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Shot Down

Shot Down

by 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.

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RESPONSES (12)
  1. djf says:

    Seems well worth checking out. Is there any reason why this couldn’t be released on DVD?

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  2. Anonymous says:

    how can i get my hands on this? Interested to see it..

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  3. Roger Young says:

    Kids, pay attention. Read the last para, mnet have the rights so it won’t be released any time soon but if you email the filmmaker he’ll ship you a copy for a small fee.

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  4. djf says:

    Does this mean that Mnet would broadcast it in the near future?

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  5. Anonymous says:

    M-Net’s Africa channel occassionally show it – but since there’s no programme listing for those channels you have to sit through the Nollywood dross to hope to catch it

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  6. Rod says:

    I remember it well – a great film and at the time absolutely outrageously daring in its political message. Director Andrew Worsdale was a classmate of mine at school and at Wits at the time he shot this – he’s still around and you can find him on Facebook.

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  7. djf says:

    Still, there doesn’t seem to be much reason why MNet shouldn’t allow a DVD release then. BBC do it all the time for their programming and probably turn a tidy profit from it as well.

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  8. Roger Young says:

    I think Worsdale is struggling with this with them. Maybe a phone call or two to mnet from the concerned public will help.

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  9. Sean says:

    Roger, nice piece but I disagree with you in parts. The mythology of this film has a way of preceding it. I had to do a feature on SA films two years ago, for Empire, of the now defunct Maverick family. This movie kept coming up. Director Tim Greene told me it was inspirational: “it made it possible to imagine what I wanted to do”. In his book, Encountering Modernity, Durban-based film theorist Keyan Tomaselli lauds the film for its “nihilistic fury”. After my article appeared Andrew Worsdale phoned, offering to lend me his VHS copy. What struck me, aside from seeing a young Matthew Krouse, was how rambling the whole thing was, precocious too. On one level it is a document of the neo-dada tomfoolery then popular in left-leaning arty circles, particularly the cabaret. I suppose this is why Ivor said what he said back then, having been a part of that nihilistic but joyous experimental scene. But seeing it in 2007, and having peripherally encountered some of the scene it described two decades before, the movie felt stuck. It was like an inexplicable fragment from a bygone era. Maybe if I watch it in 2017, I’ll feel different. This is just how I felt seeing it the first time, in 2007. Disappointed. Another thing. You write: “Shot Down is the truest of white protest films.” What about Darrell Roodt’s early films, chiefly The Stick but also Jobman?

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  10. Roger Young says:

    I think Shotdown is much truer about the inefficiency of the white liberal protest mentality that Roodt inhabits in The Stick (Jobman is a whole different kettle of fish) than it means to be.

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  11. mona says:

    there is a fresh copy at the new cape town library opposite the grand parade

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  12. Ian Fraser says:

    If there’s a dvd release, hopefully, my ‘Pigs’ poem – which got me teargassed at a JODAC benefit concert at the Market Theatre – might be included in the extras. The film makers filmed me doing it during the club raid scene, if I remember it right. Overall though, the film is best remembered as brief snapshots of some of the anti-apartheid social milieu, Jameson’s Bar, cabaret things, and Free People’s Concert bands in action.
    In terms of interesting SA films, that genuinely captured something while retaining a coherent narrative, I recall being struck by a little seen movie called ‘My Country My Hat’ – which emerged some years before. Simplicity of form almost always works better than flashy… (IMHO) 🙂
    ps. Found this page as I was trying to work out what year they filmed me, busy writing a firsthand account of my own little bit of the Struggle…

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