I really wanted to love director Ian Gabriel‘s new thriller Death of a Whistleblower. The film has so much going for it. Almost too much, actually. It is a crackling procedural thriller about, well, journalism that follows spirited South African journalist Luyanda (Noxolo Dlamini) as she fearlessly digs for the truth behind a years-old government coverup and the death of a colleague. From Gabriel’s story, with help from Kelly Eve Koopman and Philip Roberts, and a screenplay by Marius Scholtz and Louis Viljoen, Death of a Whistleblower plays like the pilot for a fabulous show that shrieks with potential. The bad thing is that this feature valleys between feature and episodic. The result is a very good, longer-than-necessary film, that leaves you hungry for more.
We open on a domestic feud that is revealed to be on a South African Military base. The film pulls back to show that military officer Albert Loots (Irshaad Ally) is scanning through classified documents under government orders. Their job is to erase all evidence of bureaucratic wrongdoing but Albert’s conscience takes hold. We cut to plucky Luyanda who is having an argument with her editor about a story that is way too risky. She runs into a colleague and fling, Stanley (Rob van Vuuren) and the two make a night of it. It seems that Stanely is tracing the story of cruel government experiments with the help of Albert. Stanely asks for Luyunda’s help but faster than you can say “The dolls will dance”, Stanely is dead and Luynda is on the run.
To say that Luyunda is lucky would be an understatement. Dodging both hitmen and police interference, she lands at the home of bestie Ashta (Kathleen Stephens). It just so happens that Ashta has an expansive loft apartment in the city, and also happens to be profoundly resourceful with information and the internet. With Ashta’s support and help, Luyanda must uncover who killed Stanely and why. This leads her to connect with Albert in an effort to show light on the darkest of political secrets that reach far and wide.
To start with praise, Dlamini delivers an engaging performance as Luyunda. It was exciting to see a badass, black female taking control and outsmarting everyone in the room. Luyunda is a fierce woman in control, fighting for truth and justice. But please, give her more to do than quizically sift through piles of printouts. Luyunda is an iconic character who is never fully given a chance to soar. We get a lot of character development but that is it. Things happen TO her rather than BECAUSE of her. Other worthy performances include Kathleen Stephens and Irshaad Ally. Stephens plays the resourceful best friend well enough to make us wish we knew her. Meanwhile, Ally’s shifty-eyed government whistleblower is intriguing.
Director and storyteller Ian Gabriel has a noble and expansive tale to tell. His targets are racism, sexism, and malfeasance. His weapons are a magnetic female lead in Dlamini, a story that empowers women, and cinema itself. Pity that this movie runs much longer than it needs to or perhaps not long enough.