, DURBAN, Jul 21 – Eleven-year-old Sobahle Mkhabase lives in a township but is headed for the red carpet as the star of a new South African film scooping festival awards and drawing inevitable comparisons with "Slumdog Millionaire".
Director Madoda Ncayiyana’s "My Secret Sky" tells the story of a brother and sister whose mother dies, prompting them to leave their village in rural KwaZulu-Natal for the bright lights of Durban.
Fighting to survive on the streets, the young girl played by Sobahle meets an adult she believes will be her benefactor, but turns out to be a pimp. She only narrowly escapes being raped.
Her performance won the best actress award at Spain’s Tarifa festival, where the film also picked up the Audience award, voted for by viewers.
Sobahle, like the character she plays, has no contact with her father. She lives with her mother in a modest home in the Durban township of Chesterville.
She was chosen from among 3,000 children who auditioned in township schools around the city, where Ncayiyana did the casting with a megaphone on the school grounds.
"She just attracted my eyes," he told AFP. "She had a presence. I was thinking, ‘I wish this girl is good’."
"And when I made the audition, she was good as well. She wants to give something, I was impressed. This girl is going to stun the world."
Sobahle’s energy, her fine features and her beaming smile gave life to his vision of Thembi, the film’s heroine, he said.
His choice proved wise: In addition to its success at Tarifa, "My Secret Sky" ("Izulu Lami" in Zulu) was shot in only four weeks but won the best feature prize at the Cannes Pan African Film Festival in April.
For Sobahle, her dreams are becoming reality with the film.
"I wanted to be an actress but I didn’t take it too seriously," she said, under close-cropped hair and almond eyes.
"But when I started the film, I knew that I want to be a big actress. I am very happy and proud of myself," she said.
"The film changed my life because I realised that I have to look at homeless children as they are just like you. Just normal like you," she said.
"For them, it is difficult because most of the time, they don’t eat. In winter, they don’t have a blanket.
"But the film will make people aware about that. I am not so different from them. The only thing that is different from me is that they are homeless and I am not homeless," she added.
The film is the first feature by Ncayiyana, who has previously shot television shows, documentaries and short subjects. He said the movie was informed by his own life experience.
"I live in a township. I see funerals every day. Some children remain alone. People are saturated by orphans. Especially in rural areas," he said.
He’s already working on his next screenplay, with a role written for Sobahle, who said she wants to pursue acting while keeping her feet on the ground.
"I want to achieve my goal of being an actress and I need to go to school. You can’t go anywhere without that education," she said.
"My Secret Sky" opens in South Africa on August 21. No new international screenings are currently scheduled.