The first Venda-language feature in film history is a stilted fusion of folk tale and soap-opera sensibilities.

South Africa may have 11 official languages to reflect its rich patchwork of tribes and cultures, but the country’s modest film industry hasn’t taken many of them into account. That’s reason enough to welcome “Elelwani,” the first Venda-language feature in film history, onto the festival circuit, though Ntshaveni Wa Luruli’s stilted fusion of folktale and soap-opera sensibilities looks unlikely to spread the word very far. A dedicated lead turn by local TV star Florence Masebe, as an urban career woman blindsided when her parents sell her into marriage, could attract a sympathetic black audience when the pic releases domestically in October.

Having long ago left her rural tribe for the big city, Elelwani (Masebe) is blissfully engaged to urbanite Vele (Vusi Kunene), and has been offered a dream job in Chicago. When she learns her hand has already been promised to the tribal king back home, however, she’s torn between a glowing future and familial duty. Inflected with magical realism, the naive script clearly leans on the Venda culture’s oral storytelling tradition, but may play a little purple to Western ears. Lance Gewer’s bright widescreen lensing retains a televisual quality.

Elelwani

South Africa

Production

A Blackboard Trust presentation of a Shadowy Meadows production. (International sales: EastWest Film Distribution, Vienna.) Produced by Florian Schattauer. Executive producers, Ketso Gordhan, Florence Masebe. Co-producer, Jyoti Mistry. Directed, written by Ntshaveni Wa Luruli, based on the novel by Titus Ntsiene Maumela.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Lance Gewer; editor, Aryan Kaganof; music, Chris Letcher; production designer, Robert van de Coolwijk; costume designer, Natalie Lundon; sound, Wilbert Schubel; re-recording mixers, Greg Albert, Andre Feldman; visual effects supervisor, Petra Damross; line producer, Edwin Angess; associate producer, Ntshaveni Wa Luruli; assistant director, Andrew Mahlangu. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 9, 2013. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Florence Masebe, Ashifashabba Muleya, Samy Moeti, Vusi Kunene, Samson Ramabulana. (Venda dialogue)

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