Friday, 21 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Pain and Prejudices

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Metropolitan” (Whit Stillman, 1990)

Available on iTunes.

This week, we passed the bicentennial of the death of the matchless Jane Austen, responsible for no less than six of the language’s favourite novels of all time and over thirty direct adaptations of those works for film and television, not to mention the host of other movies based on or inspired by stories and characters of her creation. I myself have seen very few of those adaptations (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from 2005, is the only one not featured in this blog post), but their number and popularity are enough to set them aside as a genre unto themselves. A far broader and more pliable genre is that of the loose adaptation, into which Whit Stillman’s remarkable indie comedy Metropolitan falls, as inspired by Austen’s Mansfield Park, along with better known films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) and its sequel (Persuasion), Clueless (Emma), and Material Girls (Sense and Sensibility).

I’ve never read Mansfield Park, but the characters themselves of Metropolitan make a pretty strong case for the novel when they debate its value, and the one championing it is revealed to be an Austen fanatic (which is hardly to put a foot wrong for Carolyn Farina’s level-headed and sensitive debutante Audrey) while the one against it — Edward Clements’s young socialist Tom, whose class-consciousness and self-consciousness are closely linked — has not only neglected to read it, but eschews the reading of novels altogether in favour of literary criticism: “That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” It’s particularly shrewd of Stillman, who wrote and produced the movie in addition to directing it, to reference Austen in this way, and by it he shows how Austen has become an entrenched part of elitist culture, even (really, especially) when her name and work are thrown about in conversations that discuss the hubris and decline of that same American elite. (A peculiar delight of Stillman’s script is the bandying about of one character’s coined abbreviation for the class under discussion: U.H.B., which the others shorten to an acronym, “uhb,” standing for “urban haute bourgeois,” because none of the other terms like “preppy” or “Wasp” seem quite accurate.)

Friday, 14 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Breaking Free

“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (Dennis Dugan, 2007)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

There is a tendency among nominal liberal and progressive moviegoers to attend the explicit art-house political saga, and evade the ribald comedies obviously aimed at much broader, less discerning sectors of the population. It’s exactly the constituency that the Weinstein Company often depends on, as well as the one that had, until recently, provided the bulk of outside support to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The misguided refinement and unconsciousness prejudices of this interest group explain why one sees enthusiastic acclaim go to such disobligingly cautious works as The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club, and little worthy recognition be afforded the sharper, more revealing, more personal, more daring — and, yes, more popular and entertaining — works of Judd Apatow and Eddie Murphy. The predominant disagreeable factor of the bulk of these recent outright liberal movies is that they reflect the views and verities of the liberal media establishment back upon itself with little of the insight or tension that leads to true art; the comforting platitudes and affirmations of these movies are generally yoked to a similarly complacent and unchallenging aesthetic. They expand the echo chamber shared by their well-meaning filmmakers and audiences, and do little to advance the political causes they’ve ostensibly taken up, or to influence the culture into which they’re released.

Into this palliative division of the cinema, the drop of something effervescent like Dennis Dugan’s 2007 bawdy entertainment I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this week crossed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release, is most welcome. No doubt a number of readers groaned at the sight of Adam Sandler in a movie recommendation by this blog, and the rest were disconcerted by the raucous bulk of his frequent comedy partner Kevin James. The film is popular enough to have been seen by most of this blog’s readers already, but those who haven’t, despite what you may have heard or previously experienced by way of Sandler’s Brooklyn-bro vulgarity, are heartily encouraged to indulge its frank sentimentality and ultimate moral message of homophilia, which it couples with a warm and heartfelt tone of sincerity and political activism. It’s not in quite the same aesthetic class as the films of Judd Apatow (though, frankly, few films of this century are) but it brings a forthright approach to satirising and transforming mainstream perceptions of the homosexual community it depicts. In that it delves into the personal lives of its characters and portrays private impulses and desires that don’t conform neatly to a conventional political cause — thus illustrating how politics are necessarily driven by the chaotic, multivalent individual lives they affect — it’s superior to the abovementioned issue-oriented films of overtly liberal politics. What’s more, at the time of its release, it was deliberately aimed at precisely the moviegoing market that generally had little interest in or exposure to LGBTQ causes, and did considerable more work in reaching out to a broader, more intersected group for support and empathy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Neither Here Nor There

“Nul is Nie Niks Nie”

What can a movie do for a person? What can making that movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South African society and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie (“Nil Isn’t Nothing”) by Morné du Toit, who previously directed the Afrikaans comedy Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two pre-pubescent boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their home town, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him. The plot and the director’s competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who’s been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent — and will seem that way no matter how a film crew may photograph them. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and — far more importantly — inspire South African artists to aesthetic equivalent heights of richness and nobility.

Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs’s children’s book Oor ’n motorfiets, ’n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word (“About a motorbike, a zombie movie, and long numbers that can be divided by eleven”). It involves the thirteen-year old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender (“Chicken”), both derisively and affectionately, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his older sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world in their old farmhouse while mourning his father, who died two years before the film’s action begins. One day, Martin comes to meet the son of the new neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is kept under strict and constant supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with and attachment to old zombie movies — he’s projecting an old print of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first sees his bedroom, and film posters adorn the walls — and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film’s obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes jarringly with Martin’s clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus and breaks his camera, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus’s movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin’s, stumbles upon their production, and is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus’s character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.

Friday, 7 July 2017

What to See this Weekend: Sucking Up

“Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, 2001)

Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

Those who love Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park just as well. Those — like myself — who detest Downton Abbey and all the trends that bring it great success will love Gosford Park much more. I had the advantage of seeing Robert Altman’s superb country house comedy a few years before the lumbering, sodden Julian Fellowes soap arrived on television, and the film shone too brightly in my mind for the series to obscure anything good. But I think that watchers of the series will find great delight and refreshment in the film as well, even if it doesn’t work powerfully enough to supplant all television from their lives.

I remember the sudden drop in my spirits when watching Downton Abbey, seven whole years ago, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. The earl’s cousin and nephew have tragically perished on the RMS Titanic and the family is consequently thrown into a constitutional crisis, since the next in line for the hereditary position of earl and holder of the estate — i.e., the next closest male relative — is some very distant middle-class cousin, and the eldest daughter of the family no longer has a second cousin to securely marry. The entire situation, from our vantage point of the 21st century, is absurd, and, surely, any contemporary film or television show can only approach this story from the position of recognising its absurdity. But — lo! — not only did Downton Abbey not note and lampoon this idiocy — it positively extolled the old ways, and its six seasons merrily embraced the feudal traditions of living and thinking and oppressing.

I suppose it took an American to go at it the right way. Robert Altman merely begins by acknowledging what contemporary culture often seems eager to forget: that class distinctions exist, that the divisions are often jarringly visible and viscerally unpleasant, and that the system that requires you abide by those distinctions is barbarous. Here, the discrepancies between Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are so vast as to seem astronomical. A reasonable reader may ask why I’d bother mentioning them together in the first place. The reasons are clear and serve a simple purpose: the common ground between the two should prove good enough to lure any ITV-lovers into the cinematic fold. First, both are set before World War II and in an old and sumptuous country house in England, owned by some aristocrat and crawling with well-heeled inhabitants and servants who know their places. Both pay close attention to the minutiae of the social and political order and trappings of high English living. Both were filmed from scripts written by Julian Fellowes. And, most enticing, both star Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Gosford Park brought the grand Dame her last Oscar nomination, and, aside from the acerbic remarks given to her by a screenwriter, it gave her a chance to bite at the others on set in her own words as well. Hence, we have one of my favourite and one of the most enduring lines from all of cinema in 2001: “Difficult colour, green.” Not much to look at, but a thunderbolt from her lips when caught by an able-bodied director.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Their Agonies and The Ecstasy

“Song to Song”

It’s unlikely that I’ll see a better film in theatres this year than Terrence Malick’s newest feature, Song to Song. It’s equally unlikely that a South African reader who looks up a review of the film will find anything like a positive reaction to it. Fans of Malick’s features have become used to this – the last two films he’s made in this most fertile and most far-reaching period of his career that were shown here both achieved Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% – and a lack of critical support for their enthusiasms has done nothing to abate them. It is my own view that Terrence Malick is the most radical filmmaker working today, and one whose work reaches the highest strata of beauty in contemporary art.

The main contentions brought up in reviews in this country are that Malick’s film – in stark contrast to his earlier hits such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands – contains little more than art-conscious pretension and self-indulgence, and, to the extent to which there is more to it, Malick’s ostentatiously rarefied filmmaking methods are too confusing to allow us to grasp it. Leon van Nierop, in his Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, wrote, “It borders on pretension and takes almost two hours to say very little. If you confuse this movie film with an art movie, you’ll have been deceived.” On his weekly slot on the radio station RSG, he said, “I don’t know what it was about, and I’m also not interested in figuring it out. … For almost two hours, you look only at people who flutter, are in love with pretty places, and walk around endlessly and chill.” In his Channel24 review, Ilan Preskovsky wrote that Malick is “inarguably pretentious” and has “nothing whatsoever of value to say”. On her blog, Gabi Zietsman described it as “a convoluted pretentious piece of work that will kill you with handheld camera work and zero story. … Maybe Malick was focusing too hard on everyone’s butts rather than creating believable people, and no number of ‘but it’s art!’ exclamations is going to make this film any more watchable.”

I can’t think of a less fair assessment of Malick’s work – here or elsewhere – as pretentious; what is it they find him to be pretending and not delivering on? No moviegoer is promised a film that will meet their expectations of how a movie should be made and presented, and I find that no moviegoer in this country will witness a more sincere, devoted, intensely heartfelt, and wondrously inventive form of filmmaking in the present day than in Malick’s films. He doesn’t pretend to have loftier, nobler notions of life nor of art than he has; he doesn’t pretend his work is of more value than anyone else’s; he doesn’t pretend to be making films that follow an esoteric and inaccessibly intellectual model of elitist contemporary (or classical, for that matter) art. It’s equally unfair – and so badly mistaken as to seem willful – to accuse Malick of adding nothing of substance to a distinctive photographic style, or of making a film out of little more than picturesque images that amounts to little more than that. To say that it has “zero story” or that nothing happens is to say that very little story was observed, which means that either the reviewers weren’t paying due attention to a film it was their professional duty to watch and consider and contemplate for the purpose of a critical report on it, or that they were unprepared for the singular conceptions of and approaches to storytelling that Malick bears out in his remarkably inventive films. The group of ordinary viewers that I attended a screening of the film with – none of whom is trained in film analysis, media studies, narrative decryption, or artistic demystification – grasped the contours of the film’s story easily enough, and additionally observed the vast wealth of life and wisdom that Malick adorns and fills in those contours with.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What to See This Weekend: Battle Scars

“Transformers” (Michael Bay, 2007)

Available on M-Net Movies Action+ (DStv channel 106) on Sunday, 2 July, Thursday, 6 July, and Monday, 10 July; on ShowMax; on Google Play; on Microsoft; on Amazon Video; on iTunes; on DVD and as part of a DVD boxset.

As the fifth entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers film series holds consumers in thrall, readers of this blog are invited to revisit its earliest predecessor, simply Transformers, which recently enjoyed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. Many other bloggers I read delight in taking cheap swipes at the blockbuster frenzy of Bay’s vulgar excesses, but I, like many other expectant moviegoers I know, never received the memorandum to deride the traditional forms of studio formula-tested tentpoles, nor the technological innovations of computer generated imagery, nor the primal thrill of blowing shit up. If you’ve seen a Transformers film, you’ll already know whether or not you can take what it’s giving, and, if not, this blog encourages you to try it out.

Bay links an intergalactic struggle, and our complacent obliviousness to it, to a far realer conflict that rages in the Middle East while a high school teenager tries to secure the affections of a girl. He glosses his traditionalist values (of family, civil liberties, and the troops) with a dazzling attention to detail, obsession with quality, and quick-witted tone of smooth dynamism. The cast he has gathered fills out his extravaganza with shining cinematic qualities and charisma (Shia LeBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Jon Voight, and Bernie Mac all carry remarkable presence) and blend their moments with the special effects with an effortless fluidity that brings the fantasy to life. Leon van Nierop, in his somewhat positive review of the new film, describes the images as “assaulting every one of your senses”; I contend that they charm and engage your senses with an alluring swagger, as does the personality of their creator, which is illuminated clearly in every moment of the film’s 143 minutes.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mqombothi and the Masses

Personal and professional priorities have kept me from updating this blog regularly, and I hope I can be excused for posting so late on an interview I read with a prominent young South African artist on the website of the national paper I subscribe to, the Mail & Guardian. Three months ago, it published an interview The Daily Vox had had with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, a writer, filmmaker, and photographer from the Transkei who won the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing. (The short story for which he was awarded the prize, Memories We Lost, can be read here.)

He gives an insight that closely echoes what I’ve written here before on adapting literature for the screen:

The problem is to take all these pages and squeeze them into 90 minutes. We would tell better stories taking a page out of a book and making a film out of it.

Mqombothi doubtless understands that much of a literary work is lost in adaptation, especially when done so literally as filming an enactment of its actions and dialogue, or when it must be compressed to fit a standard of running time, or when it needs to be pared down to meet his concerns of accessibility.

I think access is very important. Adapting a book into a movie doesn’t mean everyone can access that story. It’s important to tell the story and I know stories will always find their people, but work needs to be done to make that access possible. I know people in Cape Town and Khayelitsha who have had film screenings, so I think they need to be screened in these areas to take the films to the people and make them accessible. I don’t want my films screened in a festival that my people can’t come to. The problem with film is that it is visual media, it’s different to take text and turn it into visual media.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Free as a Flightless Bird

“Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

As I noted a few weeks ago on this blog, South African films seem rarely to earn back their budgets in commercial theatrical releases (what happens when films reach their DVD release is, as yet, unknown to me); connected to this is the observation that – here, as in every other country – the box office returns for a film are hardly ever correlated with the critical response to them by reviewers and other pundits. Many South African critics have praised Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut feature film of director Christiaan Olwagen, in the highest terms, yet its box office earnings are among the lowest of any South African features this year. Rankings on Box Office Mojo indicate that the only South African commercial release that made less money was The Tribe (which I have not yet seen), and that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie grossed a little less than half a million rand.

As told in its script, the story of Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is more or less a synecdoche for the story of the Afrikaans youth of the late 1980s: those who were brought up in conventional middle-class Afrikaans households and came of age during the most uncertain and unstable period of the apartheid regime, as the National Party was writhing in its final death agonies. Any reader can guess that the prevailing drive among these youths, and, therefore, the characters in the film, was largely one of resistance to the ruling party, its leader, State President PW Botha, its extreme political conservatism, its war in Angola and Namibia, its totalitarian affinities, and its infamously nationalistic and cruel policies of racial apartheid. The basis for this resistance was the broader rebellion against the constricting, socially and politically conservative Afrikaans society of the time. That this rebellion only really took hold in the late 80s, while the youth of other developed nations around the world had already brought about massive and radical upheaval in their societies in the 60s, shows just how inhibiting and controlling a regime the National Party’s was. My impression, both of the party and many of its constituents, has long been that, throughout their history, they pined for their European homelands that they had been forced to leave, and worked their hardest to bring about an idealised replica of those homelands here, at the bottom of Africa, complete with a strong and secure mother nation (headed by the state, in conjunction with the dominant Dutch Reformed church) resourced through exploitation of its colonies and their inhabitants (the South African land and its indigenous peoples); the necessary difference in this case was that the motherland and the colonies were in the same country, and had to be separated by a strong force of permanent division in every regard imaginable – spatial, economic, political, cultural, intellectual (through education), even emotional and (to the best of the state’s ability) psychological. Against this grisly backdrop, like the children of a domineering deacon-father, young Afrikaners began turning the rumbling wheels of their defiance.

To see what other critics had to say about the film, click here.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

The new Afrikaans film Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut directorial feature by theatre director Christiaan Olwagen about the life and death of queer Afrikaans rock singer and popular cult figure Johannes Kerkorrel, was released on the 5th of May. In the two-and-a-half weeks since then it’s been hailed as a landmark feature in South African cinema, and has garnered much media attention for both its subject – it follows a small group of rebellious Afrikaner youths in the late 80s and their brief reunion on a single evening in 2002, and the discussion roves among such topics as the National Party, PW Botha, apartheid, communism, sexual experimentation, the Border War, the characters’ place in the new South Africa, and the rejection of the social and political strictures of Afrikaans conservatism – and the acclaim it’s garnered. I’ve collected here excerpts from the South African reviews of the film that I could find.

Click here to read The Back Rows review of the film.

Reviewing the film for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople – who awarded it five stars – writes that “you’re drawn in” from the first shots, and that “at times it feels as though you yourself are in a drug-induced hallucination.”

Olwagen’s use of long shots places you in the middle of the five friends’ experiences, then and now. Everything feels real and in the moment. You experience everything immediately, without a filter, and the tragedy of it wrings your heart. The archival material and a sober voiceover narration ensures a context that is true to life. The music of the Voëlvry-beweging (“Outlaw movement”) on the soundtrack heightens not only the immediacy, but also the nostalgia of the events. Was Voëlvry the stone that brought down Goliath? …

Johnny’s (Roelof Storm) character is an ethereal, lovable being who gets along with everyone, the resin that keeps the circle together, with whom everyone instantly falls in love. His presence is girded in a halcyon faintness, as though he were standing in for the real Kerkorrel. … Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie can steer you to nostalgia if you experienced that period and want to muse on it again. And in that it’s a celebration of friendship, the only counterweight to a life in a country that has been turned on its head.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Beyond the River”

In continuing my catching up of movie commentary for the last month, I’m compiling more South African reviewers’ views on a new South African release, this one Beyond the River and still showing in theatres. In it, a young unemployed man from Soweto finds a great avocation in canoeing when he teams up with an avid amateur canoeist from the northern suburbs. Together, they train to take on the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu Natal, while each dealing with his personal demons. It’s true story and adapted from the book Confluence, the memoir of the canoeist Piers Cruickshanks.

In a review for the Tonight supplement to the Independent News & Media Group’s newspapers, Jamal-Dean Grootboom calls Beyond the River “a beautifully shot, heartfelt, true-life South African story that should be supported by everyone.”

The fact that director Craig Freimond, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was brave enough to not shy away from the vast racial inequalities in SA as an underlying issue is commendable. The way the film addresses these issues also never feels preachy and is done in a smart way. The two leads of the film, Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby, have spectacular chemistry and Tsipa’s charisma shines throughout the film. … The cinematography of this film is also spectacular, from the close-ups of the canoeing to the sweeping, wide shots of the rivers and landscapes. This film is absolutely beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a film and had vivid images running around in my mind afterwards.

The screenplay is also something that all South African screenwriters should view as a template of how to deal with exposition properly. There’s never a scene where the characters explain things through tedious monologues. All the characters’ background information is given through smart dialogue and expertly placed visual cues. It really is refreshing to have screenwriters to do not treat their audience like idiots … and who give just enough information to put two and two together. The score is the film’s only weak point. The sound mixing is off on more than one occasion and the music is louder than the dialogue. The choice of music is also very questionable in parts.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey”

I’m currently convulsed in a long stretch of catching up on this blog; commitments arose to which I had to give priority over viewing and writing about movies for a short while, as much as I hated to, but, fortunately, I’m now freely available to post here again. Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey was a new South African release which, I think, is by now already gone from theatres. I saw it when it was playing, and, hopefully, will get a chance to say something more about it here later, without seeming too self-indulgent; for now, I’m sharing what others had to say in reaction to it. Just because there are many South African films that I would like to read about but missed the chance to in local papers after they finished their theatrical run, and because most of them don’t get the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic treatment of a long-standing compilation of reviews, I think it’d still be helpful to interested readers if I collected here what I could find on each South African work I see.

In his weekly Silwerskerm (“Silver screen”) column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop reviewed the movie on its weekend of release (in the issue from the 9th of April). After giving a brief run-down of the history of the film’s source material and a plot description, he praises the lead performance by Tobie Cronjé, who, in his view,

delivers a monumental portrayal of the cast-off person with idle aspirations. He is sometimes funny, but also tragic and nonplussed.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Africa’s Upcoming Premier Documentary Festival

Encounters Documentary Festival 2017

The Encounters Documentary Festival has been an annual film event in South Africa since 1999, taking place in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. This year, the 19th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival will run from 1 June to 11 June, with screenings at the V&A Nouveau, the Labia, and the Bertha Movie House in Cape Town, and at the Rosebank Nouveau and the Bioscope in Johannesburg. Darryl Els, the festival director, reports that over 70 local and international features and shorts will be screened, no fewer than 32 of which are South African and 19 are world premieres.

Click here to see the entire 19th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival programme, including booking and ticket price information, the entire selection of films, the festival schedule, and other features.

The festival receives support from a whole host of sponsors, including the National Film and Video Foundation (an agency of the South African Department of Arts and Culture), the Bertha Foundation, Al Jazeera, various commercial funders, as well as other branches of government cultural agencies. The Wikipedia article on the festival also reports that many overseas festivals and distributors programme from the Encounters Documentary Festival when looking for African content in documentary categories. The festival includes a number of workshops where attendees may engage with these sponsors and other strategic partners, with opportunities to meet funders, see presentations on publicity campaigns for documentary producers, see presentations on producing a debut feature, participate in discussions on the state of documentary filmmaking in South Africa, hear panels on breaking into the South African film industry, hear individual filmmakers talk about their own experiences and issues important to them, and listen to discussions on the forms and possibilities of documentary filmmaking. There are also sessions hosted by Al Jazeera that filmmakers, industry members, and observers may take part in that involve pitching and commenting on new ideas for documentaries, and a lab for filmmakers to get a chance to work on their films in post-production with an editing mentor. The information and schedules for all these events are in the programme.

Monday, 8 May 2017

In the Shadow of Camelot


It may seem pointless to publish an entire post on a film that was released over two months ago and is now out of theatres, but Pablo Larraín’s Jackie was remarkable enough a film of 2017 for me to note it on this blog even after its run is finished. There were other films I watched and missed the chance to write about in the last few weeks, such as Fences and Hidden Figures (each of which has significant merit and appeal), but I found Jackie a particularly interesting and idiosyncratic work.

Since most readers who are interested in the film will already have seen it, and even those who haven’t are familiar to some degree with the real-life events it portrays, no plot summary or context is required of me here. Suffice it to remind you that it follows Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days from her husband’s murder to his funeral (plus a few flashbacks to before the murder, and a single day following the funeral), shown in hindsight, framed in a later interview of Jackie (as I’ll call the movie character to distinguish her from the real-life Jacqueline Kennedy) by an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup). The story of the few days of arranging the funeral and Jackie’s life immediately afterwards is based in large part on the Life magazine interview by Theodore H. White, which is presumably what the fictionalised interview is meant to depict, or represent, as well as the deeper-probing interview with Arthur M. Schlesinger, which was only made public many years later. The flashbacks are taken from what we can guess about life in the Kennedy White House from the few public descriptions given of it by Mrs Kennedy, most famously in her 1962 televised tour of the White House.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

South Africa’s Upcoming European Film Festival

European Film Festival 2017

“It was the fate of Europe to be always a battleground. Differences in race, in religion, in political genius and social ideals, seemed always … to be invitations to contest by battle.” Those were Calvin Coolidge’s words, uttered in an address in 1924. It’d be trivial to point out how correct he was then in his view of history, as well as how aptly his description of Europe has played out since. We shall overlook for now the present state of Coolidge’s own fair continent, which itself appears convulsed in fiery conflicts on very much the same grounds as he set out, and which provides our cinemas with an enormous bulk of their general fare; this month, from the 5th to the 14th, the focus at the movies in four major centres in South Africa (Brooklyn in Pretoria, Rosebank in Johannesburg, the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and Gateway in Durban) is on the specifically European tensions of our times – social, political, ethnic, religious, and, of most interest to this blog, aesthetic.

The European Film Festival has become an annual feature at the Ster Kinekor Cinemas Nouveau, coordinated by the Goethe-Institut South Africa, and organised in partnership with various European cultural and diplomatic organisations. It began in 2014 and this is its fourth iteration. There isn’t much of an opportunity to see European features in theatrical release in South Africa, so this one should be grabbed by all curious and enthusiastic local moviegoers. I attended last year, only to see a single film, but shall definitely be making concerted efforts to see far more this year. The festival director (and, I presume, sole curator) is Katarina Hedrén, who has brought over a selection of recent European works, evidently in an effort to span as wide a range of topics, moods, and nationalities as she could. I haven’t seen any of the films playing at the festival, nor even heard of some of them before checking the lineup, but it looks to me like a good sampling for us to gauge the current condition of mainstream European cinema.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Beauties and Beasts


Watching Barry Jenkins’s new feature film Moonlight is like being present at the very creation of the film – not just watching the scenes and performances being captured on camera, but witnessing the conception of it inside the director’s mind. He has filmed and presented it with such spontaneity, and with so thorough a transference of deep subjectivity, that, as François Truffaut once wrote of the films of Renoir, I had to watch it in a theatre a second time just to see if it would turn out the same way. Each shot we see is not merely the canny illustration of burning experiences being depicted and fierce emotions being expressed, but is itself the very expression of them, wrenched from the director’s mind, and arising naturally and spontaneously out of the situation of it being filmed and edited.

Take, for example, the scene playing about halfway through the middle of the film’s three chapters, in which the mother of the main character, Chiron, played by the remarkable British actor Naomie Harris, anxiously greets her son when he gets home one afternoon, and asks him for money (the implication is clear that it’s for more drugs, to feed her addiction). Jenkins has made clear in a large number of interviews and press statements that Harris’s character, Paula, as written by him and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and as filmed by him, is based in large part on his own mother. Her scenes in the film play with an especial and tremulous immediacy, and this particular one stands out for a peculiar visual invention as well – Jenkins, in the moment of filming the actor’s performance, got her to play it looking straight into the lens, and shot it at the higher rate of 48 frames per second. (Almost all video you see is shot at 24 frames a second; the heightened speed is a new industrial technological advance, notably used to shoot Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.) The result has the effect of an unnerving and rare proximity to the figure onscreen, intensifying her essence while simultaneously rendering it more opaque. Indeed, throughout the film, Harris’s performance is perhaps the most intricate (while Janelle Monáe takes the crown for distinctiveness, Trevante Rhodes for tender sensitivity, and Mahershala Ali for grandeur).

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Money matters

I was shocked to read that Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, Mandla Dube’s directorial debut, cost more than R20 million to make. This was reported in an article from January by Gali Mbele in the Sunday Times. The figure is particularly dismaying because I know that no narrative South African film has ever grossed that much money at the box office; Kalushi, which is by no means a record-breaking film, couldn’t hope to gross that much, and, since many deductions have to be made for expenses and other agreed costs, as well as the distributor’s and theatres’ portions of the income, will never make back that huge budget. (So far, Kalushi has grossed about R1.2 million in theatres.)

It drew my attention to the financial matters of film-making in South Africa. How easy is it for a first-time director, such as Dube, to secure the resources he needs to make his film? Does it differ between different kinds of films? How much easier is it for experienced directors with careers and reputations behind them? Perhaps even more importantly, how does this supposed struggle for funding and whatever sources for funding as may be found affect what ends up on the screen? Mbele reports that the main institutions that film-makers can apply to for financial support are the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Lottery Commission, the Industrial Development Corporation, and the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal film commissions. So far as I can tell, each of these entities is owned and operated by the state; to what extent is the state being allowed – by grim financial necessity – to intervene in the works of local film-makers?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A Band Apart

“Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu”

To see what other critics had to say about Kalushi, click here.

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu is the directorial début of Mandla Dube, who has previously worked as a cinematographer on short films and documentaries. It tracks the life of Mahlangu from his time as an ordinary resident of Mamelodi, beginning just before the protests of 16 June 1976, when he was nearly 20 years old, through his exile in Mozambique and Angola, his military training in the uMkhonto weSizwe camps, his return to South Africa to carry out MK guerilla operations, and his subsequent capture and trial, ending with his death by execution in 1979.

The story of Mahlangu’s life and death is an important piece in the history of the antiapartheid struggle, and, therefore, important in the history of South Africa in general. It’d be a valuable thing for all South Africans to know it, to understand the circumstances of it and how they contributed to the events, and to appreciate the full implications of it. Every individual I’ve heard from – and I agree entirely – has remarked on how urgent it is for us to learn and spread the stories of people like Mahlangu, stories which are at risk of being erased and forgotten, and stories that enlighten us by revealing the past and its people.

But a good and important story are by no means sufficient for a good and important film. The venerability of a work’s subject does not necessarily render the work venerable. It’s regrettable that we don’t learn more about South African history at school, and in much greater detail. I aver that schoolchildren will benefit from learning about MK martyrs and just what conditions and manoeuvres led to their deaths, as well as how strongly the legacy of those deaths still impact South African life. I also aver that we should not have to rely on feature films to educate us in these vital matters; I myself only learned the life story of Mahlangu when I heard there was to be a film on it and I looked it up online, and I’m sure most viewers will only learn of it when they see the film. This is woefully unfortunate, and it seems to me to beg the question: If we had all learned about Mahlangu and others like him while growing up and were better educated on the history of the antiapartheid struggle, would Dube’s film still be so widely accepted by audiences?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Live in Fragments No Longer

DVD Notes: “Howards End”

In brief commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of the film adaptation of one of my favourite novels, I read Anne Thompson’s blog post from last August listing five lessons that contemporary Hollywood can learn from “the classic” Merchant Ivory film Howards End. Thompson posted her piece to coincide with the release of the first of many Merchant Ivory restorations, and characterises the films as “period dramas adapted from literature (often E.M. Forster or Henry James) and graced with top actors and gorgeously detailed sets and costumes.” She comments that their “remarkable collection of low-budget indie dramas … were so instantly recognisable that ‘Merchant Ivory’ became not only a brand but also a description of an art film genre often identified in ads with ivy trellises.”

So far so good. Thompson’s judgements of the film as a “classic” and of the oeuvre as “remarkable” are value judgements, and she’s welcome to them. I’m not particularly fond of any Merchant Ivory film and have written as much on this blog; the two iconic out (they were romantic as well as production partners) filmmakers more or less began the middlebrow tradition of selling nothing more than literary tone and faux-élite literary credentials with their many literary adaptations cobbled together by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an esteemed novelist in her own right. As with the contemporary work that continues this tradition – perhaps most prominently Downton Abbey – the films invite viewers to relax into the affluence they depict, as well as to look on the setting through a cheap halcyon gauze of crude nostalgia, with virtually no cause for reflection or examination. With carefully considered storylines and meretricious intellectual and cultural value, the work of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Jhabvala can be regarded as important precursors to today’s esteemed television fare.

Where Thompson goes wrong is in prescribing a set of rules – her five lessons – that she skims from the patterns used by Ivory in making Howards End for the movies that Hollywood makes today. She’s decided that Howards End is better than the current industry average, and that that average could well be lifted if more production teams could just start acting like the one that created Howards End.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Kalushi”

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, the directorial début of cinematographer Mandla Dube, opened on Friday, 10 March, in theatres across the country. Probably the most anticipated South African release of 2017 so far, it tracks Mahlangu’s progress from hawking on weekends as a Mamelodi adolescent in 1976 through his enlisting and foreign training in uMkhonto weSizwe to his eventual capture and trial, and death in 1979. Dube spent a number of years developing the film, reportedly in response to the indifference he witnessed among students regarding the history of the antiapartheid struggle during his time teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand. For those eager to hear what is being said about the film, I’ve compiled excerpts from the reviews I could find.

Read The Back Rows review of the film here.

Writing for the City Press last June, when the film was being screened at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut reports that he “cried at least half a dozen times during the screening … Okay, maybe more like a dozen times.” He goes on:

Kalushi is flawed in many places, but it is a hugely important film. … The very real and hideously brutal violence Mahlangu met is shown without flinching. But the audience sure as hell does flinch. …

Yes, Kalushi is uneven in places, yes it’s very commercial in a Hollywood way, yes Rashid Lanie’s very good score is way sappy at times, yes [Pearl] Thusi is too old for her role and [Thabo] Rametsi a bit Model C, yes the MK camps are a bit romanticised. But, frankly, so what? If a narrative connects the way Kalushi does, if it restores dignity to black life and reversions the narratives of history we are taught, then it negates these petty critical concerns.

The cinematography is brilliant, shot by Tommy Maddox-Shaw, the universe is beautifully realised, the research is thorough, and there are performances that will make you reach for your tissues – including scenes from Thusi. And the fantastical scenes of June 16 transposed to a township backyard are nothing short of genius. Kalushi is the struggle film we have been waiting for even though we thought we had lost our appetite for apartheid atrocities on screen.”

Friday, 10 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Keeping Up With the Kandasamys”

Once again, I find that I am the only blogger who has posted an external review on the IMDb page of a South African film (click here to read it). For those who’d like to hear what others have to say about Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, Jayan Moodley’s 2017 Chatsworth comedic version of Romeo and Juliet, I’ve extracted excerpts from reviews posted by other South African moviegoers and compiled them here, for your perusal.

In a review posted on the Channel24 website last Friday, Gabi Zietsman states:

Keeping Up with the Kandasamys is a lovely stroll through Durban’s famous Indian suburb Chatsworth and the lives of those who live there, even if it might be exaggerated. The two leading ladies, Jailoshini Naidoo and Maeshni Naicker are a dynamite duo and you can’t help but wonder why we haven’t seen them in more movies. …

The disses and clapbacks are pure gold, and these veteran actresses’ comedic timing can make Trevor Noah take notes. Director Jayan Moodley and writer Rory Booth work great as a team and produced an entertaining comedy that will make you scream with laughter. …

Even though the film celebrates Indian culture and identity, the characters remain relatable across all racial and cultural lines, connecting with the audience’s own familial experiences. …

The one thing that failed the movie was the dramatic scenes. When it finally comes out why the two women have been at each other’s throats all these years, the film takes a sudden sombre turn that doesn’t really fit with the first part of the film. The emotions and tears felt like they were being forced through a meat grinder, but luckily it managed to find its way back to the humour for the end, complete with a Bollywood dance number.”

Two Households in Fair Chatsworth

“Keeping Up With the Kandasamys”

Read what other critics have to say about the film here.

Jayan Moodley sets her film Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, which she directed and co-wrote with Rory Booth, squarely in the area of Chatsworth. And, apart from a few brief minutes in the gardens of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she never leaves Chatsworth, illustrating the self-contained society of the area and the unique cultural compounds that make up life in it.

It’s obvious that Moodley possesses great affection for and knowledge of Chatsworth, and the plot she’s constructed works to give her views of life there along various social, cultural, and economic vectors. It involves two neighbouring families – the Kandasamys and the Naidoos – and the overblown, nearly lifelong feud between the two wives, Jennifer Kandasamy (Jailoshini Naidoo) and Shanti Naidoo (Maeshni Naicker), which is brought to a clash when they discover the burgeoning love affair between their children, Shanti’s son Prinesh (Madhushan Sing) and Jennifer’s daughter Jodi (Mishqah Parthiepal).

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Tess”

When I posted my review of Meg Rickards’s new film Tess, I noticed that mine is the only external review to which a link is provided on the film’s IMDb page. For those who’ve stumbled onto this page from there looking for a range of views on the film, I include here a few notes from other reviews published by South African moviegoers, with links where possible.

Writing for the City Press last June, when Tess was playing at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut notes that the “young actress Christia Visser gives one of the bravest, most potent and internalised performances of any of the films at the Durban International Film Festival this year.” Further describing the aesthetic value of the film, he writes:

“Director Meg Rickards has moved from documentary features to narrative ones and brings that journalistic gaze along. Her opening sequence – shot by a drone racing across the ocean until it crashes into Tess’s balcony window – is majestic and her performance direction solid. Almost too solid in that this is a conventional and realistic film with little experimentation. Where it takes risks, though, is in its content.

For once the sex worker is a white woman and it is black women who come to her aid, neatly flipping the script. The violent male gangster is also countered by a kind and confused husband. And, gratefully, Rickards has shot in luminous light colours and delicious blues, contesting her dark story.

Harrowing and important, the film is in competition in Durban and has one last screening tonight. Take your man friends and go and see it. You’ll need a drink afterwards.”

Dancers in the Dark

“La La Land”

La La Land is a ludicrous and a laborious film. It’s the work of Damien Chazelle, who previously gave us the grotesque sadomasochistic psychodrama Whiplash, and plays as ineptly on the subjects of music, musicians, art, and artistry as that earlier film did. Where the two leading figures in Whiplash were each a pile of clichés working tirelessly on performances of mediocre jazz numbers, the two leads in La La Land are empty shapes painted in bright artificial colours and emoting through unexceptional Broadway poperatic ballads. The film is explicitly a tribute to the plastic-coloured musical reveries that sprang up in the 50s and 60s, during the final great blast of energy at the death of the classical Hollywood system; a mixed bag of overt allusions is made to Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Top Hat, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and other films. But Chazelle – though he works frightfully hard for it, and though that labour shows on the screen – does not have the sensibility of style and of wonder that made each of the works he obviously loves so memorable.

The trouble starts in the very first shot, which turns out to be a long tracking shot that appears to last for at least five minutes, right through the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. In it, a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway turns into a song and dance routine. Drivers dressed in monochrome pastel colours jump out of and leap over their cars, mugging chaotically for the restless camera. A show is made of the tracking shot and how well-timed, well-placed, and well-coordinated are each of the dancers, yet the impression given is not of the geometric precision of sequences in classic musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or 42nd Street, but of the strenuous work and rehearsal that went into it. The dancers’ beaming smiles don’t evoke the joy of performance and of artifice, but preen at their technical achievement and conspicuous exertions. The self-satisfied multiculturalism of this opening scene feels contrived and then insulting as it yields to the whites-only love story of the film.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Numbed Pains and Furies of “Tess”


That sexual and domestic violence are severe problems in all pockets of South African society should not come as a shock to any moviegoer walking into Meg Rickards’s new feature film, Tess. Rickards doesn’t aim only to inform us of this fact, but to evoke in us the rage and the pain that attend the victims of these acts of violence, and she hopes that that common sympathy in audiences can help turn the tide in our country and change what we now commonly know as a rape culture. Her film is adapted from the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren (first published in 2008), about the doleful sex worker Tess who, in the course of a career on the beach front of Muizenberg, unexpectedly falls pregnant. Tess (played by Christia Visser) has been masking her own deep psychological pain with a stone-cold face of impenetrable flint, and numbing it with an increasingly dangerous codeine addiction.

Rickards shows us, as if forcing both herself and the audience to watch without flinching, the wearying sexual encounters Tess undergoes daily, her stressful living circumstances with a neighbour whose boyfriend flies into sudden and murderous rages, the physical toll taken by a drug addiction, and the crushing spectacle of an abortion. There’s no aspect of a sex worker’s life that she finds too unseemly to put up on the screen for an audience to endure; in fact, she films these scenes and scenarios precisely because she wants her audience to know those grimy specifics – one scene of terrible physical and sexual violence even depicts Tess’s brutal rape by an unrelenting john. There’s brief nudity later on as well, to highlight the degradation in Tess’s work; Rickards intelligently offers sensationalism without arousal.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

My Oscar Predictions

This year’s Academy Awards face a slightly unusual circumstance: more people than usual will be watching the results keenly to see how the nominated individuals fare, but, perhaps, (hopefully), more people than ever before have also realised how trivial and irrelevant are those results. Following a few months of political tumult, and in the midst of a global uncertainty in just about all regards that matter, people who care about movies know that there’s no consequence in who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences think gave the best supporting performance, or which film they think was photographed best. Award names like “Best Picture” and “Best Actress” have always merely been the Academy’s homonyms for the actual best film and actual best lead performance by a female actor in a year; any concurrence between superlative artistic merit and industry recognition has always been strictly coincidental; statistically, the two matters are mutually independent.

But this year there’s increased attention on the results, because, for one, the Academy has managed to nominate films and individuals that resonated more deeply through the culture than recent years’ selections, and because viewers understand that Oscar success, while fatuous and meaningless in itself, is a marvelous help to the career of many film-makers; if the movies and individuals we love win Academy Awards this evening (tomorrow morning before dawn in South African time), they’re likely to be given both more opportunities and more freedom in making the kinds of movies they feel strongly about. For example, Martin Scorsese went through the routine struggles of making the feature films and documentaries he dreamed of making, and ran into the usual kind of financial and creative obstacles that plague directors in the system; but since he won his Oscar in 2007, for The Departed, he’s found much greater freedom in Hollywood to bring his grand visions to exhilarating, sublime realisation, and that freedom has shown in the three films of his that have been released here (Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street) that was markedly missing from all his previous films.