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David and a musical Goliath

  • NiaDavidDison2
“Music set them free.” That’s the tagline for composer and actor Mbongeni Ngema’s new film, Asinamali, in which prisoners, through the power of song and dance, find redemption. Executive producer David Dison, a friend of Ngema’s and his legal adviser, believes in the strength of this philosophy as much as he does in the movie.
by NIA MAGOULIANITI-MCGREGOR | Jun 14, 2018

“The message of Asinamali, which was inspired by events surrounding a rent boycott in Lamontville township in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, in the early 1980s, is universal,” says Dison. “And yes, I believe music can set you free because it’s in theatre and music – in all the performing arts – that a transformation takes place in us. I think it’s incredible therapy for prisoners and other people who are oppressed.”

Asinamali was formerly a theatre production, which played to audiences in South Africa and abroad in the late ’80s. Ngema recently decided to turn it into a movie, and the script became a play within the play. He approached Dison to raise the money. “Come on, let’s make a movie,” he said.

It’s been more than 20 years since Dison met Ngema, and the two formed a lifelong bond.

Dison is from Oaklands in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg; Ngema, from Verulam in KwaZulu-Natal. Dison received a law degree, specialising in entertainment law and civil rights issues – “Freedom of expression was my game,” he says. Ngema moved to Johannesburg and was mentored by playwrights Gibson Kente and Barney Simon of the Market Theatre.

They met when Dison became Ngema’s legal adviser, after Ngema first staged his resistance musical, Sarafina! – set during the 1976 student riots in Soweto – in March 1987. It became a hit with audiences countrywide.

“We came from different backgrounds and we lived our own lives, but we have got on incredibly well from day one,” says Dison of his friendship with Ngema. “We both have an appetite for risk and reward, and we both believe that the power of music and song can help South Africa.

“When Sarafina! became a smash hit, we took it to the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York.”

Dison and Ngema stayed at the Mayflower Hotel for many months. It was situated near the theatre, which was on Broadway. “It was possibly the biggest formative experience of both Mbongeni’s and my life,” recalls Dison.

“We were just small-town boys from Johannesburg, but the Jewish entertainment executives in the city – including Bernard Gersten, the then executive producer of Lincoln Center Theatre, and well-known director and producer Gregory Mosher – took us under their wing.

“We met producers, scriptwriters and entertainment lawyers. They helped us fine-tune this into a top-class Broadway production. At the same time, Hugh Masekela, by then a New York aficionado, showed us the town.

Sarafina! put Mbongeni on the map,” says Dison. “It was on Broadway for three years, and a huge number of black Americans were conscientised by the production.”

In the late ’80s, Dison told Ngema about the Cosatu House Murder Trial, which saw Dison defending eight accused (Dison acted as an attorney full time before he switched to producing). “By that stage, we were mates,” says Dison, adding that Ngema was all ears.

“The SA Railways and Harbours Workers’ Union strike of 1987 was the last big strike in Johannesburg prior to the change in government. The union was very militant and the government tried to break the strike by bringing in non-striking workers to do those jobs.

“These scabs were brought in and four of them were murdered. Eight men were brought before a people’s court in the basement of Cosatu House and were convicted and sentenced for the murders of these scabs, some of them to death. We represented the eight accused of acting out the killing.

“The eight had been sentenced to death on 70 counts and Mbongeni, now fascinated by the human drama, started attending the trial and chronicling the whole saga.”

Eventually, Ngema wanted to meet with those convicted on death row. “I got him in as an ‘interpreter’. He even dressed for the part with the help of the wardrobe mistress at the Market Theatre. He arrived wearing a stringy bowtie and glasses. He was already famous by then, so the inmates recognised him immediately.

“They opened up to him and he kept in touch with them. They were part of the whole amnesty in the early 1990s. Mbongeni’s play, Township Fever, was based on this. He’s always had an empathy for prison inmates.”

Dison is sure there’s a movie in there, too. “Most of his plays will work as movies. I’m particularly excited about the one on the late, great Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, who played for Kaizer Chiefs and during the local off-season, played in Canada and the US.

“Mbongeni is now very much in independent filmmaker mode,” adds Dison. “And I think Asinamali – meaning ‘we have no money’ – is one of the finest films made in South Africa.”

But raising money and putting financial structures together is complicated.

“Although raising money and doing deals with TV networks is what I do, it’s not always easy – mainly because South Africa has such a fragmented audience. Only about six million people buy movie tickets, and then, only about five times a year. That makes about 20 million tickets sold in this country a year.

“That’s very low, considering the population. In Australia, for example, they sell 90 million tickets a year with half the population. Nevertheless, I have developed a passion for the independent film business here, which overrides the current obstacles.”

The audiences of this film will be accessed primarily by TV, says Dison, as the rights have been sold to M-Net. “They’ll flight the movie after a 2018 release. They’re expecting a big audience. Mbongeni’s also got a name in the US, so we’re negotiating with US distribution companies as well. I’m also putting together the music deal at the moment.

“We’re hoping to do four music videos and we’ll start releasing this thing via the videos. Mbongeni is an excellent musician, a genius. He’s put together huge ensemble casts in the past. He’s cut 12 tracks, so this is going to be a combined film and musical.”

The film was well-received last week at the New York African Film Festival in Brooklyn. It will also be screened here, during the Nelson Mandela Children’s Film Festival on Youth Day, 16 June, at Killarney Mall.

Ngema’s works resonate with Dison, who has been involved with civil rights since his days as a student. “I was an activist at varsity and part of the SA Volunteer Services, going out to rural areas and helping to build clinics and schools.

“I come from a politically aware home. My father, a civil engineer, was immensely critical of the Nationalist government and I was schooled in looking after the impoverished.”

He was on the board of the then Weekly Mail liberal newspaper (now the Mail & Guardian) and defended a few anti-censorship cases. He defended those accused in the Delmas Treason Trial, which lasted from 1985 to 1988 and sought to convict 22 anti-apartheid activists. In 1992, Dison was nominated by the ANC to be a representative at the Convention for a Democratic SA and later co-wrote what would become the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act.

“We don’t see Asinamali as an apartheid film, we see it as a prison musical that’s easily relatable,” concludes Dison. “This is heritage stuff.”

Asinamali synopsis

Comrade Washington (Mbongeni Ngema), a black struggle activist, returns to South Africa. His mission: to work with convicts to create a musical play. They face the cruel wrath of the prison authorities as the play comes together, culminating in a performance for a stunned audience, comprising their oppressors. The inmates tell their stories, claim their history and dance back their identity.

The film features an all-South African cast performing a 60% Zulu-language script.

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