It causes mysterious illnesses, haunts children’s nightmares, and provides regular fodder for South African tabloid scribes. (Typical headline: “Tokoloshe Made Me A Sex Slave.”) Now the diminutive, mischievous, sinister spirit known as the tokoloshe is making the leap from Zulu myth to the big screen in director Jerome Pikwane’s feature debut, which opens the Durban Int’l. Film Festival July 19.
“The Tokoloshe” is a psychological thriller about a destitute hospital cleaner, Busi (Petronella Tshuma), who’s forced to confront the demons of her past to try to save a child’s life. Setting it against the harrowing backdrop of child abuse and sexual violence in South Africa, Pikwane – who co-wrote the script with novelist Richard Kunzmann – offers a film that, as with so many of the best horror flicks, is equal parts scarer and social commentary.
“Originally, we were going to do a straight out horror film—you know, blood and guts,” said Pikwane. “But [we] realized there was more that could be said…and knew we had to tell a richer story.”
The collaboration with Kunzmann was born from a shared interest in the tokoloshe, and how the mythology around the creature spoke to some of the contemporary pathologies of South African life.
Pikwane said he also drew inspiration from the psychological horror movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Don’t Look Now,” and “Repulsion”—the Catherine Deneuve starrer that, according to Pikwane, examines “how we as society create monsters, and how we as men can be the ultimate monsters towards the most vulnerable in society, woman and children.”
With an accomplished and award-winning career directing TV commercials already under his belt, the New York Film Academy alum didn’t exactly dive into his first feature: the script for “Tokoloshe” was nearly a decade in the making. Through the long gestation process, though, the script evolved alongside Pikwane himself; now a father, the helmer reflected on how his daughter “changed me profoundly as an artist” and inspired a film that, with a fierce heroine at its core, inadvertently fits into the broader currents of today’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“I never intended for this to be a feminist statement,” said Pikwane. Raising a daughter, though, “you realize that it’s a lot tougher for her than it is for my son to break ground.”
“Tokoloshe” arrives in Durban just days after its world premiere at the Bucheon Int’l. Fantastic Film Festival, in South Korea, with additional stops already confirmed at Canada’s Fantasia Int’l. Film Festival and the London FrightFest Film Festival. While finding its niche on the international festival circuit, it also looks to ride the wave of recent horror hits like “A Quiet Place,” “Hereditary,” and “Get Out,” which have scared up eye-popping numbers at the global box office.
“Tokoloshe” might have to work hard to put a similar spell on local audiences. Recent stabs at South African horrors have saved their biggest scares for local distributors: 2013’s “Blood Tokoloshe” was widely panned; last year’s sole entry in the genre, “From a House on Willow Street,” grossed just over $2,000, according to Box Office Mojo, worse than all but three films released in South Africa in 2017.
Still, in a year when even acclaimed, Oscar-nominated director Darrell Roodt (“Yesterday,” “Sarafina!”) is premiering his own scarer, “Siembamba,” in Durban, Pikwane is optimistic that he can offer his own local spin on the genre.
“I’m extremely excited about the current crop of horror that’s coming out across the world,” he said. “But this still a South African film, and hopefully local audiences will see their environment in a new way, and international audiences will see something beautiful and exotic.”