The personal story of Nomaliphathwa Gwele was brought to life this week at Johannesburg’s independent cinema, Bioscope.

The story of Nomaliphathwe (Noma) Gwele, a single mother of two, who, along with thousands of others, decided to erect a shack on a private piece of vacant land in the Cape Town suburb of Philippi East, has been brought to life in the first public screening of the documentary film, Noma.
Two years in the making, the film, shown this week at the Bioscope in Johannesburg, tells the heart-breaking story of controversial land evictions in the Mother City which continue to this day. And, like other politically motivated documentaries of its type, Noma seems unlikely to be distributed via mainstream media channels.
“Apparently, Noma will be a hard-to-sell film,” admits director Pablo Pineda, after explaining that distribution deals often favour colourful films filled with character-driven storylines.
Pineda captured the footage by himself, in black and white with a handheld camera rig, which resulted in uncomfortably personal scenes of sorrow augmented by an unsettling soundtrack. He purposely avoided using scenes of a “warm, happy Africa” in order to focus on the traumatic life of homeless shack dwellers, and he certainly succeeded.
In-between the theme of eviction, Noma Gwele’s story unfolds as Pineda follows her to work, to community meetings and to her previous home. Gwele’s stark life as a single mother raising two children off a small salary, which is often not paid on time, provide the backdrop to which her stoic resilience becomes so evident.
“The police, even as they’re demolishing people’s houses, they’re smiling!” said Pineda.
The war between Noma’s community and the police, who appear on screen time and time again with crowbars, batons and guns to tear down the community’s shacks, is captured from the community’s perspective, a side of these battles rarely seen on screen.
“You spend so much time with someone [Noma] that you become friends. At some point it becomes so natural you could shoot forever!” said Pineda.
Pineda hopes the story’s intentional focus on the evictions will resonate with international communities facing similar problems, and not just become another African documentary on poverty. Unfortunately, it is this very focus which makes the film so hard to watch, and therefore hard to sell.
Noma won the Amnesty International Durban Human Rights Award at the recent Durban Film Festival, and Pineda will be submitting the film to international film festivals in the hope that an international award might attract better distribution opportunities.
Gwele and her community will appear in the Cape Town High court this week to challenge their eviction from the land. Pineda hopes the government will be forced to buy the land in question to finally allow the now estimated 15 000 people to establish their homes without the fear of them being torn down.

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