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Buhle Sithela’s Vuma Pop Up Cinema brings the movie experience to kids in the township

Author: Themba Kriger
Photos: Matthew Wareley
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The 26-year-old from Khayelitsha in Cape Town has created a project that provides a safe space for kids to be educated and entertained.

Located in the south of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township is Harare, the area which Buhle Sithela calls home and where he held his first screening for his mobile movie experience known as the Vuma Pop Up Cinema, which creates safe movie experiences for children in townships on weekends and during the holidays.

Born and raised in the area by a single parent, 26-year-old Buhle spent his childhood playing soccer and other games with his friends between his school work. His first introduction to the cinema was at the age of 8 when his mother’s employers took him to see “Shrek”, while he enjoyed the experience, he couldn’t know that his future would revolve around movies.

Having completed his matric in 2013, Buhle enrolled at CPUT to study events management, however, he dropped out 2 years later during the time of the #FeesMustFall protests due to a lack of funds. He was determined to work in the events management field and started volunteering and looking for any work related to his field of study. He got a job at Short&Sweet, a platform that screened short films at popup cinemas, sparking the idea for the Vuma Popup Cinema. “I was part of the crew, learning to set up the sound and projection. While I was working I realised this could also benefit the people in my community.”

While Buhle had a concept in mind, he didn’t have the funds to get it off the ground and buy the necessary equipment. “I knew it would be difficult buying the projectors and sound, because I wasn’t working, so I started by raising funds in the community by offering a bin cleaning service. We went door to door and offered the service for a small fee. We raised funds through that and we were able to buy some equipment.”

Buhle held his first screening in 2017 at a nearby creche, keeping it on a small scale to test if his idea worked. “I organised some snacks and had to borrow a projector from someone. I started very small to see if people would engage with the movies, but I saw that the children in my community also love movies and it’s a great space where they can engage with their friends, so I realised this is a good project that can have a positive impact in my community.”

Because Vuma Pop Up Cinema is a mobile cinema, Buhle can take it anywhere. So far he’s taken it to Alice in the Eastern Cape, as well as kwa Langa, Athlone, Blackheath, and Khayelitha’s Site B, Monwanbisi Park, and Enkanini, with venues ranging from community centres to creches.

Vuma Pop Up Cinema isn’t just a popup movie experience for kids though. Buhle sees it as a safe space for the children of the communities he visits where they can play and engage with each other.

Buhle ensures that the movies he shows are beneficial and not harmful to the children. “The movies we show are entertaining and educational, we don’t show movies that encourage crime or violence, like action movies. Most of our films are local animations from studios like Triggerfish’s ‘Khumba’ and Dipopaai Animation, a studio that does isiZulu and Xhosa animations. And inspiring African documentaries as well. We’re trying to make the children familiar with their history.”

Keeping screenings short in order to make sure the children can stay focused, longer films include a break where the kids can stretch and grab a snack or drink, afterwards, Buhle hosts a discussion about the topics covered in the film, allowing the children to express how they feel about the movie and characters. He also ensures that the kids leave having learnt something new. “We educate them about the characters in the movies, if the main character is an ostrich when all the kids leave the screening they should know how to pronounce the word ostrich.”

The project is sustained through donations, ensuring that the cinema remains free for the children to attend. “They support us so that we are able to buy snacks for the children, book the venues, organise transport, and do the administration.”

It also receives support from Ikeja, who have sponsored Buhle with WiFi access. “I have to post content on Instagram, stay updated in terms of what the new movies are and which might be good for my audiences. Ikeja got in touch with me, because I had to do all this stuff including my emails and invoices with [mobile] data, and offered to install a router so that we can save costs. So it’s installed at my mom’s house because I use this house for administration and all my work. I really appreciate it, it adds value to my project, because now I’m able to respond quicker to the mails. Also, I can use Netflix to see what kind of movies will be good for the children. Even the neighbours connect to my WiFi and some of the kids from the cinema that have devices buy vouchers and connect!”

Of course, running an initiative such as this is no easy task and Buhle has faced numerous challenges along the way. This includes finding startup capital, administration work, and finding the right mentorship. “Sometimes you have to be self-motivated because I see the value of the project for the community.”

Lockdown also severely impacted the initiative because donations stopped coming in, forcing Buhle to suspend screenings. “One person on our social media realised that we needed a cash injection, which is how we were able to get the project going again.” A final challenge is the issue of safety and risk. “We’re working in the township and sometimes that’s not safe, so that and the insurance of things is another challenge that we’ll be able to secure when we get funding.”

Over the years Buhle has taken part in a number of collaborative projects that have allowed him to bring film festivals into the townships, a point of pride for the entrepreneur. “One of my biggest highlights was working with Encounters Film Festival and Cape Town International Animation Festival. Those collaborations that let me create outreach programmes in the community so that we make those festivals available in the townships have been my biggest achievements to date.”

Now that donations have returned and Buhle has been able to resume screenings, he is hard at work trying to build Vuma Pop Up Cinema to the next level. His long-term vision is to grow both his audience and get more funding to expand. “Our goal is to have a minibus with all the equipment we use. We also want a permanent container with a kitchen where we can do food preparation, [because] some of the kids don’t have food to eat. Also, a project in Alice and a tour in Durban. And [to get] sponsors like Lotto, the Department of Social Development, the Department of Arts and Culture.”

With Vuma Pop Up Cinema, Buhle has built a programme that entertains and educates the children of his community in a safe space, giving them the opportunity to take part in an experience that otherwise may be out of reach for them. Considering the success this project has seen in its first four years, there is no doubt that he will realise his long-term vision.