Shnit Happensby Kavish Chetty / 03.10.2011
If you’re offered that toxic choice – good news and bad news, which do you want first? – how do you reply? I prefer the feeling of being dragged out of misery rather than taking a sudden post-joy plunge, so I choose bad first. But regarding the Shnit Short Film Festival, I’ll reverse it to soften the critique and do the gig justice. Shnit will be of immense value to everyone with an interest in the state of burgeoning South African film-making. The festival collects a wide variety of locally-produced short cinema (experimental, comedic; but mostly melancholic) and screens them in 90-minute blocks. For this, the ninth edition of the festival, national prizes have been rigged up to award our most promising film-makers. Something remarkable about all the samples I’ve been given to watch: they are technically accomplished. There was a time when ‘South African’ was a codeword for technical inferiority (Jock of the Bushveld continues this legacy with its mournfully second-rate visuals). But most of what I’ve watched so far demonstrates keen optics, admirable sense for space and composition and pacing. But now, then.
I don’t want to press rough salt in the wounds of young film-makers, but there is an essential problem with short film (short stories are doubly guilty). The length of a short film leaves no breathing space for character development; or for the hypnosis of cinema to charm you into the diegesis. No sooner is the illusion cast than it fades away. This means scriptwriters and directors (mostly) have to salvage their films through wild symbolism: short films demand to be read symbolically. And symbols and ciphers make for a real dangerous game. The threat is of cheap and easy metaphors; or coding working-class struggles in romantic idioms; or symbols which come across as pre-programmed; allegories which are too easily deciphered and therefore needlessly made in the first place. The other side – equally problematic – is excessive symbolising which passes before the audience in all of twelve minutes and remain unhelpfully cryptic. South Africa has an extra dimension of torture built into all this decoding: colour. As long as race remains the nine-tentacled octopus in the room – and this will survive my lifetime and yours too – most of our art will be perceived as having racial dynamics.
A FLIGHT THAT LOST ITS FEATHERS (Director, Jonas Staerk; Running Time: 12:39)
The struggles of the excluded masses generally tend to get portrayed in two insincere ways, and mostly they are merged together: romanticism of their vibrancy and spontaneity; or the deep threnody of their abjection. Flight has both qualities. A young pregnant woman – with a beautiful voice, really charming – dreams of going to the city and ‘making it big’ with her boyfriend/husband, but he falls out of a tree and dies. Fast forward and she’s in a beat-up neighbourhood (more Harlem than Lavender Hills, quite frankly) working as a maid. Her neighbours are mostly in a state of spiritual disarray. A boyfriend fights with his dame, an old man in sweat-soaked vest watches T.V. in a low-slung stupor. One evening, the woman comes back to her apartment, and is seduced by the accomplished piano-playing coming from the room at the end of the hallway. She goes in and discovers the musician, a kind of 19th century Parisian vagabond; a ‘romantic’ (basically, a student of Hiddingh campus). He has “his head in the clouds”, reminding her that even though she lives in poverty and has suffered the ravages of fate, life has its magic. He says, “let music be the refuge of your soul; sing to scare away those woes.” And they play a haunting, charismatic song together.
The film is pretty to look at, but its comment is really quite an old and disputable one. The musician with all his triumphal claims to the heroism and magic of modern life even amongst its material wreckage, is essentially the ghost of Baudelaire travelled through the centuries to remind a domestic worker of the salving properties of cultural modernity. Yeah, you might live in fucking squalor with a dead boyfriend and dead-end gig; your child is most likely going to grow up with a lack of opportunities and help keep the cycle of poverty rounded if it starts to show its edges; but – hey, take heart kid – music makes it all worthwhile. This parallels an old treatment offered to the poor, but the most immediate to my mind is South African film Themba (2010) which employed soccer as the mediator to happiness, rather than music. Okay, if that’s really what we want to reiterate, then fine. It’s not strictly harmless, although it does occlude the fact that music won’t suture physical wounds at the public hospital, or thwart inflation for that matter. The ‘flight which lost its feathers’ is, of course, the soured dream that life was going to be alright. That musical cure offered by our Baudelaire surrogate is just a spoonful of sugar to make that sourness bearable. That taste won’t go away.
DIRTY LAUNDRY (Director, Stephen Abbott; Running Time: 15:56)
Most of these short films I’ve watched have concerned themselves with the “vortex of everyday life”. They are not the fanciful narratives of blockbuster cinema, but studies into the quotidian. Dirty Laundry has the slumberous energy of Retribution. It is aesthetically accomplished: fantastically shot, lit in the eerie fluorescence of a late-night Laundromat, and it also features some rather well-embodied comic performances. A mute white dude gets his washing on and sits down in the empty Laundromat to read his book (“God”) in peace. He is interrupted in his pursuit of the divine several times under rather comic circumstances when an obnoxious, patronising black dude comes in, a young couple embarrassingly want to grab a packet of government-issue latex; a secret agent come in mistaking him for his contact. The film has several thematic indices – the ‘outsider’, mistaken identities, curiously reversed racial suggestions. It’s serious and yet unserious – layered with a potential flatness. But the level at which it struggles for coherence is through the absolute oddness of its thematic signifiers (watch for the colour of clothing, the Afrikaans remarks of the obnoxious black dude, the title character’s unexpected reaction towards the end). It’s a curious experiment, but mysterious and interesting.
FORGOTTEN FACES (Director, Quaanitah Allie; Running Time: 10:32)
And here another melancholy perspective on the lives of the abject in dual narrative – one a Long-street hooker who offers a velveteen striptease; another an Oliver Twist figure slouching through the streets, settling down for a robust evening of mandrax from a busted bottle. Both encounter doppelgangers of themselves (slightly vaguer incarnations in the case of the prostitute) and thus are shown a life denied to them by circumstance and system. This film is overly moralistic and schmaltzy, taking the marked second wing of our “portrayal of the poor” dichotomy. What exactly are we supposed to do with this film? Mine the trauma of the streets for emotional capital and then go home and drink whiskey to inoculate ourselves from the fact that we live in world which “fundamentally reproduces and depends upon a disavowed violence that excludes vast sectors of the world’s population?” (debts to Žižek for that one) Forgotten Faces – I’m afraid even in its title – undertakes none of the risks involved in extending this wearied representation of street-level anguish and anomie.
That the short films produced at Shnit may vary enormously in their quality (and to a certain extent, themes) should have magnetism enough for all interested in South African film. Elsewhere, Focus (directed by Ari Kruger) I find to be five minutes of unnecessary metaphor showcasing a platitudinous remark on the nature of relationships and the wax and wane of romance. And Hooked (Friedl Jooste) is cute two-minute children’s animated film about a fish, which is rather well illustrated, even if it owes the entirety of its existence to Finding Nemo. Also of interest is the Kaapse Bobotie Programme (for reals?) which features some more eccentric local film-making.
*The Festival runs from the 5th to the 9th of October. Details and schedules are available here.