Most film critics in this country surrender their critical faculties to a static nationalism: they are supine and thighs-agape for this duty to nation. Consider for example how many times you’ve heard the phrase “proudly South African” appended to a film review – as though mere geography was a marker of merit. It’s offensively patronising. We can be better than this, seriously. A gush of electric warmth has fired up the pop-critic circuits now that Material is out and here I must disagree with disclaimers aplenty. At its stronger moments Material is funny, lighthearted – above all, it’s a deeply important film for South Africa (more on these superlatives later). All these things considered, it’s still a troubled film – generic, reductive, lacking interrogation (more on these detractions later). To slink low in your couch and discharge the froth-mouthed praise free from all negatives is critically illiterate. Why the need to kiss ass when a solid and fraternal handshake will suffice?
Some positive observations to lure the faithful in: Riaad Moosa is a fantastic guy – charming, handsome, funny; he will graduate one day to become a superb leading actor. Equal acclaim to co-star Vincent Ebrahim – for a man of such small stature he summons a towering grandeur of terror in his performance. He is an actor of accomplishment. But both of these actors are denied the full measure of their talents because of the constricted roles they have been shunted into.
Other observations on the nature of critical inquiry: a Mahala thread-poster recently made an important but oft-eclipsed remark. Why is it that when films critics seek sophistication in cinema, and are disappointed in their pursuits, they are accused of applying the wrong rubric: in other words, this is not “high-art”, you cannot condemn the film to these lofty standards. This is symptomatic some rather black and white thinking. It doesn’t see the shades. Any distinction between “high-art” and “low-art” is itself quite untenable; the borders and boundaries are fluid and art often passes between them as attitudes morph over time. But then take a film like The Descendants, as this same commentator suggested. Although consigned to Nouveau cinemas, where it will not command a fraction of the audience the commercial circuits upstairs enjoy, it is not really an art film. It’s breezy, comic, human, tropical. It merges theme and style into an effortlessly enjoyable and fun experience – you don’t need a notepad or Masters degree to appreciate this. If critiquing cinema rigorously is about encouraging a more sophisticated treatment of theme, is this such a demonic enterprise? We need to annihilate the public idea that the more sophisticated the treatment, the more unpalatable the product. This relationship is a mirage.
Material is a rather recognisable story (see East is East, Billy Elliot, Bend it like Beckham or more obliquely, Funny People and countless others). The film is set in Fordsburg, a both sleepy and throbbing oriental suburb with a high density of Indian cultures. Sir Moosa plays Cassim Kaif – a young Muslim dude battling the twin impulses for tradition and independence. He is in the employ of his father, Ebrahim, at their longstanding fabric store which is struggling in a frigid economic climate (Vincent Ebrahim plays his namesake). At nights, however, Cassim has discovered a place to engage his secret talents: stand-up comedy. His father, being a humourless and grumpy guy – hopelessly in thrall to his historical grudges – would blow a gasket if he found out about his son’s clandestine skill for satire, so Cassim has to keep his moonlighting as a joke-wallah discreet. This might all sound rather x + y = z. It would not spoil the plot, for example, to say that you know Cassim will be found out, that you know his father will react explosively, and that you know they’ll resolve their differences by the end. None of this is ever in question.
The film comes into its quirky own when it aims for charm, the main site of which is an organic relationship between Cassim and his best friend Yusuf (Joey Rasdien): a lively and comic duo, their riffing achieves the film’s highest apogees of hilarity. The other peak-point, incuriously, is when Moosa is alone on the dimly-lit stage delivering the high-calibre and on-target routines which make him one of the most enjoyable acts here in Cape Town (that both rare and vital force, a Muslim getting his satire on). But these scenes are closed-up, because they exist in the murk of an excruciating high-melodrama that drives the film almost everywhere else. I’m talking intrusive tear-jerker piano chords more often than can be considered pleasant; or melancholic lip-quavering. This melodrama is deeply overplayed in the film and it doesn’t feel real, because of course, it’s simply capitulating to a very entrenched three-act narrative framework. Therefore you can predict when the melodrama dial is going to get jacked to eleven (oh, here come them tears, baby!) and when it arrives, it does so in a tidal wave of upsetting schmaltz and soap operatic excess. Hence, a kind of tonal schizophrenia: a swerve and lurch between lighthearted and coldhearted that feels very machinic.
And now for something a little more serious. The centre of this melodrama is the relationship between father and son. Taking influence from Mister Moosa’s own personal cultural-struggles in his stand-up career, these two characters represent two polar religious figures. The one is the old man, whose tenderness for his family is both expressed through, and contradicted by, his unquestioning allegiance to dogma: he is a traditionalist. The other is the young man, a liberal/reformative figure who battles to find a middle ground – trying to keep himself faithful to the divine legislations of his god/family and allowing himself the harmless pleasures of independence, in this case his stand-up. This is, of course, a struggle which wrenches apart many a contemporary Muslim family (hell, many a family regardless of denomination) and the theme is prominent and relevant.
Yet, its treatment in the film is regrettably unsophisticated and thus the film squanders precious resources to think through this conflict in more exciting and galvanic terms. (It is important to note that this film is not a comedy. There are comedic scenes, to be sure, and they are great. But in its other moments, this film is a very serious drama, a didactic cultural drama, and hence its being unsophisticated matters) Much of this is due to the reductive characterisation of the father. The first problem is that this Ebrahim is made into an unsympathisable caricature. He is, to resist euphemism, a kind of stubborn asshole who refuses all change: nurses a grudge against his brother and won’t reconsider, rages against his wife and son and daughter, refuses to rehabilitate his business even though it might save his family financially. In a telling moment, Ebrahim asks the following question, and importantly, he asks it in curled Muslim accent which allows the question to sound strange and alien on his tongue: “what is this, this koh-med-dee? (What is this comedy?)” This shunts him into a full-on opposition with his son’s desire, but it also strips him of any possible complexity – because can we seriously believe that a man who has lived and breathed for sixty-five years in society has never heard of the word comedy before? This effects a further reduction: by pretending as though he is totally unfamiliar with the idea of comedy, and making him a general sourpuss, it allows all his antagonism to be turned into a neat behavioral pathology. In other words, there is something wrong with him, personally; it’s an individual character flaw. What this elides of course, is the complicity between his religion and his attitudes. This is just one example of the ways in which this film hews characters into cardboard cut-outs and breathless mannequins that don’t accord with life’s infinite texture.
Riaad Moosa once performed a great send-up of Al-Qaeda on Late Night News (there’s an SA production worth being proud of). It was a tragic moment in the aftermath, when he was compelled – after a few rounds of ostracism – to turn on his webcam and offer up an apology to the sensitive souls he had offended. The expression on his face is one of pure pathos, and he chants the slogan, “It was never my intention to offend.” This is a rather saddening admission, because the gambit of all comics should be to offend orthodoxy. Not “offend” in the sense of the pointlessly scatological. But everything from table-manners to the more rigid autocracies of our world need get mercilessly ripped into. Satire needs to take the piss out of the powerful, show up their contingencies. The taken-for-granted must be laughed at to reduce its austere power over us. Iconoclasm is a driving force of democracy. (Salman Rushdie, a man who received an assassination order for satirising Islam in The Satanic Verses called his role as a writer/artist “an antagonist of the State”). So it seems to me that when another reporter writes of Material, this film is “subtle and gentle”, they are damning it with their choice of praise. Firstly, the film is not subtle at all and the reductive characterisations should suffice as evidence of this. But secondly, the film is too gentle. It wants to come across as harmless, but in doing so fails to properly explore the character dynamics in its narrative. This is why I indict the melodrama of this film: because it doesn’t arrive as an organic product of the relationships between its characters. Instead, it’s there – thunderously there – out of a narrative convention. It’s there because “this is how you make a film in the style of Billy Elliot.”
A note on catharsis: after Ebrahim has cast his son out of his life for daring to tell a joke, he receives a postal package at his address that is intended for his brother. He hasn’t spoken to his brother in years because of an old grudge, but importantly, these packages arrive routinely, mistakenly, because the brothers have two separate shops with the same name. The package is a weighty metaphor – the other being the set of keys he hands to his son to take over the store – and an obvious chance for peace and redemption. He stares at the package longingly, and then goes over to his brother’s shop for a melodramatic display of hugs and tears and the next thing you know, he’s sitting at one of his son’s stand-up shows and even chuckling a little. Of course, what we were all hoping for is that from this peace-offering package, a white dove would suddenly explode, taking wing before his eyes – and inked cathartically on its ivory belly would be the four capital letters: See You En Tee. Ebrahim Kaif was pissing me off throughout the entire film because he’s a patriarchal irritant and the film never gives him that jolting wake-up call: other than this insufficient package, there is no confrontation with self, no self-indictment, no process of difficult realisation by which he finally acknowledges he’s been too hard on his family and son. His self-discovery is arbitrary. How many hardcore traditionalists are going to give their prodigal sons pardons after this? How many cinemagoers will see Ebrahim as being an embodiment of a humourless religion anyway, and thereby set Islam’s public image back another fifty paces?
Material should not be denied the triumphs of its great actors, boss performances and charismatic humour. However, when reportage turns into a shit-show of journalists running around saying “a beautifully made peace of art [sic]” and “proudly South African”, or drop de rigueur clichés like “rave reviews” and “well worth the wait”, perhaps a little suspicion is called for. The most magnificently imprecise remark I’ve seen so far is that the film avoids “the temptation to become too maudlin.” Au contraire, this film’s greatest aesthetic weakness is how easily it succumbs to that very temptation. Material marks a bold decision to tackle controversial subject matter and its creators need a congratulatory handshake. But caution is in order: its character stereotypes, simplicity and on-rails melodrama arrest the possibilities of greatness. Mark this one down as a necessary experiment en route to more robust film-making.
Release Date: 17 February, 2012