Shot Downby Roger Young / 24.08.2009
Fragmented, incidentally distorted and vital, Shot Down is not only a remarkable (as in “What the Fuck!”) cinematic achievement, it is also a searing insight into the mind of the artistic white liberal in the last high years of Apartheid.
It’s 1986 and Paul Gilliat is coaxed back from a career in New York, shooting footage of visiting Third World musicians, to his hometown of Johannesburg to shoot a film about banned black playwright Rasechaba. It is all a front however; Gilliat is really employed by the National Bureaucratic government to assassinate the man accused of spreading dissent. Gilliat attempts to contact his target through his old friends who are all dissenting artists and musicians (James Phillips, I say nothing else). Film maker Andrew Worsdale uses this device to show clips and portions of then contempory white protest theater and film. I say white because Shot Down is primarily about how ineffective art is as a protest tool, while itself is acting as a conduit for that art of protest and itself being the very thing whose intentions it seems to skewer. But more than that it serves through this cutting up, to show how fragmented the liberal white man’s psychological burden must have been at the time.
The nuances of Shot Down’s point of view are highlighted when Bella (Irene Stephanou) talking seemingly to no one, proclaims “I’m sorry I’m White”. Bella is not literally saying what is on her mind, she is practicing a sketch from a political “cabaret”. Is she really sorry? Is she playing the part of someone who is sorry? Is her character a true reflection of herself? Is portraying white guilt as a way to drive a larger point home within the confines of the “cabaret”. These are questions that, satisfyingly, Worsdale never attempts to answer. Therein lies the brilliance of Shot Down. It illustrates a worldview by being totally part of it, but it never stoops to explain nor offer answers in any traditional sense.
When Gilliat finally gets out of the headspace of protest artists and on the road to find Rasechaba the film settles into a different pace. Our hero sets out to kill in confusion and then settles into to a slow searching for answers, in this regard Shot Down almost functions as a Apocalypse Now in reverse, but it’s invested with a lot less portentous rambling and a lot more absurdity. A key scene is Gilliat, James Phillips and Caesar (A Young Barker Heyns, um, I mean, Robert Whitehead) sitting in their car at a roadhouse (How do you tell it’s still the eighties? A drive-in non-franchise burger joint called Casablanca) watching a guy in another car shout at his girlfriend and then them for watching. It highlights all the intricacies of the relationship without anyone really working at it.
Shot Down is the truest of white protest films, it capture the confusion of being white, knowing things aren’t right and being ill equipped to deal with it, all in a gloriously off hand manner. When Gilliat makes an impassioned plea to the go-betweens about the importance of people seeing Rasechaba’s theater, he is told “Our theatre has no meaning to anyone else but ourselves, do you think there is any point in showing it to you?” Never has the well-meaning white liberal dilemma been illustrated more succinctly. And it’s the closest he ever comes to finding or understanding his target.
On film festival release in 1987 (before it was banned for having ‘ no artistic merit whatsoever’) Ivor Powell called it “the archetypal, white, decadent, existential-crisis-ridden, drug-crazed, politically incorrect, misanthropic film.” These words still stand today even though twenty-two years on, Shot Down is hard to find. If you want to see it, there are occasional screenings at WITS. You could try mailing PaulGilliat@telkomsa.net; he’s a pal of the screenwriter Rick Shaw and may be able to get you a copy. Or you could phone M-Net (they have the rights) but that will probably be as effective as Gilliat’s resignation phone call to his bureaucratic handlers. He was answered by a machine.
Side note: Shot Down has some amazing music in it. The Cherry Faced Lurchers, Benny-B Funk, Kalahari Surfer, Bernoldus Niemand and The Genuines.