The Tokoloshe (2018)

Arrow Video FrightFest 2018: The Tokoloshe (2018)

At the beginning of Jerome Pikwane’s feature debut The Tokoloshe, a young woman runs, terrified, through a field of tall grass, pursued and eventually snatched away by something that is glimpsed only as a rapid blur. This is the tokoloshe of Zulu mythology, a malevolent creature which, as a woman’s voiceover reveals, is “as old as mankind”, picks on “the lost and the weak” and “feeds on children and those left alone.” As the film follows Busi (Petronella Tshuma), a young country woman who has joined the ranks of the many thousands desperately looking for their livelihood in Johannesburg, the tokoloshe will follow her there like a bad memory, taking on many forms.

Busi has come to escape her demons back in the fields, and to raise enough money so that she can rescue her beloved sister Lindi too from their abusive homelife. Busi is staying in an old apartment building already designated for demolition – and she has started working the graveyard shift as a cleaner at an underfunded and largely empty hospital whose ill-lit corridors echo with loneliness and neglect – and whose residents are mostly abandoned children. In other words the city is no less a hellhole of destitution and despair than Busi’s rural home, and as such it proves a perfect hunting ground for the tokoloshe. 

His predatory nature is embodied by Busi’s creepy white boss, Ruatomin (Dawid Minnaar), who stalks Busi looking for violent sexual favours – but the tokoloshe is also a figure both in cautionary stories told to the children by their kindly nurse Rosie (Leiden Colbet), and a palpable (if unseen) presence in the shadows of the hospital, where he plays ‘rough’ games with scared young patient Gracie (Kwande Nkosi) – who speaks his words for him and appears to have conjured him from her own inner trauma. Drawn to Gracie, Busi tries to protect her from predation and invites the girl to stay with her in the apartment – but Busi has troubles of her own and home truths which must be faced once more, far from this urban jungle, in the grassy fields where she grew up. 

The Tokoloshe turns local legend into allegory of state (and mental state), showing a South Africa full of the marginalised, the overlooked and the forgotten. It also exposes a sort of national schizophrenia, as the tokoloshe, both metaphorical malaise and eventually literal, reified beast, continues prodding at open wounds yet to be cauterised, and stealing away the innocence of childhood itself. Canny viewers will not be surprised by the film’s subtly telegraphed twist, but Pikwane wisely reveals it in an understated fashion, leaving viewers to reconcile the spectres that they have seen with the underlying, horrific events that they must in part imagine.  

 Strap: Jerome Pikwane’s feature debut uses a local myth to light up social trauma in South Africa’s underclass.

© Anton Bitel