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DIFF 2011 | DAY 6 | Identity and Flux

by Roger Young, Sarah Dawson and Sihle Mthembu / 27.07.2011

Roger Young

Films and only films. This is the best part. Standing outside Musgrave at midnight, in huddled groups discussing Greek Cinema. Rushing from venue to venue, hoping screenings are slightly late. A confused glorious rush. Today, for me, Black Butterflies and Attenberg, for the others Restless City and Flowers of Evil.

BLACK BUTTERFLIES Director: Paula Van Der Oest. Cast: Carice van Houten, Rutger Hauer, (Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa 2011)

Aaaah, the literary biopic in stylishly muted tones, the tragic misunderstood writer, the callous men that clearly drive her to her end, the absolute and total misunderstanding of a subject by a director that clearly misunderstands the process of directing. Black Butterflies is a deeply offensive and, simultaneously, quite boring film. Its major error is portraying Ingrid Jonker as someone life merely happens to. Jonker, it would seem, made no decisions on her own but merely reacted to the decisions of the men around her, from her father to her lovers. She is tragic because she is tragic. Even in the sequences that show the events that theoretically shaped her, we get no sense of who Jonker was or why these events shaped her. Butterflies’ faults are in its using of props over performance and beautiful locations over authentic spaces; nothing rings true. This is especially relevant in the character of Eugene Maritz, a construct to stand in for Andrè Brink. Using a name so close to Eugene Marais in a film about an Afrikaans literary figure speaks of a willful ignorance, a lack of sensitivity that rankles. There is however more than these seemingly petty concerns. Apart from the fact that none of Jonker’s work is read in Afrikaans, is the fact that none of the other writers’ work is read in the film, Uys Krige, Jack Cope, Maritz/Brink are portrayed as “Flawed Men Ingrid Thinks Will Fix Her” rather than individuals in their own right, dogged by their own achievements in an uncertain time. Jonker’s work itself has no sense of public life; it is mostly seen scribbled on the walls of her childhood bedroom, not in published form. We get no feeling for how the public reacted to Jonker other than clips of MP’s daughter in the newspaper. The culmination of all of this is that the Jonker character comes across not as a troubled poet but as a poor little rich girl with Daddy issues. There is very little impetus for her behaviour internally or externally.

Black Butterflies lacks authenticity. It’s a film of faulty geography, characters devoid of consequence, and some really pretty dresses. To add to the list of its crimes, even the South African actors fail at South African accents. Black Butterflies reduces Jonker’s pain to a series of inept stylized images, it trivializes her contribution to Afrikaans literature, and it trivializes Afrikaans literature itself.

The final horror of the film is that the famous reported statement from her father upon hearing of her suicide by drowning (“They can throw her back into the sea for all I care.”) is cast aside in favour of the saccharine inclusion of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech that quoted her poem. It’s not that Mandela did not quote her; it’s that Mandela quoting her after her death has, like the film, little to do with the life of Ingrid Jonker.

ATTENBERG Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari. Cast: Ariane Labed, Giorgos Lanthimos, Evangelia Randou. (Greece 2010)

Filled with the stasis and repetition of small town life, Attenberg is a keenly observed film that follows the late sexual awakening of 23 year old Marina over the course of her architect father’s terminal illness. She imitates the actions of wild animals; observed on David Attenborough’s documentaries, in abandon with her father and in a series of refined, almost dance-like parades on the apartment blocks concrete paths with her only friend, a girl with a free sexual nature. Shot in a flat industrial palette, loaded with inertia, listlessness, a sense of drifting and anomie, Attenberg still manages to be playful and absurdist. A slight examination of the rituals of mating and dying, it’s a film where not much seems to happen while the plates shift irrevocably under the surface.

Sarah Dawson

It’s time to ratchet it down a notch or two. It’s all about the films now. I’m a little terrified at the thought of the upcoming weekend though, over which I’m going to have to squeeze in eight films in two days. It’s been done before. A little coffee and an emergency packet of winegums in my handbag should do the trick.

Yesterday morning I had some nightmarish, this-must-be-karmic-retribution-for something vehicular drama, which left me drenched and miserable and far from enthusiastic. It took me a good couple of hours to summon the will to leave my duvet tent in the evening, meaning I had to give up on my plan of seeing At Ellen’s Age. The weather will turn tomorrow, they say, and leaving the house will become a more palatable prospect. The cinemas are warm in any case.

I did still get to see Flowers of Evil in the Sneddon. It’s the homeliest of the Fest venues. Comfy theatre seats, nice big screen, warm-toned siren signalling the start of the film, old fashioned concession stand, bar. It also happens to be literally five minutes from my house. Armed with a flask of hot chocolate, dressed up to look like some kind of cast-off childrens’ show mascot, I got into the theatre only seconds before the opening credits.

FLOWERS OF EVIL (Fleurs Du Mal) Dir: David Dusa (France 2010)

The films two protagonists go only by their online handles. The doe-eyed and beautiful, if oddly proportioned, Miss Dalloway arrives in Paris having fled the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. Soon after, she meets the flick-flacking breakdancer-come-hotel-bellhop, Gecko Hostil. The film is, in many ways, just a simple love story. The two isolated twenty-somethings drink and twirl and run fingers over each others faces on white cotton bedsheets. But a love story needs a complication, and the antagonistic force here is that Miss Dalloway, despite her escape from Iran, still has one foot in the revolution through social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s the first film I’m ever encountered that really deals with the schizophrenic mediated existence of the 21st century, without foregrounding social media as a “thing” in itself. Rather, it deals with the modern experience of existence always characterised by a sense of displacement. When we are here, in the present moment, we are often somewhere else, when we convince ourselves we are somewhere else, we discover that we are in fact, inescapably still here in the present physical moment.

The film possesses a revolutionary quality appropriate to its subject matter. A large proportion of the material made use of over the duration of the film is taken directly from real YouTube videos of the Iranian Green movement, including visuals of real deaths of young people during the uprisings. The film is punctuated by on-screen tweets and status updates, which blur the boundaries between the screen of the cinematic and the screen of the networked computer, and troubles the clear distinction between the two. I don’t recall any other production that has integrated “user footage” and fiction in this way before, and it is not only effective at an affective level, but offers an interesting new direction for for the filmic medium in an age which positively convulses with electronic signals flying back and forth, and which cant be separated from the rest of our daily experience.

It’s not a perfect film. The performances are self-conscious and adolescent. It feels somewhat amateurish. The fictional scenes have a quality of the “digital” that is not beautiful. The exposition is awkward at times: Just as we begin to wonder how an Iranian youth on her first trip to Paris speaks fluent French, we are informed that, conveniently, she has studied it since childhood in Iran. But perhaps all of this is all exactly appropriate to the age of YouTube. The digital is the aesthetic of now. Perhaps the era of 35mm and the all-powerful auteur is indeed over in a world in which we receive more visual information via the internet than projectors? If it is, the film does not necessarily paint this as being a positive move, it simply accepts it a modern reality that we must negotiate. It brings with it a loss of coherence of meaning and unity of self. It destabilises notions of home and friendship and particularly love. But it also facilitates revolution and the emergence of new kinds of imagined community.

Still, it is flawed. The lead male actor was present for Q&A after the film was obliged to describe (in stilted English) the films most pointedly symbolic moment to an audience who explicitly didn’t get it. Which is not a good sign. But the somewhat cringe-worthy need for explanation was quickly forgotten upon the offer of a live demonstration of Gecko’s dance moves.

Sihle Mthembu

RESTLESS CITY Dir: Andrew Dosunmu Cast: Dania Gurira,Anthony Okungbowa, (Nigeria, USA 2011)

Restless City is a kaleidoscope of stillness. It breaks every convention of Nollywood filmmaking. It is a sonnet with 15 lines. Djibril a young Senegalese comes to Harlem in search for the American dream. He wants to sing, but soon becomes numbed by a lower class morality. Restless City shows New York in a way that is seldom seen. There is no Times Square, Wall Street is non-existent. It is just images of people in Harlem, well dissolved into a refined canvas that satisfies the palette of any viewer with an acquired taste for Brilliante Mendoza or Raoul Peck.

We follow Djibril as he tries to make a demo, save a prostitute he loves and try and make a life for himself. The all African cast carries the task of emotional absolution with relative ease. Everything is said almost matter-of-factly, and this is what attracts us. The film avoids the often exaggerated performances that are now synonymous with the West African cinema. The close-ups are vibrant with color; this is a director with good taste in wardrobe and shoe fetish.

What is perhaps most notable about the film is that it is about a musician who never sings, instead he buys counterfeit Jay-Z cds from a local merchant (who turns out to be his adversary.) But we don’t mind this. An almost echoing musical score foreshadows Djibrils lack of vocal intercourse, leaving us asking what tune he would sing if he were to unleash his throat. Made for a mere 80 000 dollars in two weeks the films is strong both visually with a vivid blend of low budget camera work and perfectly executed editing. It has an aesthetic quality that is not synonymous with films made by directors from Nollywood’s recent era.

Day 7 Schedule

Roger Young:

THE DEAD SEA (India 2011)
ELENA (Russia 2011)
OUTRAGE (Japan 2010)

Sarah Dawson:

ELENA (Russia 2011)
MICHAEL (Austria 2011)

Sihle Mthembu:

THE DEAD SEA (India 2011)
CIRCUMSTANCE (Iran, Lebanon, United States 2011)
MAN AT BATH (France 2010)

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RESPONSES (5)
  1. archie says:

    nice one guys

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  2. Tobi says:

    Thanks, Roger. Couldn’t agree more.

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  3. Russell says:

    Nice review of Black Butterflies, Roger. I found it utterly painful.

    Perhaps you should have included in that list of crimes the cringe-worthy dialogue.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  4. Yikes says:

    Black Butterflies seemed to move you deeply, Roger.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

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