African Filmmaker Tells Tales of South African Migrants

In his latest film “Vaya,” Nigerian-born director Akin Omotoso explores the themes of migration and coming of age.

“Vaya” tells the story of three strangers who get on a train, each of them with a mission to fulfill in Johannesburg. They’re coming from Durban to Johannesburg. They never meet, but their stories are intertwined,” Omotoso explained.

Each traveler has a mission. A young man is promised a job that is not what he expected. Another is sent to reclaim his father’s body — a task that is surprisingly difficult. A young woman escorts a young girl to her family in the city. Each faces rejection, abuse or violence.

The film came from the real-life stories of South Africans in the Homeless Writers Project, a workshop for people living on the streets of Johannesburg.

Vaya means “to go” in the Tsotsitaal dialect used in South African townships.

“It takes on several meanings. So, ‘to go’ — they’re leaving Durban to go to Johannesburg. But when they get there, maybe people don’t want you. They want you to go,” Omotoso said.

The director is a migrant himself. He was born in Nigeria, but his family moved to South Africa, where his father, the writer Kole Omotoso, was a professor at the University of the Western Cape. Akin studied drama at the university, and then worked as an actor and director.

"Vaya" is one of 20 movies by filmmakers of color or female directors distributed by Array, a Los Angeles-based collective and distribution company founded by director Ava DuVernay.

“Our purpose is to make sure that audiences have access to films they otherwise would not see, those independent voices that deserve a platform for stories to be told,” said Mercedes Cooper, Array’s director of marketing.

"Vaya" was released in 2016 and has played at international festivals. It opened in U.S. theaters in late October and will stream on Netflix starting Nov. 1. Omotoso said many can relate to this story.

“I always say everyone has a cousin who’s arriving, or a brother who’s leaving, or somebody who’s coming,” he said. “So, "Vaya" is able to tap into something that doesn’t just happen in Johannesburg.”

The film taps into universal themes, notes Omotoso, such as the search for a better life and the struggle for survival.

“It’s a thrilling ride when you start to put together the mystery of what’s going on.”

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