Directed by Daryne Joshua, “Noem Ma Skollie (Call Me Thief)” is screening at the 21st American Black Film Festival this weekend.

Based on the life of the film’s scriptwriter, John W. Fredericks, the film tells the story of a young man living in a world of poverty and violence in 1960s Cape Town, before being imprisoned for a petty crime.

The synopsis reads: Abraham raises his status in jail by captivating the hardened gangsters with his gift for storytelling and becomes the ‘prison cinema’ whilst his childhood friend becomes the concubine of a gang boss. On their release ‘AB’ unites with his childhood sweetheart and aims to give up on his gang but they rope him into a crime for which they all face the hangman’s noose.

Foreshadowing the ending, the film begins violently. Over the opening shot of a prisoner in a shroud and noose reciting a final prayer before he’s hanged, we hear the words: “Live fast, die young, and make a good-looking corpse. But that was not the idea my brother. Your eyes pop out, you get a hard on, and you shit in your pants. A man can’t meet the Lord in a state like that.”

Cut to the story’s beginning, and we meet teenager AB (Austin Rose) and his three best friends Gimba (Ethan Patton), Gif (Joshua Vraagom), and Shorty (Valentino de Klerk). From a young age, AB has a gift for storytelling. He tells his friends stories and reads the Bible to his mum, until a brutal sexual assault in a trash heap in the Cape Flats robs him of his innocence. Despite the nightmares, he buries his pain, urging his friends to form a gang, called the Young Ones, to protect each other. Soon they are swallowed up by the the violent world of theft and murder glorified by their fathers and the adult males they look up to.

Some years later, an older AB (Dann Jaques Mouton) and Gimba (Gantane Kusch) are sentenced to two years in prison, where AB hones his skills as a storyteller. He tells stories to amuse the other inmates, keep himself safe, and stay out of the infamous Numbers gang. Gimba stumbles, unwittingly, upon a different path for protection.

Divided into sections like the chapters of a story book, “Noem My Skollie” unfolds like an epic tale. It has all the makings of a modern, good old gangster film.

Geography alone sets the film apart, providing a rich context for the story.

Set in the coloured townships of the Cape Flats, “Noem My Skollie” centers the arid wasteland where many so-called coloureds and Black South Africans (to use apartheid terminology) were taken to and resettled during the forced removals of the 1960s and 70s. The residents live in dilapidated tenements and corrugated shacks, grown men scavenging for goods to sell, while kids fight to the death over scraps of food. It is difficult to imagine any good coming from such rot.

But if anything could come of this wasteland, and Fredericks’ heartrending true story, it’s this film. The wonderful performances and cinematography drop you right into the heart of the story and AB’s plight. The performances are outstanding across the board, most notably from Mouton and his arch-nemesis prison mate Gums (played by David Manuel, a reportedly reformed gangster).

Authentic dialogue and expert pacing keep you watching, and though it’s another South African gangster movie, the use of storytelling as a counterpoint to the brutality of mass incarceration was gripping and refreshing. Perhaps the only false note was the somewhat Hollywood ending that wrapped the story up a bit too neatly. The bad guys go to jail, the good guy goes free, and life in the Cape Flats goes on.

To its credit, the film spares the viewer nothing, making us sit through sexual assaults and murders from its earliest scenes. It’s a difficult viewing experience, if only to draw light on the casual, everyday violence its characters are subjected to and make us want something better for them. But ultimately, they have to want something better for themselves, and it seems only AB really does. Somehow, he manages to rise above it all, perhaps owing to his ability to tell stories. As he once tells his prison mates, “Here, there aren’t convicts, or members of the Number. We meet in the mind and we go through the roof.”

It’s no wonder the film was selected as the South African entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, although it was not nominated. (It was also the only submission from sub-Saharan Africa to receive Oscar consideration.)

“Noem My Skollie” is a must-see film. It’s screening on Saturday at 5:15 at the ongoing American Black Film Festival.