DURBAN–Dudu Nyakama is an aging boxer whose best fighting days are behind him. But for a man whose only glory has come in the ring, a big prize fight offers the one shot at saving his family, dragging him into the criminal underbelly of the gritty township he’s spent his whole life trying to escape.
In “Knuckle City,” by South African director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, there are only three ways out of a place known as South Africa’s boxing Mecca: through the ring, in a pine box, or in the back of a squad car. For his fourth feature, Qubeka returns to his childhood home of Mdantsane to explore how poverty and toxic masculinity perpetuate the cycle of violence that ensnares so many of its inhabitants. Inspired by classics like “Raging Bull” and “Mean Streets,” “Knuckle City” opens the 40th edition of the Durban Intl. Film Festival on Thursday night.
Qubeka is no stranger to DIFF audiences: Six years ago, his film “Of Good Report” was pulled by government censors on the day of its Durban premiere. His last film, “Sew the Winter to My Skin,” world premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and was South Africa’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race. Qubeka spoke to Variety ahead of the premiere of “Knuckle City” to discuss toxic masculinity in South Africa, the tough battles boxers face outside the ring, and the “dream deferred” of South African democracy since the end of apartheid.
Your fourth feature is also the first that takes audiences inside Mdantsane, the township where you grew up. Why did you decide that now was the right time to explore the place that raised you?
I’ve always been slightly reticent to make this film. It felt like the go-to, easy thing to engage for me. Genre-wise, funny enough, it’s a mix of genres I’ve been avoiding for a while. When I started out as a filmmaker, everybody was trying to remake “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” There was always these clear references. Also, coming from that town, Mdantsane, as far as popular culture growing up, I was always like, “Well, I’ve got my own gangsters. I’ve got my own ‘Mean Streets.’ I’ve got references for all these archetypal things, just based on the environment of where I’m from.”
I felt we were walking a bit of a narrative tightrope with it. I wanted it to be accessible. I wanted to make a film that is fundamentally considerate to its audience. [Laughs.] And on another level, of course, the other thing that I felt is a bit of a tightrope with it is the subject matter of masculinity, or frustrated or toxic masculinity. In the current era, where we are at the moment, I don’t know if it’s even in the space of the discourse that people are willing to engage. Unfortunately, if you’re going to go into that subject matter, you’ve got to show it for what it is.
How did the boxing world of Mdantsane become a way into that discourse?
When I looked at boxers, doing a lot of research about the fighters, it always seemed like the fight at home was always bigger than the actual real fight—the opponent that they were fighting. The day to day seems to always defeat these guys. Obviously, it was taking a very entertaining perspective on the situation, but from a documentarian perspective, there’s a lot to be said about a place like that. Mdantsane post-1994 has produced about 17 world champions in one division or another. Which is insane. Absolutely insane. And it’s literally this reality of going broke—literally giving your all to try and get out of the streets. But a lot of these guys don’t have the skills to deal with life.
Whilst we were shooting the film, a few neighborhoods away from where we were, a few nights prior, an ex-boxer by the name of “Leli” Mbilase was killed by the community. And the reason why they killed him is he’d been going around, stealing and raping for the past 10 years. This is an ex-world champion. And he had gone from that status of being an ex-world champion to being a petty thief and rapist. The majority of the people that beat him up were women who were just fed up with this guy, and his reign of terror. And you ask yourself, “What the hell happened? What takes you from such heights to such lows?”
All of [the local boxers] have this story of extreme poverty, coming from very difficult situations, getting a very small gap, but that gap only giving you so much. Even during apartheid, we were celebrating champions like Welcome Ncita. Welcome Ncita was from the same neighborhood that I grew up in. These people became heroes at a time when they broke those apartheid boundaries. The guy was a millionaire in ‘88. But by 1994, he was a pauper. It’s very dramatic, these people’s lives. And I asked myself, “What is the source? What is the cause?” And we found the topic around masculinity, and its being frustrated and not having a fundamental outlet, as a key source of this toxicity.
South Africa has been very engaged with the Me Too movement, and has launched its own campaigns around sexual harassment and violence, as well as gender inequality. Without taking away from the push for more female-led stories, do you think the country needs to do more to understand how and why this model of masculinity keeps being perpetuated?
For me, it’s always felt [like it had] to be part of the conversation, in regards to the position women have been put in by men. You’ve also got to look at the perpetrator. I’m not saying, “Oh, let’s feel sorry for the perpetrator.” But I think unpacking it is part of engaging the situation. Specifically using boxing as a metaphor, it’s a hell of a grueling regime to be a fighter—the training, the discipline that is required is insane. But what you’ll find is that it’s easier to engage that level of discipline than it is to be a father or a husband. That’s the tough s**t. That’s the s**t we can’t deal with. Give me a hundred burpies and punch a bag for however long, but don’t ask me to read and put my kids to sleep. [Laughs.] Now that’s hard. To me, it’s just really about saying that to get a more holistic view of the problem, you’ve got to look at the perpetrator. And it’s not me saying, “Let’s feel sorry for the perpetrator.” It’s me saying, “Let’s unpack it. Understand the wolf.”
There’s a scene in the gym where Dudu gives a speech about how the fighters are being exploited by the likes of Links and Bra Pat, who control the boxing circuit. It’s clear from the boxers’ reactions that they understand the situation; they might be uneducated, but they’re not stupid. They know they’re being exploited, but since boxing seems to offer the only way out of the township, they think they don’t have a choice. It feels like this is a commentary that you can extend beyond the boxing ring in South Africa—the paradox that black men are not only an embodiment of a system that exploits them, but they are somehow tools in their own exploitation, because they’re forced to be a part of that system.
Exactly. I’m glad you said that. Like you said, it extends beyond boxing. Boxing is the playground, it’s the metaphor. But beyond that, you look at the frustration on a social level—this idea of a sense of pride, a sense of self, but how does it play out economically? Do you have a car? Do you have a house? Do you pay the rent? Are you looking after your children? You’ve got those questions, versus also this image of projected pride. The other thing about these people is that these are very proud people. My people. That’s why I can make that indictment about them. They’re very proud people. Just going back in terms of that region’s history. It used to be its own country. Sure, it was a banana republic back in the apartheid period, but it was still its own country. So there’s a sense of self there. Now how do you juxtapose that versus you fulfilling your role as what is determined to be a man in this modern age? Are you even appropriate for the times—your thinking, your way of looking at the world? It’s that struggle.
And it becomes a struggle because you’re aware of it. Like that scene with Dudu: he can diagnose that problem right down to its smallest part, but he still can’t extricate himself from the situation. And that’s what you find. You find it in the conversations, whether it’s in bars, whether it’s in clubs, whether it’s on the streets, whether it’s in homes. The conversations are very analytical about the problem, but how much movement is actually done to get out of that situation?
Dudu’s father told him when he was growing up that the only way out of the township was as a champion, a criminal, or a corpse. You shot “Knuckle City” on location, using boxers and non-professional actors from the area. In terms of how they look at themselves, how they examined themselves through the process of making the film, do you think there’s been any evolution in that narrative? Or do they still feel that they’re trapped?
I haven’t had the opportunity to engage them since the shoot, so I’m looking forward to the screening, because a lot of the guys are coming through. It will be quite interesting to see them in a removed space in regards to what we were actually doing. But in the making of the film, there was definitely a documentary element to it, even though it’s a plot-driven film, in regards to their lives, in terms of how they saw themselves. I definitely drew a lot from them. There were two levels of it. There were the older guys, the guys who aren’t boxers anymore—naturally those guys have an analysis of where they’re at, and what the problems were. They were the ones who could diagnose things better, but [are] still not able to extricate themselves from the situation. The younger ones were quite in it, so there wasn’t this space for [reflection].
It’s telling that the film begins in 1994—the year that apartheid ended, and South Africans elected Nelson Mandela as their first black president. But we never really get a sense of the optimism of that era; in fact, the first thing we see of Mdantsane is kids fighting in the street. Were you trying to suggest that democracy in South Africa—maybe it didn’t offer false promise, but unfulfilled promise?
It’s a dream deferred. That works on a microcosmic level, with the self, as a human being; and also on the macro level, with the entire country. That even extends further to the global village. Between ’90 and ’94, it was the end of the Cold War, there was a lot of optimism—the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela being released. There was a sense that there could be a new dispensation, a new way of looking at the world. And here we are.