The silver screen in Sunnysideby Dennis Webster / Illustration by Sasan / 24.02.2014
Near to where I live in Sunnyside, Pretoria, is a shopping centre called Sterland. The Ster-Kinekor cinema that Sterland is built around, seems to be the exception to all rules. In Brooklyn (down the road), a movie will cost upwards of 80 bucks (excluding a Coke). At Sterland, a fliek on Tuesday will set you back a happy R10, R20 on all other days (the Cokes are still pretty pricey). My mom went there with her brother when they were kids – bioscope and sweeties. It was a feature of the former Slegs Blankes / Whites Only city center.
I’ve just attended my third movie outing there (12 Years a Slave) and it’s becoming clear that a movie watched here is an entirely different experience from anything anyone else might have experienced previously elsewhere. Even in Steve McQueen’s emotive and important offering, the strange phenomenon of audience noise was the most notable feature. In much the same way as when I had seen the slightly less important Thor, a constant buzz of commentary, laughter, and conversation bounced around the theater. People were not afraid to answer cell phones and it seemed none had been turned to silent before the film began. I bubbled with irritation for the first bit of the film, and even (I am ashamed to admit) actually got up, for the first time in my life, to walk down a few aisles to ask three particularly chatty cinema goers to please keep it down.
Movies, like novels, are important to the way in which we experience the contemporary moment. Many of the neat social structures and boundaries that the 20th century set out to establish have been eroded by a market system relying on state cut backs and global capital flow. Social identity has become a staggeringly confusing, and often violent, experience. To understand oneself in a world where information and money have no borders, but labour is still vigorously contained and managed, where gross inequality remains the most resounding feature of contemporary society, where patriarchal white supremacy govern our institutions, is a baffling and overwhelming experience. Film, however, allows one to scale this bizarre world down, and one’s self up, enabling one to understand each better in the light of the other. So why are moviegoers in Sunnyside so raucous?
After overcoming my initial annoyance, it became clear that a movie outing in Sunnyside is not the private experience it had been for me elsewhere. No longer were people passive observers and consumers of that silver screen and whatever its message might be. Rather, they forcefully imposed themselves on the movie. Passive, of course, can be understood as complicit. And these Sunnysiders were having none of it. The way in which (predominantly American) mainstream films are consumed in South Africa is usually quite docile. A one-way intake, from mostly comfy chairs, of whatever narrative California happens to be serving up next – whether it’s on the slave trade or the life of Nelson Mandela. If one thing is obvious in Sterland theatres, it’s that the audience have a say. And they say it. There is a palpable conversation between film and consumer. While often comic, that conversation is not always the nicest – grating laughter greeted the drawn out scene of Solomon Norfolk, unfairly charged, hanging from a noose secured to a tree.
For all the discourse that will follow 12 Years a Slave – concerning the black body, (in)humanity, why we are asked to sympathise with a man’s particular experience because his life before was more white – the Sunnyside experience of it is quite an important one. The audience is aware there, even if in some distant way, that once a movie becomes cheaper than the popcorn they might have enjoyed with it, they are in some way disentangled from the rules that prescribe the regime of privacy characterising the experience of mainstream cinema. Woven into that web are not only the offensively inflated prices of movie tickets, but also all they represent – the cultural monopoly on mainstream film of a white supremacist, patriarchal Hollywood; the claim their absurd capital allows them to lay to narratives of exploitation (which they are complicit in recreating in the real world); the conspiring role of private firms like Ster-Kinekor and NuMetro to see that monopoly exercised in Southern Africa and having ordinary people overpay for it.
At Sterland, they’re not keeping step. There is a new set of rules.
Illustration © Sasan