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South African soapie fans will be able to see one of their favourite stars, veteran actress Florence Masebe, on the big screen when Venda film ‘Elelwani’ opens on 31 January. Masebe attained household celebrity status by appearing on shows like ‘Egoli’, ‘Suburban Bliss’, ‘Soul City’, ‘Muvhango’, ‘Generations’, ‘7de Laan’, ‘Justice for All 3’, ‘Morwalala’, ‘Inkaba’ and’s flagship soap, ‘Scandal’, in which she plays the role of Precious Thito.

‘Elelwani’ is the latest of her big-screen roles, which have included ‘Born Free 2’, ‘Chikin Biz Niz’, ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ and ‘Black Butterfly’. Her portrayal of the title role in ‘Elelwani’ won her the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), held in Nigeria last year. “The film received 11 nominations in total, and I was surprised and delighted that I brought back the biggest one,” says Masebe.

Born in Limpopo, Masebe studied drama at the University of Cape Town and started acting professionally in 1993, appearing in children’s programmes and taking on cameo roles. Her launch to local stardom began with the youth programme ‘Electric Workshop’. From then on, her career took off. As one of the members of the original cast of ‘Generations’, she followed up her success on the show by landing one role after another, including co-hosting ‘Fokus’ with Freek Robinson, and continuity presenting for SABC2.

‘Elelwani’ is the first Venda-language feature film to be made in South Africa. Director Ntshavheni wa Luruli first approached Masebe about the film when they were both working on the popular SABC2 soapie ‘Muvhango’. “We are both from Venda, and the story is close to our hearts,” she says. “It has been incredibly rewarding to see our dream turned into the reality that is the film. It’s a respectful interpretation of Venda traditions and I urge all South Africans to watch it.”

The film is based on the novel by Titus Ntsiene Maumela, which was one of the first Venda novels to be published in South Africa. “Many Venda people already know the story because the book was widely read, so we are excited that South Africans will now have a chance to see the story come to life in the cinemas,” adds Masebe.

It tells the story of Elelwani, a young woman who leaves her rural village for the big city, where she completes her studies. She’s offered a dream job in Chicago and becomes engaged to Vele, the love of her life. The two set out on a drive to her village, intending to tell her parents of their plans to marry and spend their future together. After their arrival, Elelwani is blindsided when her parents reveal that she has been promised to the tribal king. Torn between a glowing future and familial duty, she initially rebels, but finally consents.

What follows is a cinematic initiation into the culture of the Venda in a film that is a thriller influenced by the tradition of oral storytelling. Shot against the magnificent green backdrop of the Thohoyandou area of Limpopo, incredibly beautiful images and a disturbing plot combine to create a film shot through with magical realism. Ntshavheni Wa Luruli, himself a Venda, deals maturely with a sensitive topic and the tale comes to a complex and grounded resolution.

“‘Elelwani’ is a unique film and an important milestone in South African cinema history,” says Helen Kuun, CEO of Indigenous Film Distribution, which is distributing the film locally. “Not only does it provide a window into Venda culture, but it’s also a well told tale that is beautifully shot, with solid performances from the lead characters.”

“Elelwani” was made possible by a generous grant by the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund and additional funding by the Department of Trade and Industry (the dti), The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) and the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC).

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