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Once Upon a Day: Brenda Fassie

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 09.06.2011

“You know how I want to die? I want to die in my sleep. I don’t want to die with a gun wound, or an accident. I don’t want to be buried in the sand, people are going to build houses on top of me. No. I’m going to be in the sea.”

For two weeks Brenda Fassie clung desperately onto the thinning threads of what had been a tumultuous life. Slipping in and out consciousness, breathing temporarily without the assistance of respiratory machines; she gave fleeting hope to the hordes gathered in the corridors of Sunninghill Hospital. Friends, family, people who’d been vaguely touched by her held tearful vigil outside the ward, rejoicing loudly at any sign of life. A twitch of her fingers. A slight (possibly imagined) toe-wiggle. Even in her death, she dominated the headlines. Radio updated listeners on her condition after almost every song. She died on Sunday, 9 May 2004.

Brenda Fassie was a conflicted being. In the short documentary Once upon a Day, filmmaker Eddie Edwards follows her as she returns to her home to Langa Cape Town, for the first time in two years. In candid monologues, she inadvertently reveals the strained tensions that pulled her soul apart. From a room in a plainly decorated Holiday Inn, she mourns the childhood fame that robbed her, in the same breath, of grieving the death of her mother and the loss of the freedom to eat food with her fingers. She says she no longer enjoys the fame she so fervently sought (absconding to Johannesburg with nothing besides a pair of wet jeans in a plastic bag). And yet in various scenes she’s seen courting the attention of strangers. Offering autographs, giving impromptu performances on Lower Main. This agonising tension was integral to her character. The searing dichotomy of being MaBrr.

Brenda Fassie

One moment she’s the quintessential non-diva: buying cheap sunglasses from the local chemist, greeting bergies, offering children meat at the chisa nyama. The next she’s raging at a drunk, telling him that she could buy him, calling him a non-entity.

The drugs that induced her fatal coma are barely touched upon in the film. Many darker, uglier parts of her life are quickly gazed over, or completely ignored. There is no mention of the unsolved paternity of her son. Of the night she awoke to the overdosed, lifeless body of her lesbian lover. Of the times she accused her family of being money-grabbing scavengers. In the film, they’re overly affectionate, hugging and kissing. Dancing to one of her songs in the living room of their familial home.

At the end of the 30-minute documentary, Sis Brenda’s disembodied voice speaks frankly about death. Images of seagulls, the ocean, and fishing trawlers flash on the screen jarringly on the screen. This is no salacious tell-all. It’s not a comprehensive visual encyclopedia on the force that was Ma Brr. It’s just a camera and her outrageous personality. There’s nothing more to it beyond the big personality that only just saves it.

Once Upon a Day shows in:

Cape Town on Saturday 11 June at 8.15pm and again on Sat 25 June at 8.00pm – @ The V&A NuMetro.

Jozi on Sat 18 June at 6.00pm @ NuMetro Hyde Park and again on Friday 24 June @ The Bioscope in Maboneng at 8.00pm

Check Encounters for more details.

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