Busiswa: An Unbreakable Story unfolds like a conversation between Busiswa and the viewer. To start, Busiswa tries to recite the poem that garnered the attention of legacy record label Kalawa Jazmee.
While she recalls it, the documentary’s crew busies itself with fixing her mic, touching up her makeup and adjusting the light in the shot.
She can’t remember the exact words, so she laughs at herself.
The scene quietens down. “So now I’m a dropout, I’m unemployed, the two people that I wanted to make proud were gone. My grandmother was gone. My mother was gone. There was no going back. Oskido knows me. DJ Zinhle knows me. I’m gonna move to Jo’burg and be in their faces. Every. Single. Day.”
Following this prompt, An Unbreakable Story details the circumstances that led to Busiswa’s success as a lyricist championing for the agency of black women in contemporary South Africa using house and gqom music as her megaphone. “The industry is male-dominated so the songs are always songs that are putting women in an oppressive or submissive place,” Busiswa notes during an interview. “So we need a me who’s going to come in and say ‘wait’. I’ll always make songs for women.”
An Unbreakable Story premiered at the annual Africa Rising International Film Festival. The festival, which is in its second year, aims to focus in on the stories of women, the youth, queer people and people living disabilities — in front of and behind the camera
The significance of women is cemented about halfway through the documentary, when the story focuses on the presence of women in Busiswa’s career. We see the artist interact with Moonchild Sanelly, Shekhinah, DJ Zinhle, Sho Madjozi and Lady Zamar. Addressing her decision to focus on her relationship with women in the industry, Busiswa says she aims to challenge the idea of women not being able to coexist and thrive in the same industry. “We’re women,” she says, “We don’t have to be badass one at a time: a Busiswa can make waves in gqom while Babes Wodumo does the same.”
The 40-minute documentary is a collaboration between Busiswa, Nampak’s Can Do brand, and public relations collective Co4lition. As part of its agreement to partner with Busiswa when she launched her record label, Majesty Music Africa, earlier this year, Nampak committed to produce a biographical film, as well as a limited run of soft-drink cans featuring an illustration of the artist.
The film is directed by Vaughn Thiel and Fred Kayembe. The latter owns budding production house Pineapple Top Films, which commissioned Thiel’s Co4lition to creative the film. Marketing manager for Can Do, Sine Mkhize says partnering with Busiswa was a no-brainer because of the artist’s “undeniable tenacity, perseverance and commitment … This the type of character that our brand represents because it ties back to the unbreakable nature of the cans we manufacture at Nampak Bevcan.”
In between filming on the set of the documentary, directors Vaughn Thiel and Fred Kayembe talk to Busiswa. (Sachin Aurakeasamy)
This is Pineapple Top Film’s second large-scale documentary. The first was about YoungstaCPT. Perhaps the fact that it was made by novice production house is why the documentary has its flaws.
An Unbreakable Story follows the conventional structure of a biographical story. It takes the viewer back to where Busiswa came from, walking them through all the major motions that led up to the artist becoming a household name. Although the structure promises a comprehensive over of her life, it doesn’t go much deeper than outlining how she broke into the industry.
Because Busiswa is a prominent figure, whose biography and discography are easily accessible, the directors needed only to fill in the gaps with more colour, a job that Busiswa easily fulfils with uncensored anecdotes, laughter, sighs and tears.
Instead of showing the viewer Busiswa’s artistic process as she writes, records and prepares for performances, the documentary focuses on external details, such as being featured on Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift album, headlining Rocking the Daisies, and establishing her record label. Even then, we don’t get to learn much about her new record label, apart from the artist’s plan to sign only women.
The only haphazard structural decision occurs in the placement of Busiswa’s brush with domestic violence. It sits in between thematically unrelated tales of moving to Johannesburg and taking up space in a Kalawa Jazmee dominated by men through referring to herself as “Kalawa Chikita”. Placing the artist’s experience of domestic violence in the middle of the Kalawa Jazmee segment of her career detracts the significance of the matter. Speaking about the film’s structure, co-director Thiel says, “The story wrote itself” and that their job was only “to piece it together”.
Considering that all parts of the documentary are said to have come from Busiswa’s life account, the insert in which Busiswa goes to the factory to check in on the progress of the customised soft drink can is awkwardly lengthy. Although Can Do is the documentary’s executive producer, the time spent at the factory takes away from the opportunity to dive deeper into her artistry.
But this is outweighed by what works. Even though it has all the elements of a documentary: interviews, cutaway, archival footage and an attempt at going behind the scenes, An Unbreakable Story feels more like a colourful conversation with the artist.
What starts out as a tragic, coming-of-age comedy transforms into the first act of a musical epic. This concept is presented through first-person narration that is supplemented with testimonies from those people who helped cultivate and nurture the artist’s love for the spoken word. These additional voices include her public-speaking coach and high-school teacher Kesavan Kisten; the Bat Centre’s director, Nise Malange; recording artist, and childhood friend, Moonchild Sanelly; and president of Kalawa Jazmee, Oskido.
The protagonist relays her story in full sentences, allowing the film’s editors to omit the presence of the interviewer until the very end of the documentary. Together with this approach, she uses a tone that is light, casual, humorous and familiar.
In terms of the moving picture that the viewer is presented with, Busiswa: An Unbreakable Story strikes a satisfactory balance between talking heads, archival performance footage and action scenes of Busiswa’s everyday routine. Because a lot of the B-roll is archival footage of performances the public is privy to, it works well with the interviews, almost playing the role of flashbacks during this conversation with Busiswa.
Overall, what the documentary lacks in cinematic prowess and chronology, it makes up for with a strong protagonist whose colourful, hilarious and arresting storytelling abilities make it worth a few watches.
Busiswa: An Unbreakable Story will air on Channel O, DStv channel 320. The date is yet to be confirmed.