Mpumi Mbele’s doccie makes history to be selected as SA’s submission at Oscars
Music is My Life narrates late Shabalala’s rise to superstardom
Soweto-born director Mpumi Mbele’s Music is My Life is making history as the first documentary to be selected as SA’s submission at the 96th annual Academy Awards (Oscars) in the coveted category of International Feature Film.
The documentary narrates the story of the late Joseph Shabalala and his rise to superstardom with his band Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
In recent years, SA has been unlucky at the Oscars, with its previous four submissions Barakat (2021), Toorbos (2020), Knuckle City (2019) and Sew the Winter to My Skin (2018) failing to advance past the first stage. Inxeba: The Wound in 2017 was shortlisted, but came short of a nomination. SA has only ever won in the category previously called Foreign Language Film in 2006 with Tsotsi, while the year before it was nominated with Leleti Khumalo's Yesterday.
“I’m still grasping the world feeling about our submission being approved for the NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation). I was telling a friend the other day that I feel partly like Siya Kolisi who just led our country to the Rugby World Cup,” said Mbele, who is from Pimville in Soweto.
“This moment is one of those you just have to let sink in but it was expected with such musical caliber Bab’Shabalala and the Mambazo group embodied and personified, the nod was expected.
“I mean, we’re talking about a male group that scooped multiple awards, they used to fill Madison Garden Square [in New York] back in the day and not many know this… but this group has been sensational trailblazers.”
The documentary was produced by veteran filmmaker Carolyn Carew from Free Women Films. It was filmed over five years, travelling back in time to Shabalala’s humble beginnings in rural KZN until his death in 2020.
“My mission here is to tell the story of Bab’Shabalala and not mine. I remember having to remove myself from the story and see the world in the founder of this group,” Mbele said.
“I had so many objectives and views ahead of shooting the documentary but after speaking to Bab’Shabalala’s close friends and industry peers, I got a clearer understanding of which direction to take.
"I was privileged enough to spend time with him during his last days. The day he passed on his wife called me and I rushed to the hospital. My biggest takeaway was feeling truly part of the family and the immense trust they have in me for telling this story.”
“Bab’Shabalala was a loving man. Even when he couldn’t talk fluently anymore, he’d sing with his wife and unfortunately, that part won’t be shown in this film because I don’t want to show much about his illness.”
Mbele said an Oscar nod for the project would further validate that all dreams are possible.
“The odds were so against them — especially coming from the rural area and then making it big in America and Europe. All they had was a belief in their sound, which was not popular as it was perceived as tarven music, but because they believed in it they defied the naysayers and made a legendary name for themselves.”
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