Khumbaby Kavish Chetty / 25.10.2013
Neville Alexander, bless his departed socialist soul, once wrote that South Africa was becoming an “ordinary country”. He meant by this that, having (supposedly) overcome apartheid, our economic and social models were helping us converge with the rest of the world: disastrous class inequalities, exporting social disorder to the impoverished so as to uphold the sanity of the bourgeois realm, and various repressed racisms and subjugations lurking among the split veins of democracy. This is a heavy reference to open up a – for Christ’s sake – children’s animated film review. But a certain analogy holds. In 2011, I reviewed Jock of the Bushveld for this magazine, describing it, rather generously, as a “shit-crusted cliché” and a “bat-signal for an age of mediocrity”. To my mind, it might slouch among the worst cinematic testaments of our history. But two years later, Triggerfish Studios produces Khumba, a film which in (almost) all respects outclasses the former, demonstrating an admirable grasp of animation’s technical savoir-faire. And yet: alongside its charm and cuteness, an old, even nostalgic cluster of representational problems; the same ones insidiously at work in the movies of the “first world”. South Africa has begun producing an “ordinary cinema”.
All credit goes to Triggerfish’s dextrous animators, who have transmuted the arid vastness of the Karoo into a cartoony simulacrum of splendid, burst-pink sunsets hanging over desolate flora, or scorched-earth salt-pans immolated under a merciless sun. “Khumba” – a name which bears a homophonic proximity to “Pumbaa”, “Simba” and “Kimba” (of 1960s anime, Kimba: The White Lion, the original document of Disney’s later plagiaristic adaptation) – is a young zebra born with half his body absent of stripes. In a fortified watering-hole around which the rest of his species congregate, in a kind of Pride Rock surrogate, his birth augurs a drought, plunging the whole of the Karoo into a dry-spell crisis, which Khumba (meaning “skin”) is blamed for. Khumba’s strange body is thus tied to the earth, and the film is a coming-of-age drama in which he “earns his stripes”, so to speak, by questing after a mythical watering-hole that will replenish and revive a thirsting Karoo. One question comes to mind, immediately: Where BP at? Rather than slyly charge its narrative with the ecological antagonisms of “fracking”, Khumba evokes the supernatural, missing a deeply relevant critique en route.
Much of its spirit is that of a playful companionship with The Lion King, its citations of which are almost uncountable: Khumba’s father commands the magisterial voice of Mufasa; a pack of wild dogs are close contenders for Shenzi, Banzai and Ed; an early episode in which Khumba is admonished by his father takes on the tone of the “elephant graveyard” moment; Khumba and his female playmate represent, absolutely, the Simba/Nala dynamic; a monk-ish praying mantis is, distinguished only by his species, Rafiki; a stalking wild-cat approximates Scar; and there is no shortage of moments and themes – including treks across deserts, the death of a parent, the phenomenon of drought, the prodigal son, the circle of life, lightning striking bushes, an eccentric duo of travelling companions and endless et ceteras, all of which are nostalgic borrowings, if you like, from Disney’s old royalist parable. (they are done, as an aside, with an assured sense of film-making, giving Khumba a stylish, American quality; a semi-consoling improvement over the aesthetics of incompetence which marked Jock)
Before the media screening, a marketing manager explains some of Triggerfish’s economic triumphs. Their last film, Zambezia (2012), outperformed all expectations in Russia, and was so popular in Poland that it sold just 2000 tickets shy of Toy Story 3. She suggests a global hunger for African content, but I wish to hang around that suggestion a little longer, taking obvious notice of the fact that Triggerfish’s most enthusiastic patrons are the former Soviet Union and an Eastern bloc territory, old communistic allies borne aloft in a sibling loathing of America. She tells us, also, that the composition of Triggerfish is 100% (South) African – but this “proudly local” fact, becomes a moment for dire introspection when we consider the film itself, which allows the dull drift of market forces to blunt its “locality”, turning Africa into a placeholder for the projection of western fantasy, and strangely alienating everything “local”, whilst valorising “America” as the hidden centre of the work. An authentic South/African cinema is one which resists the hegemonies of Euro-America, the old racist catechisms which define Africa in the European imagination. Khumba – with a seeming innocence – replicates the old stereotypes and binaries and gestures, and as such, produces the eerie sense that South Africans have seized the means of representation from foreign shores, but conform to the ancient script so thoroughly as to basically victimise themselves.
In Khumba, the collective of “zee-bra”, the main actors of the film, are not voiced by South Africans, but rather Americans (Laurence Fishburne, Jake Austin, AnnaSophia Rob, Devon Gaye, Bryce Papenbrook, Sam Riegel, Alexander Polinsky, Joey Richter, to provide a partial list). There are “other accents” at play – Australian, Scottish, English – but belonging as they do to peripheral characters, sidekicks, antagonists or passers-by, they help to position “America” as the protagonal force within the film, an empathic centre against which the others are measured. These American “zee-bra”, like Khumba, have individually fleshed-out personalities, are characters unto themselves. Curiously, at the two moments when Khumba introduces local accents, they are subsumed into “collective personalities” – a herd of gemsbok, who are linguistically identified as African, and a team of springbok, who are Afrikaans. Both of those species are subjected to stereotype in the film. The gemsbok speak in a slow, wizened register of the “noble savage”, their monologues connect them with the rhythms of the earth; they are exoticised (even as animals!) by their voice, which stands apart from the American heroes. The Afrikaner accent of the springbok works to turn that team of animals into a (sanctioned and familiar) bumbling, comic Afrikanerdom. When one of the “zee-bras” is represented as being an idiot, he does so as an individual, one individual among others. When the gemsbok or springbok speak, they speak on behalf of their whole species, they ventriloquise an exotic other. This works to the disastrous effect of alienating locals in their very own Karoo, colonising that territory for American protagonists and American consumption. It also mirrors precisely the kinds of racial logics that are at work in everyday life.
Elsewhere, much like in Jock, the African Karoo begins to resemble the western frontier, and the bright, jangling strings of country music are used to complete this evocation, as are southern, hill-billy accents. When recognisably “African” music is employed – and there are at least two counts of this – it’s there to work an idea of tragedy, with the forlorn wail of its vocals reminding us of African hardship and the fortitude required to survive this prehistoric land. This jumble of globalised signifiers, especially the mesh of accents (curiously, both Russian and Polish are ignored), seems to speak of a cosmopolitanism, but it’s a false one, which hides its solidarities and affiliations in the dynamics of its characters, their relative positions of prestige, their comparative levels of stereotyped-ness. Anthropomorphising animals is not an innocent imposition of language upon the mute; in fact, far more problematically, their being animals and not humans almost seems to make them beyond critique, while certain ideological gestures are freighted in between the animated lines.
Khumba conducts itself in perfect awareness of how this genre works, and deserves a certain commendation for this – but in addition to its representational disappointments, it does also suffer from certain problems in narrative tempo, breathlessly rushing through its confected episodes, announcing and disposing a menagerie of characters in restless exposition. Aside from this, it’s recommendable (to children); and at its end, superb conceptual art splashed beneath credits are another marker of its artists’ talents. But, like I say, certain technical accomplishments do not eclipse its discursive resignations to the Empire, that it’s allowed the desire to be “marketable”, as easily consumable as possible for its American audience, to conflict its local spirit. I recall some anti-colonial remark by Gayatri Spivak: “Seize the apparatus of meaning-making”. South African film-makers, now clearly having access to the technical means of representation, should probably resist the urge to marginalise themselves in their cinema, to stop using Africa the way it’s always been used and especially so in children’s film.