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Soft Livers and Aching Hearts

DIFF 2011 | Day Three | Soft Livers and Aching Hearts

by Roger Young, Sihle Mthembu and Sarah Dawson / 24.07.2011

Roger Young

It’s a bad day, I end up at a bar mitzvah with platters of crumbed prawns and the whitest black music I’ve ever heard. I’m at the NFVF networking party and the only thing that binds the film makers is their gratitude for the free booze and their disbelief at the kak venue. It was a rough day, from losing my press pass to the Sea Shepherd talk and the abysmal unfinishedness of Taka Takata, a film that might end up being a solid comedy but was just so far from ready to be screened that the only real response was to walk out. Bad shuttle planning caused me to miss Gandu which is, by some reports, the most sexually gratuitous and awful film ever made or, by others, a game changer for Indian cinema. I’m substantially bleak by the time I walk into…

SKOONHEID. Director: Oliver Hermanus. Cast: Deon Lotz and Charlie Keegan (FRANCE South Africa 2011)

Voyeuristic, sparse, almost wordless, Skoonheid is a portrait of a desire that possess upstanding Bloemfontein citizen, timber merchant and unhappily married family man Francois (Lotz). The difficulty of his desire is that Francois is a man who desires men but hates “moffies” and that the object of his desire is a the son of an old army buddy, the sometimes model and law student from Cape Town, Christian; a boy who is interested in two things, Francois’s daughter and a job with Francois. Lotz’s performance is as minimal as the cinematography; both working in a delicate balance to portray a man trapped in a society and having lived in an age where his desires are impractical. As Francois slowly realises how confined he is, his rage simmers and he begins to read the ambiguity of Christian’s metrosexual demeanor and naïve ambition as signs.Hermanus directs with pathos and sensitivity, building tension through suggestion rather than exposition. While this can sometimes feel too laboured, the final dénouement pulls it all together in one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever shot in a Spur. Skoonheid travels the difficult road of the disconnection of a voyeur, a man who is uable to gauge what life feels like, through breath taking framing, a understated and elegant score and considered and honest performances from the entire cast. If the purpose of art is to arm us against despair, Hermanus has made a true piece of art.

Sihle Mthembu

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) Director: Göran Olsson

At  2:30 the Royal Hotel’s screening room was packed, so much so that people had to stand. A crowd had gathered to see a little short doccie called Bay Of Plenty. Forty-five minutes later at the screening of the Black Power Mixtape, the room was practically empty. A woman seated next to me utters “I guess fishing is more important than race,” she is white, I am undecided, so I don’t respond. Black Power Mixtape is a perspective of the Black Power movement in the years between 1967-1975. What makes this interesting is that it is not scripted by some middle class jerk who has the benefits of misconstruing facts in hindsight. Using footage shot by Swedish journalist during the period, with interviews featuring Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte amongst others, the documentary, however, lacks the emotional delivery that often seeps into films about this era, and that is what makes it unique. It has a Swedish neutrality that avoids distorting the facts. One shortfall of the film however is that is tends to simplify the positions of movements like the Black Panthers and The Nation of Islam.

Particularly in relation to the former the film only highlights the radical perspectives of the party and it fails to flesh out the complexities of the time or to show them those radical stances as reactionary to the unwillingness of the majority to recognize the role of black people in America. The film lacks personality; we never get any sort of intimate encounter with any of the people in it. But for what it lacks in personal insight the film does well to highlight the argumentative skills of people like Malcom X, and Stokely Carmichael. There is an intense moment halfway through the documentary where Carmichael interviews his mother for Swedish public radio. From the way he structures his questions you can see that there is a skilled mind at work and eventually the conversation climaxes with his mother saying that the family never had any chances because they were negro. And at that point he flicks the mike off because he has done what he wanted, telling his personal experience through someone else’s mouth.

Sarah Dawson

Today, I’m feeling the fatigue of the more festive aspects of the festival. I’m beginning to look forward to the end of the first part of the event, the part that includes premieres and parties and schmooze-fests, so that I can get down to the serious, but more relaxing business of watching movies. My picks so far have turned out to be pretty good. I haven’t experienced much in the way of disappointment, and haven’t had to send any mean or ugly words your way. Let’s hope this continues.

ETERNITY Dir. Sivaroj Kongsakul. Thailand. 2010.

Eternity is one of those films that reminds us that cinema doesn’t have to be what we know it to be, and that the medium is still in its infancy in terms of formal possibilities. If this film and the quite similar Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee and… are anything to go by, it seems that Thai film, like some other South East Asian national cinemas, has successfully developed a distinctive style that is quite separate from film product in the West, the import of which has traditionally dominated their markets.

Taking an entirely unconventional approach to narrative, it tells the story of a traditional Thai belief in which the spirit of a person who has passed returns after three days to visit the place it cherished the most. Based on the loss of his own father, the filmmaker narrates his own late-father’s ghostly experience of falling in love and his youthful visits to his family’s rural home.

It’s beautiful and surreal in the most understated way. It’s a gentle, tender story that is in no hurry to get anywhere. In fact, it feels in moments like the film itself resists ending. Focussed on the grief of a human soul holding onto a memory in its last throes of earthly presence, it clings to every detail of a particular moment in his life, not wanting to let go. It’s moving and visually stunning, the viewer remains a step away from the intimacy between the protagonist, Wit, and his young sweetheart, such that, at the climax of the film, the viewer feels their own intrusiveness when confronted with the first significant frontal medium shot.

It does require patience though. In the screening I heard an elderly lady literally snoring a row behind me. But this patience is rewarded with a searingly intimate view into the recesses of the human soul.

SKOONHEID. Dir. Oliver Hermanus. SA/France. 2011

It’s almost sickening how young and how brilliant Oliver Hermanus is. Skoonheid is one of the loveliest South African features I’ve seen since, well, his last film, Shirley Adams. His films are characterised by a maturity of insight and intuition that far exceed the majority of his local contemporaries, and his choice and execution of aesthetic is flawless, appropriate and sensitive.

This is a film, about unfulfilled desire, and the ownership of objects of beauty, more than its overt themes of homosexuality or South African machismo. It’s about the white hot energy of frustration and its dangers. It deals with its primary subject, Francois van Heerden, in a way that lurks voyeuristically in the corner of his most secret, shameful moments.

A character driven film, it’s brilliance lies in the simultaneous access and denial of entry into the interiority of its characters. While it is close-up and claustrophobic, there remains a kind of secret behind the eyes of Francois, a secret that he himself doesn’t know. It feels like that behind his voracious homoerotic lust, which he takes to be the dark secret he must conceal, lies another secret. A secret that has to do with vulnerability and desperation, the nature of which remains obscured to both the protagonist and the viewer. To arrive at performances on this level of complexity is an accomplishment of some significance for Hermanus and his actors, particularly Deon Lotz.

It is difficult in moments. It hurts to watch. It shocks, but it does not patronise its subject, and is far from gratuitous. It is familiar and ordinary, and deeply relevant, across all of our complex society.
Hermanus is shaping up to be one of SA cinemas first real auteur directors. The film is a real achievement, and an extremely valuable contribution to the canon of SA cinema. I can’t wait for the next one.

Our viewing schedule for Day Four:

Roger Young:

THE TURIN HORSE (A TORINOI LO) (France, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, United Sates 2010)

FLOWERS OF EVIL (FLEURS DU MAL) (France 2010)

THE JOURNALS OF MUSAN (South Korea 2010)

Sarah Dawson:

THE TURIN HORSE (A TORINOI LO) (France, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, United Sates 2010)

FLOWERS OF EVIL (FLEURS DU MAL) (France 2010)

Sihle Mthembu:

KING NAKI (South Africa 2011)

THE FIRST GRADER (Kenya, United Kingdom, United States 2010)

MAMA AFRICA (Finland, Germany, South Africa 2011)

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RESPONSES (3)
  1. Tobi says:

    ‘Skoonheid’, surely.

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  2. Lizzy says:

    ja, ‘skoenheid’ is iets anders 🙂

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  3. noes says:

    the final dénouement pulls it all together in one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever shot in a Spur 🙂 ha. @roger. naaice.

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