Brutal boxing film reflects reality

Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Knuckle City mirrors the violence and poverty in the Eastern Cape township of Mdantsane, which has yielded so many champions it is known as the boxing mecca of South Africa.

It can be quite unsettling to watch violence on film. Fists bruising soft flesh with back-breaking blows. Jaws breaking. Active limbs being pounded until they fall limp. Bloodied knuckles. The discomforting sound of necks snapping.  

The experience is visceral, the impulse to look away at each blow a temporary reprieve from the consistent pummelling of the body on screen. 

In the world of boxing these are familiar shots, and they coalesce in Jahmil XT Qubeka’s directorial eye. They’re also the makings of his fourth feature film, Knuckle City, which opened the 40th edition of the Durban International Film Festival on 18-28 July. 

Six years ago, Qubeka opened the Durban festival with his first feature film, Of Good Report. The euphoria and excitement of that moment, however, was brief. Allegations of child pornography were levelled against the film and a temporary ban placed on it. 

Qubeka calls his latest film his love letter to the Eastern Cape township of Mdantsane, known informally as South Africa’s boxing mecca. Situated between the coastal town of East London and King William’s Town less than 100km away, Mdantsane is the historic birthplace of multiple stars who have dominated boxing world championships over the years. 

Welcome “The Hawk” Ncita, a retired boxer and former International Boxing Federation (IBF) super bantamweight champion; Noni “She Bee Stingin” Tenge, a former World Boxing Federation junior middleweight champion; and Zolani “Last Born” Tete, who holds the junior bantamweight IBF title, are some of the most celebrated names in the boxing fraternity. Boxing is important to the social fabric of this area. 

Ncita describes the impact and influence of the sport in Mdantsane: “In this corner of the township, you will hear of boxing. You move to another zone and hear of boxing. You go to the church, you hear of boxing.”

A fictive world, thread through with truths

It is from this world that Qubeka has threaded a fictive scenario, drawing on the architecture of the township and its relationship with the tumultuous boxing world’s underside. 

Flashing between 1994 and 2019, Knuckle City tells the story of Dudu Nyakama, a 38-year-old boxer struggling to find relevance in a young man’s game. The film portrays the underbelly of a boxing world rife with foul-mouthed gangsterism and criminality, which for Nyakama is a consequence of social life. 

Produced by Layla Swart, the film stars Bongile Mantsai as Nyakama and Thembekile Komani as Dudu’s brother Duke Nyakama. The ensemble cast comprises Faniswa Yisa, Patrick Ndlovu, Siv Ngesi, Owen Sejake, Angela Sithole, Zolisa Xaluva and the late Nomhle Nkonyeni. 

The Durban International Film Festival judging panel gave Mantsai the award for best actor at the festival for his performance in Knuckle City.

The enactment of violence

Being part of a violent industry and resorting to violence in his private life is the only way the character of Nyakama can make sense of his world. Exploring this idea of violence and how it was enacted in Knuckle City, Qubeka says he understood violence as an outcome. 

“It is a frustrated outcome,” he continues. “I view violence as a disruptor and I depict it in that way, but beyond the spectacle of violence it is important to understand its cause.

“When I looked at boxers, doing a lot of research about the fighters, it always seemed like the fight at home was bigger than the actual real fight – the opponent that they were fighting. The day-to-day [monotony] seems to always defeat these guys,” Qubeka told Variety magazine. 

“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.”

While Knuckle City was being filmed, residents of Mdantsane stoned boxing champion Manelisi “Leli” Mbilase to death after he was allegedly caught robbing two women. 

Qubeka recalls the mood on set the morning after Mbilase died. “I was walking around set, picking specific people who I knew would be most affected by the news. I showed it to the lead, I showed it to the producer, I showed it to a couple of people. It was really a moment in which we realised that while the violence [in Knuckle City] seemed like a heightened sense of drama, that it was not far off from the reality.”

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