Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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