Long Street Green Card Fantasyby Kavish Chetty / 19.04.2011
In cinema theatres across the country when local cinema is playing, the audience is seized up in a collective déjà vu. For taste and decency, they probably don’t say it out loud. But the ones better versed in movie-going are all thinking to themselves, “Haven’t I seen this before?” and perhaps more sinisterly, “Haven’t the Americans done this already?” It is the first failing of Visa/Vie that it does not push the envelope. Instead, it hastily slaps its loyalty card into that envelope and mails it express to Hollywood, where it languishes in Woody Allen’s stack of fan-mail (another envelope of appreciation could also be sent to Jean-Luc Godard and the whole of the French New Wave, who have clearly had an aesthetic, but clearly not political or ideological, influence on the imagination of director Elan Gamaker).
Visa/Vie is an independent South African film and deserves every compliment for rising above the aspirational trauma (read: financial troubles) that plague films like this from getting released. But that is really an economic victory, and we can’t quite praise artists for securing money without making them sound like accountants.
At the opening, the threshold of the Labia theatre was thronged with smoke and wine glasses. Inside, I had the chance to experience a curious national quirk. When we watch a film that is obviously American in style, there’s something about the South African accent that forces us to laugh. It’s almost as if on a psychic level we recognise that something that should be familiar (the American drawl) is being swapped out for something that could never aspire to be its goal. So why were so many laughs directed at the pure novelty of the South African accent and the way it says things? Are we monkeys staring at ourselves in mirrors? Or, are we so desperate to love what our country produces, that we’ll look for any self-congratulatory signifier. Hey, that’s the Royale Eatery; there’s Hertzog Boulevard; there’s a coloured man making a fool of himself while, regrettably, standing in as representative for his whole culture (but more on this in another article), to whore out our chortles to?
The narrative of Visa/Vie suffers from several problems. Here’s the plot quick-sticks: there is a French woman (who has the most obscene fetish for retro-gear, which includes recorders, telephones, dresses, old puzzles, shoes, books and a car). She is very pretty, but through some bizarre trick of lighting at some points in the film she looks as orange as Deborah Patta. She works as a waitress at the Royale Eatery, until two cops show up and tell her there’s a problem with her visa and she has 48 hours to leave the country. Her plan is to audition a league of gentlemen, with the hope of marrying one of them and prolonging her stay in the country indefinitely. My initial reaction to this was “what exactly is the jeopardy here?!” She has almost zero connection to this country other than being a waitress (and probably making a very average wage – which makes me wonder how she affords all the Kloof-Street-chic retro-gear), she appears to have no friends other than a car guard and some 50s-style Spaniard woman with Italian flair (whom she appears to dislike), and her boss (the coolest guy in the film, who showed up at the screening in a black satin shirt and pony-tail) makes inappropriate comments to her in Afrikaans. Are we supposed to think, “Oh shame, she’s going to be deported back to France with an EU passport, and spend the rest of her life eating saltimbocca in Italy, visiting the Louvre and generally being another self-obssessed Gaul living a life crammed with privilege?” How exactly is the audience supposed to relate to this woman? At any rate, we’re a nation known for our xenophobia – isn’t the more likely reaction to wish this opportunistic illegal alien gets the fuck out of our country?
If this film were set in America, where she might stand the chance to score the coveted Green Card, it would make much more sense. Have you seen Babel? It’s not the greatest film around, but there is a clear logic to the Mexican immigrant woman who is facing deportation, and the drama surrounding her struggle is pure tragedy.
The centrepiece and undoubted highlight of the movie is the middle, where she auditions a bunch of guys for the role of husband – trotting out a whole cross-section of stereotypes from across the rainbow nation. I’ve been thinking lately that “muesli nation” might be a better way to describe us, given that there isn’t any black, white or brown in the rainbow. But, I digress. The sequence is well-edited and quite funny, with David Isaacs doing a particularly splendid job as a lecherous middle-class asshole with a sole patch. She interviews a bunch of guys and none of them meet her standard. Then, in strolls a young and hip coloured dude wearing a slight ‘fro and bell-bottoms. She kind of falls in love with him during a montage spent running through thigh-high flower stalks and hanging out in isolated spots near the mountain. The real jeopardy one would have thought, is that she’s clearly 60s New-Wave and he’s 70s Disco – how will their indie sensibilities clash? Instead, given the five minutes of screen time they share no chance for a proper romance develops, when he tells her he doesn’t have a passport (so, how the hell is this guy, with his South African accent and clear South African heritage living in the country?) so she quits him. Mid-way through the film, she knocks over a puzzle of Africa, and spends the rest of the film trying to rebuild it. Symbolism, anyone?
The film critic of substance – which is to say the one who doesn’t consider a review the chance to dole out plot-point and superlative in equal measure and leave it at that – is the most maligned and hated figure of the artistic industry. He is required to have as an occupational hazard a more interrogatory opinion than that of the average slush-puppy guzzling cinema-goer. But to surrender himself to the nationalistic alternative would be a suicide of ideas and a very well-masked condescension. The condescension is everywhere, and most dangerously hidden in that old time slogan, “local is lekker”. The idea that local is lekker was itself a codeword to produce bullshit art and media without guilt, because presumably the fact that it was local would mean instead of asking what place this piece of art has in a reconstructive society like South Africa, we should button up our flies and sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” instead (the consequences are something like the continued livelihood of the Kookwater Treffers series). I understand that it’s fucking difficult to make movies in Afrika Borwa. But it’s one thing to praise a cast and crew for overcoming the local odds – which almost entirely pivot on money and its absence – and quite another thing to praise faulty, cliché-riddled scripts or average cinema just because it came out of your country. Elan Gamaker and his film-making team have properly excelled at the former, and I give them full credit for it. But how condescending would it be to praise the substance of that film, which simply stakes out old territory already pockmarked by the flags of hundreds of other directors, just because it’s local? Avoiding that condescension is the duty of any self-respecting film critic, and he should probably settle for being slagged off by artists (or those who speak and perform under that overly illustrious title) rather than selling himself out to popular sentiment.
I suppose Visa/Vie can be quite funny at times, even though it tries to be coercively charming. When it comes to considering whether you will support this film at your local cinema, think in the following terms: as a strategic move, it is kind of your duty. Everybody knows the logic by now: the more films like this you watch, the more money it makes, the greater the chance for better films to follow. Just be mindful that you’re being patronising. Setting one standard for us and another for the rest is doing the whole industry an injustice. The question should always be: “Is this a good film?” not, “Is this a good film for South Africa?”