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Inside the making of Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Knuckle City


Regarded as the boxing mecca of South Africa: Mdantsane township has produced over 17 boxing world champions since 1994.

Award-winning filmmaker Jahmil X.T. Qubeka grew up in Mdantsane, and for him – like many young people living in the vast and poor Eastern Cape township – boxing remains a treasured sport. “I have always loved boxing. Growing up in Mdantsane you cannot avoid it as it permeates most aspects of that society’s day-to-day grind. I grew up amongst pugilists and a lot of them were hardly average prize-fighters. These guys were some of the best in the world and yet here they were roaming the streets of my hood,” comments Qubeka.

Produced by Yellowbone Entertainment for Mzansi Magic as part of the channel’s premium film package, Knuckle City delves into the mindset of a fighter and provides an authentic glimpse into street life in one of the oldest and largest townships in the country. Written and directed by Qubeka alongside producer and editor Layla Swart, the film explores themes of toxic masculinity, wasted dreams and fractured family ties.

Knuckle City as a concept has been gestating in my head and heart for years,” explains Qubeka. “It was not until Layla and I became partners that the project blossomed and found a home at Mzansi Magic, who were determined to enter the premium feature film market with some prestige projects. In the Mzansi Magic team we found partners who shared our desire to grow indigenous cinema-going audiences.”

As part of the research phase of the film, Qubeka immersed himself into the lives of some of the country’s greatest boxers and their families. He and his team worked with several boxers from the region alongside the acting talent. “It was not difficult for me to delve into the required research because I already have such a passion for the sport,” explains Qubeka. “We reached out to a lot of professionals for assistance and many of them came to the party. From the likes of trainer extraordinaire, Vido Madikane, to current world champion Xolani Tete’s stable, where I had the honour of working with the likes of former SA champion Loyiso Mtya and former two-time world champion ‘Showtime’ Yekeni,” he adds.

In the film, lead character Dudu Nyakama, played by Bongile Mantsai (Inxeba: The Wound), is a down-and-out ageing boxer who is adamant that his days of throwing punches are still far from over.

There are three ways out of Knuckle City – through the ring, in the back of a cop car, or in a pine box. Nyakama’s days are numbered in the boxing ring, and – as a last resort – he enlists the help of his criminal brother, Duke Nyakama. Together, they fight against all odds to make it through the ring but are haunted by the ghost of their father. Dudu soon realises that his unresolved inner conflict and fractured family life is far more challenging than any opponent he can possibly face in the boxing ring.

Speaking about the Dudu character, Qubeka says: “It is an honest portrayal of a man on a downward spiral perpetuated by toxic habits he picked up from his own father. His struggle is one that most adult males are faced with today. The ironic part of it all is that despite the extreme level of discipline that the main protagonist applies to his daily training regime, he ultimately fails to put it to use in his home life.”

To prepare for the role, Mantasi was trained by the great Xolani Tete at his boxing academy. Qubeka expands: “I knew of no better place than to throw him into the lion’s den that is Mdantsane, and thanks to Xolani Tete’s Last Born Boxing stable, he trained with champions.”

Knuckle City is shot in Mdantsane township and in the Buffalo City metro. The film marks the first production to partner with the Eastern Cape Development Corporation.

To further incorporate the community of Mdantsane and East London into the production, locals were given the opportunity to rent out their properties to the crew for the duration of the shoot. Furthermore, budding actors and aspiring filmmakers assisted the crew behind-the-scenes as well as on-screen as extras.

“Making the film was definitely a homecoming for me,” affirms Qubeka. “Having grown up in the same streets that I was now shooting a major motion picture in was exhilarating. The support and love we got from the people of Mdantsane and Buffalo City was amazing and deeply humbling. It was evident right from the get-go that the community was making this film with us.”

Knuckle City was shot in 21 days, with DoP Willie Nel capturing the visuals on an Arri Alexa Mini with Zeiss Master anamorphics, “with an incredibly wide 1:66 aspect ratio,” says Qubeka.

For the fight sequences, Qubeka wanted to give viewers an immersive experience so they would feel as though they were inside the ring with the fighters. For this, he says he drew inspiration from PlayStation fighting games. “I wanted to give viewers a visceral experience of what it’s like to be punched repeatedly. So choreographing the fights I referenced an old PlayStation game called Fight Night. In it, there is a point of view mode that gives you a really dynamic perspective of being the actual fighter in the ring. I applied the same technique to the cinematography and the results have been splendid.”

In post-production, Layla Swart edited the film while Bladeworks handled online. The sound was done by Guy Steer and final grading completed by Craig Simonetti.

Knuckle City had its local premiere at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) in July as the opening night film and its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September this year.

The film is distributed in South Africa by Indigenous Film Distribution (IFD) and internationally by AAA Entertainment.

Qubeka says that he can’t wait for South Africans to view the film and for the people of Mdantsane to get an opportunity to see what they were so intrinsically a part of. “I’m hoping audiences will see how we have all had a role to play in the propping up of what I term the ‘pseudo identity of the macho man’ that is shaped around toxic habits and ways of being,” he concludes.

Knuckle City will be releasing in local cinemas on 28 February.

Watch the trailer.


Writer/director: Jahmil Swart

Producer/editor: Layla Swart: Producer

DOP: Willie Nel

Sound: Guy Steer

Sew the Winter to My Skin documents the last years of John Kepe


John Kepe was an infamous thief in the Eastern Cape in the 1950s. The criminal mastermind lived, undetected, in the Boschberg caves for over a decade, collecting stolen items including over a hundred sheep, cooking utensils and clothes, redistributing the goods to the poor black and coloured community of Somerset East. Kepe’s legacy still haunts the slopes of the Boschberg Mountains.

As a teenager, writer and director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka lived in the small town of Somerset East which is where he first came to know the story of John Kepe – a Robin Hood of sorts who’s legacy would later inspire him to make the film Sew the Winter to My Skin.

“I have carried the desire to make this film for many years now. I started writing the screenplay in 2016, and it took us just over a year to raise the finance. My research was growing up in Somerset East, absorbing the history, living with the people who inhabit the space and the legend,” Qubeka shares.

Producer Layla Swart comments, “John Kepe is a little-known folk hero in the small town of Somerset East. I think the power of the film medium is that one is able to canonise figures like Kepe, whose story would never have been documented and known had it not been for Jahmil growing up in this town and being determined to tell his tale. I think it is important for us as filmmakers to explore our heritage and identify the stories of the past that contribute to who and where we are today.”

Sew the Winter to My Skin documents Kepe’s final mission before his capture, piecing together the story of the legend from multiple perspectives including that of the locals, farm labourers, white farmers, the town militia and a journalist covering Kepe’s trial.

Primary production commenced in 2017, with 90 per cent of the film shot in Somerset East and Cookhouse, where Kepe resided.

The film’s stellar cast includes, Ezra Mabengeza, Peter Kurth, Kandyse McClure Brenda Ngxoli, Bok van Blerk, Antoinette Louw, Zolisa Xaluva and Mandisa Nduna. Ezra Mabengeza plays the lead role of John Kepe with Peter Kurth as General Botha. Other critical roles in the film include Kandyse McClure as Golden Eyes, Brenda Ngxoli as Mole, and Dave Walpole as The Scar-faced Kid.

Sew the Winter to My Skin was shot over five weeks by DOP Jonathan Kovel on the Arri Alexa Mini camera, with Vintage 74 Hawk anamorphic lenses.

“I was looking for an image quality that exuded the spirit of the period the film is set in, which is 1948 to 1952. I didn’t want a pristine, contemporary look at all. So began a long quest that started with the camera team at Media Film Services, and ended up with us calling on Vantage in Germany to give us the wildly marvellous, anamorphic Vintage 74 series of prime lenses. As expensive as these lenses were to rent, they were also the best investment, the producer and I made for the film. That and the amount of time and effort we spent crafting the dialogue-less script,” comments Qubeka.

Post-production duties were handled by Refinery Post Production and Visual Effects Cape Town, while the sound was done by Barry Donnelly from Audio One.

Sew the Winter to My Skin had its international premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in Canada and will have its local premiere at the Cape Town International Film Festival and Market where it has been selected as the opening film. “This is the film’s local premiere, and we are very excited by this. We feel the themes of the film are apt for this city and are honoured to be opening the festival. We are currently in discussion about the film’s local cinema release, but it will likely be this summer,” she said.

So far, the film has been well-received by festival-goers and film critics including Screen Anarchy, Hollywood Reporter and Cinema Scope. Furthermore, it has also been chosen to represent South Africa at the 2019 Academy Awards, with the selection committee describing Sew the Winter to My Skin as “an unmistakable, bold South African voice that tackles historical and contemporary issues, in both South Africa and the world.”

Qubeka remarks: “The selection of South Africa’s official entry for the Academy Awards is done by a jury of our peers and that makes it even more special. It’s a vote of confidence from our colleagues and fellow filmmakers. I cannot express how proud and humbling that feels. That in itself is a big win for us; anything else going forward is just gravy!”

The film is also expected to showcase at the Busan International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival later this month.

“This is a universal story exploring timely and relevant subject matter. We all need heroes. We believe it will resonate with individuals from all walks of life,” concludes Swart.

Sew the Winter to My Skin is produced by Yellowbone Entertainment with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Arts and Culture, and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation.



  • Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
  • Lenses: Vantage Hawk V-Lite Vintage ‘74 Anamorphic Lenses


Producer/Editor: Layla Swart

Writer/Director: Jahmil X.T. Qubeka

DOP: Jonathan Kovel

Sound: Barry Donnelly

SA’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards

The National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) has announced that Sew the Winter to My Skin is South Africa’s official entry for the 91st Academy Awards (Oscars) in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

The NFVF assembled a South African Academy Awards selection committee, comprised of professionals from various fields within the filmmaking value chain. The committee sat over two days to view the four films submitted and ultimately selected Sew the Winter to My Skin.

Written and directed by Jahmil X.T Qubeka, Sew the Winter to My Skin, explores the true myth of legendary black rebel folk hero, John Kepe. In the rural Great Karoo region, the bandit John Kepe terrorises white farmers, stealing their livestock and supplies to give back to his impoverished community. General Botha, an embittered World War II veteran, becomes obsessed with the capture of the notorious Kepe and leads an epic manhunt for him through the mountains, where he is rumoured to occupy a mysterious cave. Evading capture for over a decade, outwitting Botha and the settlers, John Kepe’s raids become ever more brazen and his escapes from the authorities ever more daring.

The outlaw’s legend grows in the hearts and minds of the poor and marginalised indigenous population, and the self-proclaimed “Samson of the Boschberg Mountains” emerges as both an enigma to his pursuers and a romantic object of adoration for his fellow victims of oppression.

With John Kepe’s very existence representing a threat to the inevitable march of colonial displacement, the hunt to capture and kill the outlaw reaches a desperate crescendo, and his mythological status as a hero and symbol of resistance is cemented forever.

The committee applauded the film as an unmistakeable bold, South African voice that tackles historical and contemporary issues, in both South Africa and the world. Global audiences will be able to resonate with the story while being taken on a skilfully crafted cinematic and musical journey.

The film made its world premiere earlier this month during the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) and will make its local premiere at the Cape Town International Film Market and Festival.

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