respect – there’s an instinct for fearless leadership. So I got myself into that headspace and went for it.’

    TV’s hot bad guy

    Dabula says that in reality this tough-guy persona is far from the essence of who he is. ‘There’s a certain humanity about me. An approachableness. If you meet me for the first time, you’ll recognise a certain innocence.’ Which is ironic, because much of his popularity hinges on his portrayal of a TV baddie. Between landing the role of Tau and actually shooting the movie, he emerged as a household name, principally thanks to his role as Gadaffi in Generations: The Legacy. He first cut his TV teeth playing Tsetse in the third season of Yizo Yizo, back in 2004. He played a boxer, and prepared for the role by squaring off against a champion fighter in the ring.

    ‘I got into a sparring match with a top-five fighter. I was inexperienced, and he was a menacing-looking guy. He hit me in the head and something weird happened – instead of backing away, I went after him.’

    There were subsequent roles in Wild at Heart, Bophelo and Zone 14, and in 2011 he had a stint in Isidingo. But Generations has caused his popularity to skyrocket. Each time rumours circulate that he’s leaving the show, social media and gossip columns flare up in outrage. His charisma and good looks have earned him a place in popular consciousness and a top spot on several lists of Mzansi’s sexiest men. It is another irony, since he has limited interest in being a TV celebrity. He says his dreams were always of being on the big screen. TV is the work that pays the bills, he says, but it’s cinema that has always been his calling.

    ‘I have never been confused about what I wanted to do in life. The very first time I saw Bruce Lee on screen, it hit me – I knew what I wanted to do and I knew that film was what was waiting for me. My father used to take us to the bioscope and I’d mimic what I was seeing on screen, imitating the performances. I always had clarity about wanting to be a film actor.’

    Boyhood to star quality

    Despite his dreams and instincts telling him that his future would involve a successful career in the film industry, Dabula’s childhood did little to suggest that’s where he would end up. He was never an attention-seeker; nor was he an entertainer.

    ‘At school, I was very quiet. I was introspective, the opposite of an entertainer. I was broody, quick to be bothered by the slightest things, and I was very emotional. I kept to myself, and at home, I’d stay in my room and be by myself in my head, often reading. Only recently have I learnt to be part of the crowd.’

    Growing up, Dabula’s prowess was on the sports field. ‘I was very athletic. That’s where I got my recognition. I was an average student, but I got involved in many sports – athletics, soccer, basketball, softball – and I managed to dominate in everything I tried.’

    His determination to get in front of the camera did, however, lead to a short stint at film school, which, in turn, gave him his first significant role, starring in Norman Maake’s student feature film, Soldiers of the Rock. ‘That was my initiation. It was five gruelling weeks of filming and I was on set almost every day. The hours were ridiculous.’

    It may have been a student project made on a small budget, but Soldiers garnered acclaim at film festivals, and earned Dabula critical feedback that bolstered his confidence. ‘It’s still one
    of my favourite projects,’ he says.

    The natural talent and dedication Dabula demonstrated in early projects such as Soldiers went a long way towards getting him noticed by the right people. When the search for Tau began, it was the country’s most respected casting agent Moonyeenn Lee who proposed Dabula for the role. She’d recognised that here was someone who had both the physical presence and the emotional depth to pull off a role that was quite unlike anything previously seen in a South African movie.

    ‘We responded to Vuyo quite early on, about four or five years before we made the movie,’ says director Michael Matthews. ‘He had a screen presence and an energy – he could simply stand there and be very watchable, and he had a weight and a charisma even when not doing very much. He had real star quality.’

    One note the filmmakers had at the time was that Dabula was possibly a little young for the role. It was perhaps some weird providence that by the time shooting commenced in 2016, he had just turned 40 and was physically even better suited to the role of Tau.

    Fatherhood’s learning curve

    Of all the forces that have impacted the course of Dabula’s life in the years since he was first chosen to play Tau, though, he says that it’s his three-year-old son Kitso who has been the most significant.

    ‘The incredible thing is how children look up to us. From the shoes I put on to what I wear to the gym, he wants to imitate me. He wants to dress like me, he wants to act like me. So it’s the little things that are important. Like those words we use in bad traffic – as a father, I have to keep those in check. He picks up on everything. So it’s my duty to show him how to be a gentleman
    – consistently. That means keeping anger and aggression in check, and negotiating and discussing matters rather than shouting. My son is a blessing because I have learnt to calm down and talk things through, teaching him that life is about figuring things out.’

    Building the future

    Soldiers happened more than 15 years ago and, in the intervening time, Dabula’s gleaned considerable experience on local and international film sets. He played a role in Invictus and even had a tiny part in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet he’s been quite outspoken about not wishing to be distracted by stardom, and he is not interested in the peripheral temptations of the industry. Fame, fortune and the attention of fans isn’t what drives him at all. His interest, he says, is in the craft, in being part of the process of telling great stories.

    ‘At times, that whole Hollywood idea of being the star can go to your head. Five Fingers has greatly resurrected my confidence in film-making in South Africa. As an actor, I want to do different things, I don’t want to do the same thing all the time. That’s tedious. But this film is outside the usual box of slapstick comedies, romcoms and dramas. It dares to transport you to another world – so it’s on another level, like Mad Max. It’s great to be a part of something new. To help build the film industry.’

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