Four Cornersby Kavish Chetty / 31.03.2014
Four Corners is set out on the blistered ganglands of the Cape Flats where young Ricardo (Jezriel Skei) is a fatherless youth trying his best to resist the tethers of gang allegiance, and the whole complex of patriarchal psychoses that come with it. It’s good kid/mad city vibes: he’s soft-spoken, with a moon-face and resistant eyes; and all around him: 26s and 28s cutting each other up, recruiting lost and raw youths at the edges of adolescence into their bloody hierarchy. As a police member sums him up later on in the film, casually crystallising one of its major metaphors, “your life is like the four corners”. In other words, his life is like prison, and more specifically Cape Town’s infamous Pollsmoor. For a young boy like Ricardo, Pollsmoor is a family-fragmenting castle of terror: it’s where fathers are exiled, where the ink of gang insignia spills deep into your insides; it’s also a kind of grim fate promised to Cape Flats kids who are still living the aftermath of apartheid history. Four Corners is, at first, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age drama about a boy caught in the vortices of a troubled South Africa.
His way out, it appears, is on the sixty four squares. Ricardo is a chess prodigy, and chess exercises another powerful symbolic force in the film. “Chess is life,” he scrawls on the underside of his king. And many of the characters he meets are quick to tell him about the affinities between chess and reality – you have to anticipate, strategise, you’ve got to make your move. But chess is, of course, a terrible metaphor for life, and more so for a life disadvantaged by circumstances. The elemental strategic balance of chess consists in the equal distribution of power and resources at the beginning of each game. Ricardo’s life, instead, is defined by a sense of roots-deep disequilibrium: economic, racial and existential. We might say, if his life is to be called a game of chess, he is playing black. He’s not making the empowered first move, but responding to an aggression he had no control over. And if we’re going to do this properly, he’s also missing a bunch of pieces which would make this a fair fight.
In spite of its impressive résumé of socially-conscious subjects, Four Corners is not the antidote to the current malaise of our cinema industry grim-mouthed critics like myself have been waiting for. Its nobler aspirations are swiftly preyed upon by the usual set of cultural and economic forces which conspire to make local films seem like recognisable American fictions, genre pastiches in which our unique historical scenario is emptied-out of its political reality and functions instead as third-world exotica (but more on this later).
Four Corners actually purports to narrate the intersecting stories of four protagonists, of which Ricardo is just one. There’s Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), an ex-convict trying to live a clean life after getting out of jail, but realising the past isn’t so easily exorcised; there’s Leila (Lindiwe Matshikiza), a Londoner returning to her Cape homeland after her father’s death to confront problems of belonging; and Tito (Abduragman Adams), a burly detective trying to find out why so many youths are going missing on the Flats. But Four Corners might also be nicknamed “four genres.” Apart from the bildungsroman vibes of Ricardo, a disorienting range of other styles is called upon: there are die-hard action scenes replete with explosions, automatic weapons and frozen-moment 360 degree spins; a parboiled romantic subplot; an unpersuasive meditation on exile; and most perplexingly, a CSI-style detective thriller which comes out of nowhere.
In one of the most arresting images in the film, the Cape Flats are shot as a precarious agglomeration of crumbling houses, sprawled at the feet of an imposing Table Mountain. The immediate reverberation is that of the favela, and more implicitly, of Fernando Meirelles’s City Of God from which the film borrows elements of stylistic and narrative composition. It’s worth noting in that regard, that Four Corners represents something of a cinematographic coup when balanced against its aesthetically-malnourished peers like Blitz Patrollie or How to Steal 2 Million: the asphalt-jungle apartheid-era apartment blocks are rendered as forlorn concrete monstrosities, and the hustle of everyday life continues apace beneath the clotheslines of brightly coloured garments which hang suspended between them. And yet, something goes terribly wrong during the film, and an apt metonym is to be found in one of its characters. Gasant (Irshaad Ally) is the 26 who tries to draw Ricardo onto the path of gangsterism. He belongs to a subsect of 26s who call themselves “the Americans”. The planetary aggregate of gang names probably doesn’t include criminals stylising themselves as, for example, “the Hawaiians” or “the Kenyans”. The compliment is also unreturned – could we imagine an East Coast contingent or a Mafia chapter taking “the South Africans” as their fearsome nom de guerre? The reason, as we all suspect, is that to call yourself an American is to participate in the “civilisational” prestige of that name: the bloody mythologies of frontier courage, the American dream, the geopolitical might, the superpowers of its commodities, the coin-operated splendour of those Californian mansions as beamed onto our television screens… In the hierarchy of the global imagination, “American” is still very much a codeword for the desirable, an aspiration for power.
This example of the 26s resonates with the state of film culture here as a whole: the desire to be American (marketable, first-world), to conform and contort our unique social logic until it meets the demands of the American trope and the American expectation. As such, in a film like Four Corners, which should be the perfect locus to restart a vital cinema culture, we see in its place a loss of discursive complexity and South African reality being poured into the pre-established cupcake molds of genre. This is not (exclusively) a failure of artistic vision. I’ve spent enough time hanging around aspirant film-makers who bemoan the “structural adjustment” programmes of, for example, the NFVF (National Film & Video Foundation), whose promise of integral funding and financial aid is often contingent on some directorial interference: like pushing three-act narrative structures, neatly-resolved endings etc. all for the gluttonies of economic surplus. There are institutional matrices which exist to disempower film-makers. Our uncomfortable, open-ended and fascinating realities get pushed along an imaginative assembly-line, repackaged in the consumable form of the mass-market trope, and pushed out on the other side as homogenous universal narratives, made distinct by their lick of local imagery. This is a sly cultural imperialism operating at its most discreet.
So, in Four Corners we have the representation of a world which slowly becomes something it’s not. Characters are largely flat and depthless because they only exist as things, manipulable pieces being rearranged to suit the demands of tension and plot. There’s no deeper registration of the dynamics of gang culture, just a superficial treatment. In Leila’s subplot which focuses on the exilic consciousness of the expatriate, the film can only process her riven psyche through the ambiguously-felt chant, “London is my home.” The film introduces a psycho-stalker killing boys on the Flats – but why even bother introducing a pathological murderer, a sure distraction which shifts violence from its systemic nature to the personal, characterological realm? (The killer also spends about four minutes on screen in total and his existence in the film is pretty pointless) There is an “I am your father” moment. The dialogue, the pacing and the social relationships feel too stereotypical – like something was sacrificed in order to make this film feel as close to the American prototype as possible.
As a quick counter to much of the pessimism above, Four Corners is leagues beyond our usual flotsam of tropes and bullshit, and certainly deserves some measure of congratulation for this. But the genre-mania at work in the film, the neat models of exposition, the restless impatience which fails to unfurl the (socio-political and existential) implications of its characters’ crises with any actual depth… these arrest Four Corners from feeling interrogative, meaningful or intelligent. In order to really marshal some much-needed counter-cultural energies, South African film will have to ignore or transcend the rules and prototypes and genre-models and expectations uncomfortably transplanted from Hollywood, which threaten to make all local films seem like rehearsals for a world somewhere else.
Four Corners is a provocative swoop into the undersides of South African reality, but it needed a more nuanced and less trope-y script to bring out the real complexities of this situation.