The Letter Reader is a story about a boy who, through reading, heals the heart of his community.

The Letter Reader is a short film that tells an insightful coming-of-age story. It highlights the power of the pen and the written word through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy, Siyabonga. The 30-minute film which was released in late 2018, is currently streaming on Showmax.

The drama is about a young Johannesburg boy called Siyabonga (Bahle Mashinini), who relocates to a village in KwaZulu-Natal to live with his grandmother while his parents work through their marital problems. Siyabonga, because of his reading abilities, assumes his late grandfather’s role of being the letter reader in the community. With literacy as his superpower, Siyabonga begins to connect fellow villagers to their loved ones who have settled in various parts of the country, one letter at a time.

This is Sibusiso Khuzwayo’s first film, produced through a collaborative effort by Khuzwayo’s production company, Sleeves Up Media and The Ergo Company. Directed and written by Khuzwayo, the film is loosely inspired by former President Thabo Mbeki’s childhood, which is detailed in Mark Gevisser’s biography of the former president titled, The Dream Deferred.

Mbeki grew up in rural Transkei in the Mbewuleni village in the Eastern Cape. Like Sibusiso in the film Mbeki was the letter reader and scribe in his community, where most of the population was illiterate. 

This film is super simplistic, which can be seen through the wardrobe choices, set design, the music, cinematography and the actors’ delivery of the script. The film, shot at a rural setting in the Drakensberg, captures the character of rural life perfectly. 

The director makes use of wide-angle shots that highlight the beautiful landscape. Exposing the authentic architecture of the rural community; which consists of earth huts, sky-cutting mountains, lush greenery and wide open spaces.

The film features the late Andile Gumbi as the lead. Gumbi has featured in local favourites such as SABC 1’s sitcom Makoti and Mzansi Magic’s drama series, Isibaya. Nomalanga Shabane, who plays Nobuhle, the young wife of migrant worker Menzi in the film, is the subject of much of Siyabonga’s counsel. 

The film recently won the best short film award at the 2020 first-ever virtual South African Film and Television Awards (Safta) among several other accolades. The Letter Reader won the audience award at the 2019 iamAfrica Short Film Competition and nabbed the jury award at the 2019 shnit Worldwide Shortfilmfestival which took place in Cape Town.

Speaking to bizcommunity about the iamAfrica award, Khuzwayo said, “In a time when Africa is rising to its greatness, I feel blessed and privileged to have been used as a conduit to tell this beautiful African story.” 

The film explores the effects of intermigration on families, paying close attention to the plight of the wives who are often left behind when their husbands migrate to cities in search of employment.

Bahle Mashinini does a great job of depicting the role of young letter reader Siyabonga. When faced with navigating the uncharted territory that exists between adulthood and childhood, Mashinini gives this youthful character the maturity needed to drive the story home. With his voice, Mashinini can communicate his discomfort when he is called to witness intimate moments shared by couples. We also cannot help but appreciate his child-like mind that often resorts to humour, when faced with narrating humorous and unusual messages from loved ones.

Director and writer Khuzwayo told online news site, Africa News 24-7, that it was important for the film to cast the perfect character for Siyabonga as the success of the film “hinged on the authenticity” of the performance.

Nomalanga Shabane offers a splendid performance as Nobuhle, the hopeful young wife of a migrant worker, who is left behind in the KZN village. Nobuhle believes she will not join the statistic of wives in her village who are deserted by their husbands for the glitter and gold that is Johannesburg city life. We see her unwavering faith come through when, while sitting under a tree on the river bank, Siyabonga reads her a letter from her husband Menzi, who is working in Johannesburg. Her body melts at the narration of her husband’s words.

I do, however, feel that the film lacked a proper ending. With the build-up towards the end, I almost felt cheated of a true definition of a drama. The ending was underwhelming and fell flat because it lacked the dramatic conclusion that would leave me stunned and wanting more. In the end we see Siyabonga, unknowingly, reveal an uncomfortable truth to Nobuhle about her husband’s life in Johannesburg. However, we do not get to see her reaction to this revelation.

But then again, the beauty of this film is in its brevity. The film offers the viewer the pleasure of witnessing a beautiful yet intricate story, without having to commit to two hours of typical movie viewing. With a great portion of South Africa’s population working or learning from home, this short film provides a healthy and sweet escape from daily stressors, without leaving one lazy and sluggish when the credits roll.

Vuvu rating: 8/10

FEATURED IMAGE: A photograph of The Letter Reader’s cover featuring Andile Gumbi as Menzi and Nomalanga Shabane as Nobuhle Mthembu. Photo: Akhona Matshoba