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DIFF 2011 | Day Two | Hubris and Education

by Roger Young, Sarah Dawson, Sihle Mthembu / 23.07.2011

Roger Young

The press briefing. You make a lot of notes about all the non-screening events you should cover. Halfway through you realise it’s pointless and start checking through your programme to see what films you are going to see today. Then you gossip in the business lounge about last night’s parties in various hotel rooms. Actors do marathon sessions of interviews around you, while you struggle with the dodgy wi-fi at the Royal. There is nothing in the programme that really jumps out at you; there is no Anti Christ, no White Ribbon. You pledge to try see every South African film at DIFF, you know it’s not going to happen. Later that night there is an unfortunate moment after the screening of How To Steal 2 Million. During the QnA an audience member states that he didn’t like the film and wants to know what audience it was intended for. The director, Charlie Vundla, tells him “if you don’t like it then go make your own fucking movie”. Then he tells another audience member that he’s going to meet him in the parking lot afterwards. It’s just plain inelegant. After the 2 NFVF films of the night I feel like I’ve been sent to some kind of rudimental first year genre school and pledge to try find something interesting, I just want to see good films. Fuck this national loyalty or politics shit. I’m playing the screenings loose tomorrow, going with the wind.

RETRIBUTION. Director: Michael Mukunda Dewill. Cast: Joe Mafela, Jeremy Crutchley. (South Africa 2010).

As it opens Retribution sets off all the warning bells, an incredibly slick title sequence, a sound design, and an over-exposed grade that feels a little too imposed. Joe Mafela is alone in an isolated cabin in the middle of the Karoo, a judge at the end of his career writing his memoirs. Mafela’s performance is a little stilted and the set up is stock standard psychological drama. But with the arrival of Jeremy Crutchley as Alan, a man wronged by Mafela’s judge,posing as a lost hiker, the film takes on a new dimension. The interplay between the two performers delivers on tension, and the score begins to do real work. At times Retribution can feel a little over stylized and while it never really delivers anything new to the genre Crutchley is skilled enough to make even a clunker like “Now you’re really starting to make me angry” almost work. With the arrival of Mafela’s daughter Retribution heads into shakey physoclogical territory but the faults of the script are mostly glossed over by strong performances, taut editing and a reinforcing score. Retribution relies too heavily and too often on suspension of disbelief and, while it’s redeemed by strong direction from newcomer to features, Dewill, there is nothing startlingly original about it. Retribution is a fairly sturdy little genre piece but it’s no Duel.

HOW TO STEAL 2 MILLION. Director: Charlie Vundla. Cast: Menzi Ngubane, Rapulana Seiphemo, Terry Pheto, Hlubi Mboya. (South Africa 2010)

How To Steal is a triumph of production, it’s also an abortion of a script. Joburg looks impressively Noir-ish, and at the opening, all the elements for a good solid heist caper are in place. Ngubaneis slick, gravely voiced as Jack the ex-con who is trying to go straight. Seiphemo is sleazy and whiney as the rich kid with the gambling problem who’s daddy, John Kani, has cut him off. Shot in dark leathery tones, utilising shadow and architecture brilliantly, the film is a mark of a production team that know Joburg and it’s shadows. However all of this is let down by a script that is a mélange of various ideas and lines lifted from The Grifters, The Killing, The Long Goodbye, et al. Vundla takes his material so seriously that he never once acknowledges his sources, hoping, perhaps, that the “uneducated” African viewer will think that this is all new. The sad part is that the audience at DIFF seems mostly suckered by this, especially in a scene lifted directly from any number of those 50s thieves-in-love movies, where Pheto and Ngubane out pickpocket each other as a seduction dance. It’s also a vastly misogynistic film; the female roles are one dimensional and obvious, Terry Pheto as the sexy thief who wants to just get her son back and see the “crystal clear ocean”, Mboya as the battered wife of the bad guy who is still in love with the good guy. At least Pheto is convincing within the limitations, Mboya delivers another flat and uninspired performance. For it’s first third How To Steal builds slowly with a jazzy feel, like it could go somewhere but it’s flaws set in fast; it has no sense of humour, it’s pacing never changes, the set up takes far too long, it’s cops-on-the-take sub-plot has little credibility. In short it comes across as a first year film school production that would have got a recommendation for the director to go into soap opera. About two thirds of the way through the film John Kani and Ngubane have a stand off; it’s the two old cons meet and discover they have respect for each other scene from Heat, but the level of dialogue only extends to Kani complimenting Ngubane on pretending to be a Jehovah’s witness over an intercom. Ngubane accepts and deflects the compliment and the two old dogs smile wryly as if they’re masters of their game. Vundla obviously knows that this is a scene the genre requires but has no idea how to lift it out of insipidness. Like the two supposed masters in the scene Vundla wears the superficial mask of a director but delivers no substance to back it up.

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS. Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly. Cast: Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy. (Canada 2010)

Starring the excellent Peter Stormare as a small town police chief facing his first murder investigation, Murder Songs is a superb example of how little you need to do in order to deliver an affecting and emotional film. Sarah gets into the details below and I agree with her on every point but I wasn’t as convinced. I found the biblical text elements got in the way of the simple and poignant performances and I found the musical choices, after a while, a little obvious. It is still however an excellent study of human frailty and the need for forgiveness. It has a refreshing lack of cleverness and doesn’t try to push its lesson too hard. Martha Plimpton as the police chief’s lover is beautifully and realistically ditsy but never overplays her hand. And the scenes between Stormare and his father are infinitely sparse and heartbreaking.

Sarah Dawson

Still feeling a little sensitive from the opening night’s party, I decided to start the festival off gently, warming up with two, rather than the anticipated three films last night. It’s surprising quite how challenging it is to sit in a cinema seat for a consecutive six hours. My choice of films turned out to have surprising synchronicity. Despite being quite different in content, and from opposite ends of the world, the communities in which they took place were similar in many ways – lower class, rural communities, where vicious German sheperds are kept on chains, and everyone knows everyone’s business. It worked well as a package.

LES GEANTS (The Giants) Director: Bouli Lanners. (Luxembourg 2011)

The Giants tells the story of teenage brothers Zak and Seth, left to fend for themselves in their late-grandfather’s rural home, by a mother who doesn’t care much for their well-being. They befriend another local kid, Dany, also something of a lost-boy, continually on the run from a pathologically violent older brother. The three wander aimlessly through the late-summer, in a mode that is simultaneously childish play and, and desperate means of survival: They drink and smoke pot in fun, juvenile, experimentation, but it belies an urgent need to forget a nagging sense of abandonment. They camp out by the riverside, Huck Finn-style, but only because they have lost their home to an extortionist pot-farmer. Their moments of utter despair are interrupted by childish fart jokes.

The form of the buldingsroman likes nouns like “journey” and “lesson”, but this is a film in which the protagonists have nowhere to go, and nothing worthwhile to learn. The adulthood that they observe around them is embodied in grotesque, repulsive characters who loom and leer and cheat. The boys’ journey moves simply from one incidental moment to the next. Their only quest is to achieve some kind of security and stasis. It is a purgatory of adolescence. They find themselves adrift in a developmental moment, tugged by a need for care and the more immediate need to stand on their own feet.

The boys’ performances are astonishingly good, joining the ranks of the highest calibre teen performances, easily matching that of Thomas Turgoose in Shane Meadows’ This is England, for example. Against a backdrop of arresting, inventive cinematography in the crisp outdoor light amongst the Luxembourg farmlands, and sensitively appropriate soundtrack by The Bony King of Nowhere, this a film that is about a moment, rather than a narrative; about nostalgia, rather than story; and about suspension rather than movement.

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS. Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly. Cast: Peter Stormare, Martha Plimpton, Jill Hennessy. (Canada 2010)

An unusual film, with very little plot, but plenty of mood, Small Town Murder Songs takes place in a backwater Ontario town. When a girl turns up murdered, Walter, an ageing policeman with aggression issues finds himself stirred in a way that challenges his recent religious vows to deny his most animalistic energies.

It reverberates with same kinds of unsettling undertones of small town life as Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and circles around the same themes, but where Twin Peaks veers into nightmarish symbolism, Small Town Murder Songs, employs only metaphor that is utterly ordinary to the world in which its characters live, such that it requires no extraneous tools of interpretation. You need not understand the characters in any ways that is priveleged to the ways in which they see themselves.

It’s a small film, with a small story about a very big thing – the very location of our humanity along the spectrum of impulse and self-regulation. It is therefore interesting and appropriate that the story unfolds against a backdrop of a traditional, Mennonite community, since the faith prescribes an explicit commitment to non-violence. The film is punctuated by Bruce Peninsula’s spectre-raising gospel chants, which burst forth at unexpected moments serving as ominous religious warnings. It is no more and no less than a kind of understated Gothic tale of good and evil set in the most quotidian of spaces of human existence.

Sihle Mthembu

HOW TO STEAL 2 MILLION. Director: Charlie Vundla. Cast: Menzi Ngubane, Rapulana Seiphemo, Terry Pheto, Hlubi Mboya. (South Africa 2010)

The narrative of How To Steal 2 Million is not a new one. The bad guy who wants to go good who has one last job to do, and is double crossed by his friend for a broad. All of these are familiar themes, but it is the first time we have seen them done well in South Africa. What makes Vundla’s rendition of the subject matter quite refreshing is the consistency of the level of execution. Perhaps that is partly owed to the fact that the film was only made in only 30 days. How To Steal passes every test as a plausible narrative.

One of the films strongest points perhaps is the script; the dialogue is littered with wit and innuendo. Buy the end of the first twenty minutes the characters are fully formed, which makes it easier for the film to move at an unrelenting pace. Unfortunately for those who do not understand Zulu or Sesotho the subtitles don’t do the dialogue any justice. Jack the lead character is cleanly executed by Menzi Ngubane, who brings are sort of skin-deep arrogance to the role. But not to be outdone John Kani also has his moments in the sun in a stellar performance that will surely be the envy of many actors who don’t transition well between stage and screen.

Sons tend not to cope well with the pressures of having a legendary film making parent. But if ever it was an issue Charlie Vundla has not just gotten the monkey of his back. He has kicked it.

Our viewing schedule for Day Two:

Roger Young:

SKOONHEID (France, South Africa 2011)
TAKA TAKATA (South Africa 2011)

Sarah Dawson:

THE TURIN HORSE (Bela Tarr 2010)
ELITE SQUAD 2 (France 2010)

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RESPONSES (2)
  1. hmmm says:

    okay Sihle definately wasn’t in the How to Steal 2 Million screening.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

  2. hmmm says:

    shit.shit.shit. and I definitely forgot how to spell.

    Thumb up0   Thumb down 0

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