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Movies, Reality


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.

more guns

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.


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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  1. Anonymous says:

    some actual writing, ideas and positions here exposing the fallow brainless fangless little durban photo blog surrounding it

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  2. Anonymous says:

    The King has returned

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  3. Garth says:

    Great crit

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  4. Dan says:

    It was a terrible film.
    Epkeen finishing every seen with a retarded farewell:
    “Have a lekker swim”, “Have a lekker day”

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  5. BAZINET says:

    Who do you think you are to scrawl such insane words ? Be sure I prefer watching this “shit-show” as you call it than reading your “shit-paper” as I call your nauseating prose !
    Jerome salle is all the more talented as he made this film to be a South Affrican film and after wondering about HIS legitimacy to do do so.
    He never judges, he never criticizes, he always beautifully shows South Africa as many of your people can see your country, he is always respectful of the country and the people…
    What did you expect ? An apology of apartheid ? A fim on the nostalgy of so many years of white domination ?
    You can eat Foie gras and be a nice person ! Undoubtedy, I don’t know i you eat foie gras but in any case you can be a nice person !
    Remember that City of violence is a film about forgiveness ! It seems you do not have any intellectual capacity to understand such messages !…

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Isn’t Orlando Bloom the stepson, or something, of Harold Bloom, noted struggle activist? Oh dear. Not a very convincing way to explore family history.

    Also, I wager a larder full of tortured goose liver that the commenter above – Bazinet is it? – is a transplanted Frenchie. Joburg’s full of them. So happy to be away from Europe. Until they think someone is criticising Europe. Then it’s handbags all round.

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  7. BAZINET says:

    Hey, gritty Anonymous of Oct. 24, not a “transplanted Frenchie” ! Just French, living in France and even eurosceptik at times!
    Also, you were not supposed to comment commenters but to post a comment on the above “blistering attack” !

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  8. Val says:

    Kavish, i think you’re a fucking idiot. You didn’t understand the movie. Are you a real critic ? Of course not ! It’s better to keep your mouth closed. Shame on you…

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  9. BRIAN EPKEEN says:

    Val what woman you are ! You make my day. Before talking about a movie make sure not to be drunk. CITY OF VIOLENCE is a shock. A good one.

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  10. Really? says:

    Kavish, I’m not sure you even watched this film. Or if you did, I can only assume you were tweeting self-righteous rants against the fact that butter, that cruel colonial delight, is still sold in South Africa, rather than actually paying attention. This critique of yours reads more like an uninformed, knee-jerk tantrum that actually undermines engagement with a colonial past (and present) than a genuine piece of considered writing. I am willing to bet that you had decided to lift your poisonous pen as soon as you noticed that a foreign director had dared take on a South African narrative, irrespective of the fact that this parochial and precious notion that only a South African has any right to tell South African stories. It’s a little pathetic. So, where to start? Perhaps with the fact that the idea of casting two bankable leads is good business, not a racist or colonial affront. Perhaps with the fact that every other person in the cast seems to be South African, including some of the meatiest roles to have made their way to South Africa in recent times with big international productions. I cannot think of a single other international production that has cast as many South African actors in important roles.
    Secondly, your predictable outrage that the death of a white girl sets the caper in motion is actually investigated in the film! That death is juxtaposed against the kids going missing around Khayelitsha in an effort to demonstrate how one life is valued more than another in this world. The scene between Epkeen and the girl’s father serves to further establish and question this notion. So, really, you and the film are on the same side there.
    Thirdly, your accusations that Cape Town a)serves as a proxy for Africa, and by extension the developing world, is absurd. It seems as though this is a line from an angry thesis you so enjoyed writing that you needed to retread it here. What evidence is there for this accusation? None at all as far as I can tell. You don’t list any. It’s just an assertion. Or is it because there is violence in this cop thriller where the protagonists are members of the Violent Crimes Unit? I’d love to hear from you on this. It was shot on location, dealt with a definite Cape-based issue, and represented violence that pales in comparison to some of the stuff that actually happens in parts of South Africa, including the heavily disenfranchised Cape Flats. The violence of the film does not reach the awful depths that victims such as Anene Booysen, and many, many others have endured. Defensive much?
    Fourthly, I don’t see how Ali’s final capitulation to revenge, beating a man to death in the desert, supports your assertion that the film is afraid of ‘genuine representations of black anger’, that only middle-class whites can shout and be angry. Yes, the film is about forgiveness, but a big part of it is contemplating the disempowering force that the word reconciliation has become in so many contexts.
    Finally (and only because I am a bit tired), how insecure are you that you find an obsessive’s eating of biltong offensive? How limited are you in the realm of film-making and story-telling that you feel the need to defend tik against a narrative creation? It’s called plot. Something required in a thriller, which this was. It was not a documentary. It was not a party political announcement. It was not representation of your deeply-seated prejudices against the very idea that anyone other than a South African should dare tell a story based here.
    There’s an old Yiddish saying: ‘If you’re out to beat a dog, you’re sure to find a stick.’ Pity. You might have enjoyed the film had you not been batting your eye-lashes at the reactionary next door.

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  11. So says:

    I just want to be clear about one or two things in this review. The writer is offended by the following:

    1. that the producers managed to get two film stars to participate in this commercial venture called a film?
    2. that he doesn’t believe they nailed the accents?
    3. that it is set in Cape Town, or that it’s shot in Cape Town? (really not sure what he’s upset about…)
    4. that it portrays violence in Cape Town? (…been out of your gentrified burb yet?)
    5.that the film-makers created a ‘super-tik’ as part of their plot rather than relying on normal tik? (wtf! how is this offensive?)
    5. that a white person’s death features in the plot alongside the presumed deaths of street kids and that this entrenches colonial dictates instead of questioning them?
    6.that a Frenchman directed it?
    7. that it is a thriller based on an award-winning book also written by a Frenchman?
    8. that one of the characters, an alcoholic, pill popping mess, eats biltong? (seriously!?)
    9. that a white woman shouts or cries while black people don’t? (this is just wrong. There are many incidences of anger and emotion by black people in this film.)
    10. that only 98% of the people involved were South Africans?

    The list could go on.

    I can only imagine that this writer is a post-graduate, faux black-consciousness, pseudo-intellectual so deep down the wormhole of his final year thesis on colonialism that he can no longer see the wood for the trees. This is an agenda on a page. Well-written, no doubt, but insubstantial and based on a fabrication. At best it is a hatchet-job, trying to collect a scalp to garner the back-slapping sycophancy of other chino-wearing half-liberals with no real experience.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    You must hate Terry George, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Macdonald, Danny Boyle, Eddie Zwick, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick… all these filmmakers who had the audacity to make films about countries other than theirs. And cast across nationalities.

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  13. Teddy Bear says:

    Futile and fruitless debate !
    No matter the content of this article !
    City of violence is a very good movie !

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  14. Hey, Kavish says:

    What do you say about this: http://www.capetalk.co.za/articles/846/50-most-violent-cities-on-earth-joburg-isn-t-there-3-other-sa-cities-are

    Or are you still defensive? Not so violent in your Southern Suburb of choice, no doubt.

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