Hel Op Die Plattelandby Kavish Chetty / 24.11.2011
It’s difficult to resist the histrionic urging of a film like this. It dangles its seductive lameness before you. It architects the mise-en-scène for a thorough critical savaging, which spares no expletive or low-slung metaphor in its bitchy pursuits. The exercise of this savaging is a non-catharsis. I tried. What I’m left idly puzzling over in the aftermath of that aggression is this: are the directors and producers of this film – and all films like it – aware of its phantasmagorical strangeness? Platteland is a self-contained, cloistered Bloemfontein countryside dream: a world run amok with someone else’s idea of normal. I may have to reach for that eight year-old Bellville interrogative to counter this properly – “kan jy jou idee van normal by jou gat opdruk – kan jy?”
Let allow me allow you a glimpse through the screen, of a world that waits on the other side; another side, which whole consuming populations swallow and enjoy. Within the first five minutes of this film, you’ll see a young woman awake in her farmhouse bedroom, clutching her bible amidst her white duvets, mailing prayers to god for a boyfriend. Then – and I wish I had the linguistic skill to render the unexpectedness, the juxtapositional shock of this development – she’s suddenly out on a verdant cliff edge, arms thrown up to the heavens, belting out a Celine Dion tribute; or singing the same while feeding a baby goat from a milk bottle. I heard the voice, I saw goat. The voice announced itself in a gurgling satanic register: “I am the soul and spirit of everything unholy in this world and I am adored by millions.” I stifled a yawn that threatened to split my jaw apart. I found myself in “Hel op die Platteland.”
What we have here is a vanity project for best-selling Afrikaans musicians; an action-musical or musical-thriller, a narrative threaded together with kookwater-treffers. It reaches its climax of self-satirising laughability very early on. Career racist Steve Hofmeyr sings “ek is baas van die plaas en ek maak groot geraas.” You can search as thoroughly as you like for irony – maybe an unintended grin or a slip of the tongue – but this is despairingly the genuine article. I’d liken the experience of watching this film to a pot high gone wrong. You’re laughing uproariously, full-throatedly; your guts hurt. Then the cogito, your rational mind, comes in to break up the party and asks you why you’re laughing – nothing’s actually funny here. That’s when you slip into the shit-abyss. The precise moment of paranoia for me hit about mid-way through. Thereafter, I was bored, disheartened; not even anthropological arrogance makes this film worth while. Not even the cheap reactionary feeling that by disliking this, you belong to some last civilised regiment of an epoch torn asunder by its contradiction and triteness.
The narrative seethes with that familiar anxiety of farm murder, but they function here almost politically-evacuated; mere grist. Riana is the boyfriend-wishing broad of the Celine Dion tribute mentioned above. She lives with her younger brother on a cattle farm in the Free State. Their parents were murdered. “The Hof” plays local town bad-ass Mike Ferreira and he’s – as if I needed to remind you – the “baas van die plaas”. He’s loved as a kind of philanthropic figure throughout the community, but secretly, using his dirty connections, he’s been masterminding the mass-scale closure of local farms because he’s discovered their land is glutted with diamonds. Riana’s farm is the latest target he has in mind. Mike also runs a security company called Cowboy Security and hence has a battalion of cock-heavy goons at his disposal. When Riana realises that Mike is out to get her, she puts out an advert in Farmer’s Weekly for a foreman and bodyguard: a man to ward the wolves from the door, but also subconsciously, to give her the right royal rogering she’s clearly lusting for so badly.
The film is mostly just prologue for a stand-off between Riana’s unlikely knight-in-shining-tinfoil (Bok van Blerk) and Mike Ferreira. The problem is the film takes a brisk two hours to get there. Thankfully, it’s buoyed up by some vital quotations en route. My favourite is when Riana’s out in the field after a long day of farm-labour with a prospective foreman; a mutual love interest appears to be taking root between them. In a sighing pause full of romantic longing, the foreman takes his hat off his bald head and stares deeply into her eyes. He says, his voice nearly choked up with nationalism and pride, “It’s not everyday one meets a woman tough enough to run a farm by herself” – a gentle delay, a smile, then – “It makes me proud to be Afrikaans.” The few journalists in attendance at the screening all let out a mighty whoosh of laughter at the ridiculous staging of this whole thing, the point where the film must aim to tug so nostalgically at the hearts of its supposed audience.
I suspect most of the film was built around that single quip – although, it doesn’t show up in the weak female portrayals. In one electric scene set in a strip-club, Mike Ferreira’s son grabs a stripper and throws her on the floor, threatens to smack her in the face and calls her “my property”. After this de-dignifying display he jumps on stage and – to a soundtrack of unmistakable Free-State synthesizers – sings a lekker treffer. The stripper is presumably so amazed by his moves and his body that she immediately forgives him for all the gender violence and hops up on stage joining him in the pelvis-thrusts and poses of an embarrassing 80s-esque dance: how they still get down in the Platteland. That’s Bloemfontein feminism for you, friends and neighbours!
Elsewhere, the film gracelessly lurches on – corny, shameless, embarrassing and all shot through with incongruous moments of musical self-indulgence. Any reason appears sufficient for a song: milking a goat, why not? Bakkie broke down on the highway? It’s liedjie-time. Boyfriend sent you a text message saying “sweet dreams?” Let’s go crazy. A pot-boiled romantic sub-plot – jammed up with the cliché of having its lovers flung on opposite sides of the familial battle lines – is going on too. The camera keeps lingering on the face of the boyfriend in this romance, presumably to show how caught up in love he is. Have you ever seen a guy forcibly trying to contort his features into an expression of true love? He stares up into the clouds, lips half-apart, eyelids dimmed: he looks like he’s taking the best, longest, most cathartic piss of his life and is loving every second of it.
Anyone who says that “this is a musical, bru, so it’s supposed to be lark this”, needs to promptly seek out the nearest kite and proceed to fly it. You always encounter this thinking, this “there’s a heritage here and artists should regularly prostrate themselves before its shrine.” Please. You don’t get an historical pardon just because your present absurdity has a long lineage in the past.
Finally, Platteland cannot be recommended. I ponder again the strange logic which created this film – a cash-magnet aimed at a very particular gang of tasteless drones. Much like Getroud Met Rugby. It invites us to step behind the curtain, into the illusory fantasyland. But the film is really made of a charmless lunacy. It falls short of the only redemptive possibility it had going for it: it’s not shit enough to be ironic. To scorch this thing with criticism is a waste of time, but I’ll add one final insult. This film sucks enough to briefly erase your convictions in social change. It’s like, yeah, okay maybe one day we’ll put an end to the huge asymmetries in the distribution of wealth and suffering in this world; one day we might cure prejudice. But this moron cinema and its gape-mouthed adorers are going to survive well beyond that; this is here with us unto the apocalypse. Give me Skoonheid; give me Anton Kannemeyer or Conrad Botes; stuur my hemel toe, but fuck it isn’t op die Platteland.
*Platteland releases nationwide on Friday 25 November 2011.