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BEST OF 2014 | CITY OF VIOLENCE

by Kavish Chetty / 05.01.2015

Originally published on 17 October 2014

Jérôme Salle is a director from France or, to rephrase it in an idiom closer to my own heart, Salle is a fraans of a director. We do not tremble with gratitude when we see a European journeying to Cape Town only to re-christen it, for the purposes of his B-grade action movie, a “city of violence”. Instead, we must mournfully recall the long imperial ancestry of such namings in Africa (apotheosised most famously, perhaps, in the idea of a “heart of darkness”), whereby foreigners who know fuck-all about the convulsions and aftereffects of imperial history, seek to determine the bleak soul of the continent from outside.

City of Violence is an abhorrent cop drama which has no interest at all in a genuine exploration of violence in Cape Town – instead, Cape Town (standing in metonymically for South Africa standing in metonymically for Africa standing in metonymically for the ‘third world’ as a whole – so generic is this film) functions as a pretext to satiate the film-makers’ quite evident lust for cinematic gore. The logic goes like this: if Cape Town is politically restless and prone to bloody outburst, then we have the perfect excuse to stage a whole carnival of gunfights and mutilations in our film, and it’s all justified by the fact that this is Africa, where this kind of shit is an everyday event. City of Violence is just another miserable neo-colonial misadventure waged in the name of arrogance and capital.

If you go watch this shit-show, which is presently on circuit, you will see Forest Whitaker (as Ali Sokhela) and Orlando Bloom (as Brian Epkeen) prancing around onscreen pretending to be two ebony and ivory post-apartheid cops. Obviously, they sound nothing like actual South Africans, and so we must once again dumbly suffer through our third-world fate, which is having international actors butcher our accent into vague Australian or pseudo-Congolese. Look closely: locals are good enough to act as extras and supporting cast (in other words good enough to add some exotic detail), but the two protagonists are once again whored out to Hollywood. This is a superb condescension – locals are not famous enough to play the leads; they are denied the opportunity to become famous enough to play the lead; and hence, this film works to confirm the bias that South African actors are not good enough to represent themselves (“they even took Mandela,” one might lament). This is bullshit (Tony Kgoroge and Deon Lotz excel in Cold Harbour, for example. Let’s not too hastily swallow the dogma that all SA actors suck). What’s actually happening is that the dictates of profit and prestige are silencing local actors and glorifying Hollywood celebrities; this film is, in other words, in the process of fashioning a South Africa that is desirable to a foreign audience, and one which is an expectorant to anyone who actually lives here.

Predictably, the film opens with the death of a young, white woman. You see, in these dull crime thrillers, only the death of a white person registers as significant enough to found the narrative arc; if black people die, well of course, that’s supposed to happen in Africa. As one of the Marikana protestors put it in Miners Shot Down: “The life of a black person in Africa is so cheap”. So when a white person dies, it’s like “holy shit, security has been breached, the middle-classes are in jeopardy; can someone please get Hollywood on the ringer because this is some plot-worthy happening?” This attitude is presently playing out in the Afriforum farce, where Dookoom is being framed as virulent spitters of hate speech and inciters of violence, while the conditions of historical immiseration that farm workers are condemned to live out every single day is totally invisible and blends into the scenery as a natural fact of commerce.

There’s no real point discussing the merits of the film because there are none. The sense of representation in this film is so utterly basic that they have Orlando Bloom’s character, Epkeen, eating biltong in almost every scene he’s in as if this somehow authenticates the location. Perhaps South African film-makers should return the favour by making a film in France called City of Foie Gras in which the hero travels around with a smear of tortured goose liver on his chin at all times, because I don’t see how this is any less offensive.

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This country seems to have a real anxiety about genuine representations of black anger. The reason is terribly apparent – apartheid’s historical disequilibria in the distribution of wealth and advantage was never ameliorated in 1994, and instead we were force-fed some bromides about forgiveness and reconciliation while foreign capital consolidated its bases, entrenched relationships of white power were ossified, and an emblematic black bourgeoisie ascended into power to suggest the myth that black empowerment had finally arrived for all and one only needed to work hard enough to attain it. In City of Violence, only a middle-class white woman is allowed to express rage, the character surrounded by her senseless Constantia luxury (vast, emerald garden; sparkling pool; al fresco dinner party) and mouthing off about historical injustice while Whitaker, the black character, sits there mumbling like a jack-ass. The truth is that black anger is terrifying to the propertied classes, because when black people express rage, it is deeply tied to their alienation from wealth and participation, and thus comes with the threat of righteous agitation (hence the fearful reckoning with Dookoom). City of Violence only allows sanitised white rage to be represented onscreen, while expressions of black anger are erased. I guess historical anger is only palatable on a white person’s tongue. Carey McKenzie’s cerebral thriller Cold Harbour, also set in Cape Town, is one of the few films daring enough to broach the continuities between apartheid and post-apartheid power dynamics, when Fana Mokoena’s character Specialist says, “It pisses me off that every time you have to beg a white person to be somebody; where were they when we were in the struggle?”

Here’s another perplexing clue about City of Violence. Whenever black people speak (even when Whitaker converses with his aging mother), they do so in a subtitled half-English/half-Zulu way, presumably because foreign audiences get tired of listening to ‘ethnic’  languages, and it’s just there to add some exotic decoration anyway. Yet, curiously, in a scene in which two Afrikaans conspirators are seen chatting away in a bar, they are given a minute-long dialogue in their own language, with no need to constantly break off into a little accented English. So the question is, why is there this unevenness with regard to how local languages function in the film? The answer is as dumbly colonial as anything else.

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City of Violence represents a vision of Cape Town that is someone else’s fantasy. This is a world in which you might pause to think, “hell, I’ve never seen so many white people on Muizenberg beach!”; where a coloured gangster brandishes a panga and chops off a cop’s arm before decapitating him with ritualistic Acapulco gangland decorum on Muizenberg beach; where a white woman on horseback ambles onto the same beach just to provide some erotic interest for Epkeen; where Epkeen is a decontextualised, class-ambiguous cowboy cop, a rough-edged patriarchal trope who drives around in a Ford Escort. It’s a Cape Town in which we are treated to aerial shots of sprawling shacks designed to turn the place into the new Brazil, the new Mexico, the latest third-world confection in which inane violence is the order of the land. The film makes a mockery out of our history, and keeps drawing on controversial elements of our political situation: like images of suburban racism in which we have to listen to white men talk about black people as “beastly” and “animals”; the word “ kaffir” being needlessly thrown around for drama; where apartheid chemical weapons programmes are superficially employed to add political tension; where the coloured gangsters are typecast into Tony Montana caricatures; where the film-makers have invented a ‘super-tik’ because presumably the blistering fortunes of regular tik-addicts are not interesting enough… the list extends across and envelops the length of the entire film. Even its attitude towards rape is, to put it charitably, unsympathetic.

I recommend watching this film on a know-your-enemy basis, so you can understand exactly what we’re facing in the war against cliché. City of Violence is the kind of film that is so bad it makes you wonder whether mediocrity is an ethical evil. It’s only interested in exploiting South African history in order to justify its scenes of awful carnage. I think that foreign directors can start exercising a little humility now. South Africa is volatile and complex; it resists such cheap reduction. The film is here for the old neo-colonial motive: to make money by flattening this place into a European fiction.

PS: This was the closing film at Cannes last year under the name “Zulu”. How the mighty have fallen.

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