Man On Groundby Kavish Chetty / 01.03.2012
Akin Omotoso is arrestingly important. He commands the depthless insight to direct cinema into the territory of the real. He urges to reclaim our cinema culture from the grand and agitated black holes which are absorbing dogmas from across the Atlantic, splaying them ruinously onto our shores. Yet, on the purer levels of experience, Man on Ground only deadens the senses. His admirable ambitions have been met with collision. Hmm, this is a severe thing to write, perhaps more severe than the film deserves, because the cultures and attitudes which surround it are greater than an experiential lack. Accomplishments first: its funding is crowd-sourced; it’s the result of researches obtained on the ground; it exhumes from recent history the themes which lurk in the dark recesses of our society. Importantly, the film was screened last Friday at the Gugu S’Thebe culture centre in Langa, dragging cinema away from complacent middle-class multiplexes and into the townships where, to use Omotoso’s phrase, we can initiate “the beginning of healing”.
Healing – and its possibilities and frustrations – are one of the core themes of the film. Omotoso found his impulse for narrative in the iconic image of migrant Ernesto Nhamuave which circulated the planet three years ago. He was the “flaming man” or the “man on fire”, immolated at the apex of a xenophobic outburst. It bloodily contoured the borders between – and here I surrender and use the trashy parlance – “self and other”. It ruptured the international image of a “multicultural” South Africa, ripping up from the roots our rainbow nation vibes. It was not a local phenomenon. This is part of that deeply human negotiation of an anxiety over difference: America and Europe are equally prey. In one of the few lines of dialogue that actually possess philosophical splendour, a character stares into the distance and remarks that from outer space, one realises that the narrow borders we have split up earth into, reflect the narrow borders of our mind.
But often these images exist “out there”, mere glimpses of a ravening violence far away in those labyrinths of corrugated tin, but not here. Omotoso seeks to take the “man on fire” and make of him a man of flesh, a “man on ground”. So, his story is set in the murk of xenophobia, between the urban landscape of Joburg and Extension 29. The tale is cast in a broadly “thriller-ish” format. It’s a “missing-persons” drama, with two estranged Nigerian brothers at the heart of this fraternal divide. There’s Ade (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) and Femi (Fabian Adeoye Lojede). The first is a wealthy London-based banker, while the other is a refugee and political radical in South Africa (the contrast, if rather didactically, works to show up the disparate destinies that can befall men of the same blood). On a visit, Ade is scheduled to meet up with Femi at a café, but the latter never pitches. Later, Ade is contacted by Femi’s fiancée who explains, in a performance which verges too closely on misery-racked melodrama, that his brother is missing. The pursuit for Femi and the quest to discover the circumstances of his disappearance drive the narrative forward, but we’re aware from the opening sequence – screams, dimly-lit corridors – that disaster awaits. Recurring images – lit matchstick, a man pouring petrol onto a structure, a car aflame, a boy being beaten by his peers on a classroom floor – also hint at tortures, yet they don’t work to deepen the enigma, because they make immediately obvious where the story is going.
So perhaps we can phrase the critique like this: the thriller structure of Man on Ground fails the bold thematic explorations of the film. I have been on record launching a corvette of criticisms against our current crop of thriller writers and thriller film-makers (see How to Steal 2 Million and 31 Million Reasons). But of course, the thriller genre is not denied by the naked element of itself of working out great stories: it has the potential to allow access, and the potential for forms of critique denied to other genres. The following is not a criticism of Omotoso but others. Many culture-makers operating in this country seem to confuse the fact that potential energy does not equal the resultant force. Yes, the crime-genre can accomplish much – even if it also has a set of curtailing mechanisms built into it – but it needs to be employed with a certain consciousness and dexterity to get at this: most simply don’t. With Man on Ground the consciousness of theme is there – beautifully, thunderously there. But the film fails its format as a thriller, and as that format is the conduit through which the themes are expressed, they end up frustrated and inchoate. The film has a strong resonance with State of Violence from last year, which incuriously, shares one of its actors, the ubiquitous Fana Mokoena.
Let’s get nasty. The thriller-ish moments of the film lack any tension whatsoever. The dialogue is often slumberous and intrigue-less. The director relies on slow-motion sequences very frequently, which thicken the running-time, but not the enigma, because they aren’t meditative pauses pregnant in the aftermath of a well-quoted line of interrogative dialogue, but mostly just there. There is an emphasis on slowed shots which focus on people’s breathing to such an extent it makes it sound like they’re battling through an orchestral asthma attack. Parts of the acting – the fiancée (played by Thisiwe Ziqubu) is especially guilty of this – are bad, woundingly bad. The percussive and plangent soundtrack is good, but it doesn’t fit the frames, because tension doesn’t develop dramatically within the narrative and hence the tense soundtrack attempts to bridge this absence, but it has too little to work with. Emblematic of all this is the ten-minute frowning match between Ade and Timothi (Mokoena) in the middle of the film. They both swap whiskey bottles between each other in a dimly lit office, gulping fiery swigs, taking turns to see who can crease flesh on their foreheads with the most exaggerated talent; meanwhile, their sparse conversation doesn’t spark, and those lengthy pauses give you time to mull over the fact that there isn’t that much going on and that the narrative struggles to find traction.
But then counterpose this to another scene set in a civic hall. Here we become aware of the exemplary contextualisation the film allows its audience – it gets at something real: fear of foreigners, disillusion at lack of housing and corruption. It takes us into the affray itself and the themes grapple and seethe in those moments. My concern is rather simple. I don’t doubt that many vocabularies could be brought to bear on the movie, that the postcolonial/poststructuralist deconstructions of “us/them” are to be found – if obliquely – throughout the film. Rather, I simply think it’s a trial to watch. I rarely enjoyed a full minute of this thing. The power of Man on Ground is implicit, and I mean this as both praise and detraction. It has the power to charge-up magnificently important dialogue as it coasts the circuits throughout the country. Omotoso has said beautifully, “Art can take us so far and then humans have to do the actual work.” This screening at Langa was one example of humans mastering the galvanic energy of art in practice. The power, however, can be accused of being too implicit, lingering as mere potential. The film itself is not saved by its brooding atmosphere and street-lit cinematography. It is saved by what it holds in reserve, that reservoir of uneasy theme that might yet show up the contingencies: that the manufactured borders of 1884, that ink marked deeply into the parchment of old cartographies, still stains the way we think today; that the borders between us must be made permeable to arrest the violence that always returns upon bodies made rigid by orthodoxy. Man on Ground boldly shows up the complicity of personal and public struggles with “the other” (a private theme of Ade’s guilt, redemption and apology can be read as national allegory)
Final remarks on circumstance: Chimurenga hosted the screening and the audience was – cliché is called for – “refreshingly” cosmopolitan (age, race, gender), a much-adored change from the middle-aged porcelain gang who throng literary launches in Cape Town. Before the film, I looked through a trestle-table of magazines, and saw a fucking great poster. A smiling African dame in monochrome, and printed in scarlet capitals over her face: “If white people didn’t invent air, what would we breathe?”