Media reportage of land evictions in South Africa has until recently been little better than traffic reports. Exactly as to why roads become blocked with burning tyres and stones thrown at police vehicles, and who these people are who are protesting, and why they are occupying vacant land that doesn’t belong to them by legal title, is usually left out of the picture.

Spanish film director Pablo Pinedo Bóveda follows one such shack dweller, Nomaliphathwe Gwele, who plays Noma, the eponymous hero of this compelling story. I say ‘plays’ because this is no ordinary documentary. There are no formal interviews, no narration, few facts and figures, no so-called ‘balanced’ reporting.

Instead, Bóveda documents the birth of an informal settlement in Philippi East, Cape Town, by showing us Gwele’s story. She allowed him to tail her with his handheld camera for several months in 2014 while the events unfolded.

Bóveda was busy at the time recording evictions for use as evidence in court to defend the shack dwellers. He had hoped to act as “a human shield” and believed his “media” presence could at least attenuate the repression of the authorities. He had also made a visual poem from a press release by shack dweller movement Abahlali baseMojondolo, after people were illegally evicted from their homes in May 2013 at the Marikana settlement, and their building materials and possessions stolen in all but name by the authorities.

But the filmmaker wanted to reach much deeper. Having studied film in Italy and been based in Rome for five years, where, he says, he first started to explore homelessness with the people living around Termini railway station, Bóveda made Noma in the cinéma vérité tradition with a healthy influence of Italian neorealism.

Some scenes needed to be re-enacted. He also constructed surreal dream sequences for Gwele. Particularly poignant moments unfurl to Alessandro Cicognini searing theme music for the Bicycle Thieves,Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 tear-jerking classic. The entire film is shot in monochrome and with a 50mm focal length, up close and almost claustrophobic at times. The director claims the black and white treatment links the current events he depicts to the visual archive of brutal apartheid forced removals, some images of which are included near the start of the film. But given his gift for cinematography, it feels overridingly like a hardnosed aesthetic decision that suits the cinematic tradition he is busy rejuvenating.

The filmmaker and his camera are at various times acknowledged by participants in the movie. At one point, Gwele complains he doesn’t stop filming her even when it is raining, and later during the evictions, residents shout at him to please show the world what is being done to them in the name of the law.

The result is riveting viewing, using art to tell a story with compelling sincerity. It moves the film very far away from ghoulish news casting or “poverty porn” exploitative documentary. Gwele emerges heroically, with her individuality intact, a wonderful riposte to the failed imaginations of the ideologically pure.

In real life, Gwele, 25 at the time, is a single mother sharing her tiny living space with her cousin, her younger brother, and her two sons. Anele, her semi-paraplegic, blind child, needs extra care, medication and trips to the hospital. She lives on the knife-edge of survival, working in the kitchen of a deep-frying fast food outlet in a shopping mall, where the manager often fails to pay her on time.

Like many, she is struggling to pay rent for her shack in the backyard of a formal house in Enkanini, Khayelitsha.

According to the Housing Development Agency using the 2011 Census data, 713 000 households now live as backyarders, nearly double what it was a decade or so ago. Along with the high inflation experienced by the poor, it is unsurprising then that rents have risen.

In addition to this number, 3.3 million South Africans live in shacks in informal settlements or elsewhere. One million of these are children; 675 000 of them, 10 years or younger. Of these households, almost one in five do not have access to sanitation, running water or electricity.

Gwele hears there is vacant land and a movement to occupy it in Philippi East, extending the informal settlement of Marikana, named after the massacre of 34 miners by police in 2012. Early on in the film, we see Gwele join protests commemorating the Marikana massacre, where people accuse the police of being “puppets of Zuma’s government.”

Part of Marikana is a “flesh waste” dumping site, piled high with putrefying skulls and sheep jawbones. Passenger planes pass overhead on their descent to Cape Town airport. There are no services. But it is vacant land, privately owned and unutilised for years.

People are not here out of choice, they say. They need a place to stay, a roof over their heads they can call their own. One woman implies she is fleeing sexual abuse at the place she lives. There is a heavily pregnant homeless woman as well. Others say they can no longer pay the rents and are desperate.

The occupation itself is co-ordinated. There are lists of names. Plots are marked out. People know it is not their land, but they hope and believe that if they can occupy it for more than 24 hours, legally the City has to involve the courts. Building begins after dark on a weekend. Gwele chooses her site and scrapes together just enough building materials, transport and help to construct a shack. People fear what may befall them when Monday comes. Gwele spray paints her name on the outside wall and a flower, and goes to work.

Law enforcement are quick to pounce. Many of them clearly relish their job, callously laughing and joking and they destroy homes. One thuggish, white official in particular mucks in himself to smash up the shacks. Most of the dirty work is done by municipal workers with long metal crowbars.

“They are breaking the materials! Why don’t you just open the side, my brother?” asks one onlooker. Another resident replies pityingly, “He’s just a prisoner obeying instructions.”

“Where is the freedom?” asks a woman.

As they start to demolish Noma’s shack, someone, possibly Bóveda, asks, if they have a court order? The official laughs.

In a re-enacted scene, we see Gwele at work, slicing chicken breasts in half. She receives a text message to say her home has been destroyed. Her materials are also gone and her bed and few furnishings stolen.

A meeting is called. “We have not come here for politics. We must not lose the purpose of this meeting,” one of the conveners tells the crowd.

Norma-29-june-2016

Noma won the Amnesty International Durban Human Rights Award for the film that best reflects human rights issues at the Durban Film Festival in June

A constant refrain in the film is that as citizens they loyally vote every election, but government has deserted them. The ANC and the DA are essentially on the same side against them.

People in the neighbouring settlement advise the evictees: “The matter needs people with backbone …  Be strong … Of course your houses will be demolished, but you can build a tent and tell yourselves you are going nowhere. We did the same … We were strong and we stand. We are today still fighting. So what’s stopping you?”

Gwele attempts a second time, but her shack is again destroyed along with dozens of others.

Utterly desperate, she now purchases the backyard structure she is inhabits in Khayelitsa, has it disassembled and transported to Marikana. She moves to the wetland area.

Her shack is only partially built, when a third eviction gets underway. This time law enforcement is thwarted by angry shack dwellers. We see the police firing live ammunition and the resistance turns violent. Smoke from burning tyres completely obscures distant Table Mountain.

What we do not see in Bóveda’s film is the shooting of Patrick Sobutyu through both legs that day by police. Two years later, nobody has been held accountable. Nor do you see the overwrought woman who resorted to stripping off her clothing and exposing herself to stop police destroying her home.

Gwele has survived in Marikana and she still lives there. Asked at a screening of the film at the Labia Cinema in Cape Town what she hoped for, she said she hoped that Marikana could be a success.

Marikana is now a fact on the ground. Since 2013, when the first occupation began, there are two additional areas, Rolihlahla Park where the film is set, and New Marikana. There are a handful of communal taps but life is grim for residents and simple daily tasks are inordinately difficult. It remains a turbulent place with sporadic violence, sometimes with neighbouring communities.

Noma puts a human face to the headlines. Though its imaginative approach to telling the story of land occupation, the film itself breaks new ground for South African documentary and achieves much more from an empathic point of view than traditional documentary approaches usually accomplish.

 Noma will be showing at the Labia Cinema in Cape Town from 2 to 8 September.