Synopsis: Imagine a country where more people die of AIDS, malnutrition and lack of medical care each week than are killed in Afghanistan, Iraq or Darfur. Where hospitals operate without doctors, urban neighborhoods suffer months without water, and unemployment tops 90 percent. Then imagine navigating that country from a wheelchair, without functioning hands, or with some other disability in a culture where the disabled are seen as cursed. You don’t have to imagine. iThemba takes you there in a rich, verite tapestry about the band Liyana, eight edgy young musicians who negotiate their country’s chaotic political waters, economic collapse and deep-seated prejudices with humor and grit.
iThemba is the tale of the most unlikely of garage bands: Liyana marks its rhythms and lays down its melodies with marimbas and traditional drums instead of electric guitars and basses. The lead singers never prance across the stage because they are unable to walk. Since their neighbors consider them cursed, their audiences are usually sparse.
But iThemba is not another demoralizing documentary about Africa, an overly familiar tale of woe. Rather, this film, rife with the unexpected, is a funny, poignant narrative about eight compelling young people who refuse to succumb to the stigma of disability or the collapse of their country.
Watch lead singer Prudence Mabhena, legless and palsied, grapple with memories of the grandmother who’d urged her parents to let her die. Meet 90-pound Marvelous Mbulo, the band’s self-styled bad boy and ladies’ man, who constantly plots how to keep his current flame without giving up his “options”. Travel the city with Energy Maburutse, who tries to live up to his name as he pounds his marimba. But he’s in constant pain since his frame stopped growing, but his organs did not.
And listen to the endless flow of satire and the amazing Afro-fusion melodies that make you forget about the musicians’ twisted limbs.
These unique young people guide iThemba’s viewers into Zimbabwean villages and cities, to rural bottle shops and urban marketplaces, inside the huts of traditional healers and the neighborhoods of the urban poor – into an Africa rarely seen by outsiders, a place where tradition is not necessarily gentle, where it threatens to trap the unfortunate and where a few are fighting back.
Shot during the 2008 Zimbabwean presidential election and the country’s economic meltdown, iThemba unfolds against the backdrop of political tensions and the daily struggle to find a bank that actually had cash, to buy food although store shelves were empty, and to navigate streets pocked with wheelchair-mangling potholes. – Vanessa Martinez, Indiewire.