Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Sustained Silence in "Seun"


Seun is currently showing in theatres.

The new film by Darrell Roodt (who gave us Cry, the Beloved Country, Yesterday, and Jakhalsdans) takes as its subject the conscription of newly matriculated young men for the Bush War. At least, the recruitment of one matriculant (Deanre Reiners), in 1982. The boy’s name is Paul, and the film opens on his return home to his family’s farm in the Karoo from boarding school in Pretoria. He returns to a doting, protective mother (Elzette Maarschalk), and a quietly proud, but emotionally distant father (Chris de Clerq). Also waiting for him is Annemarie (Candice Weber), a daughter of one of the local couples, and ostensibly an old friend of Paul’s. We find that, while in front of their parents they’re polite and civil, the two are lovers (chaste, when we meet them), giggling over secret little notes and skinny-dipping together in the farm’s reservoir. They have only a few weeks together, however, before Paul must report for duty, sending him away to fight “those terrorists” for two years.

If, like me, you felt a small welcome shock at hearing of a movie about the South African conscripts (because not nearly enough literature or documentary on the topic exists), you are in for rather a disappointment in this film. If, again like me, you crave films that bravely take on an idea or a subject and artfully, stunningly bring about the realisation, the recognition, the heightening in your consciousness of that idea or subject, regardless of the setting and circumstances, you, too, should prepare yourself for discontent and regret here.

Firstly, the reason for the conscription, indeed the reason for the war, are never mentioned in the film, letting slide an ideal opportunity to examine an event of great importance in South African history. Secondly, in neither the first half of the movie – where Paul has decided to make the most of his summer holiday before recruitment, nor the second half – where he and his family must come to terms with what has happened to him, is any character sketched in anything other than the roughest, broadest outlines. One supposes the characters are meant to be familiar to us (each being a tired and common type regularly shown on South African television and in films), and that the filmmakers have avoided specifics so that the story of one recruit and one family may be taken as a metaphor for a generation. In effect, a personal story is replaced with a national one.

Unfortunately, the outcome of this broadening and utter disregard for any sort of inner life in the characters is not an amplification in the story’s importance, nor a figurative device rich in meaning. It just makes for a tiresome and banal plot, and certainly does no good at all for understanding anything about the Bush War or the conscription. The reason such things still need to be examined is that many of the white men living in the country today were conscripted for the war, and since very little has been published or broadcasted about it, practically nobody, not even the conscripts, knows very much about how it’s affected our country and its citizens. An entire generation was called up in arms against a faceless, nameless enemy (besides its sole identity as “communist” and “anarchist”), and nobody ever spoke about it, then or now. This film illustrates that one fact successfully, but it’s exactly the reality that this kind of film should exist to undo. Telling us that the South African men who fought in the Bush War won’t or can’t talk about their experiences when they come back is true, and helpful to a very certain extent, but it’s a truth from which we must very quickly move on, so that more meaningful and more helpful verities may be located.

It’s here where a mostly negative review is meant to cut from its chief strain, and mention something of the resident pleasures of the film in question. I, however, despite my deep desire to be touting South African cinema at full volume, am hard-pressed to find these pleasures. There’s about 30 seconds of lovely vista shots of the Karoo, which are particularly enjoyable if you deplore any green in natural landscapes; and the smiling face of the young star of the film, Deanre Reiners, suggests a naïveté and a rural attractiveness which somewhat tempers the rather unpleasant second half of the film. But where Roodt is meant to convey youthful exuberance and grateful freedom in the early scenes set in December, we get superficial tranquillity and a calm, perhaps even slightly fatigued, complacency, which very much allays any sense of loss we’re meant to feel when Paul returns from the border, tragically bereft and permanently damaged.

The film concludes with Paul visiting schools as a guest speaker, and telling the matric students about his experiences at the border. Admirable as it is that someone at last is saying something, what, we ask, does it help that the only story the boys hear is his? Without giving too much of the plot away, the only lesson to be taken from his specific story is not to be brave, and not to endanger yourself to help a friend. And, again, if all he is telling the boys is what we’ve seen before in the movie – and the director suggests that this is the case – then still no one has learnt anything about the impact this war has had, apart from the purely physical one on this specific individual.

Roodt’s film takes as its model South African television, with its unconscious images and laughably abrupt dialogue. Its performances are what pass for good, natural acting, and the plot, inherently drab and already somewhat bleak, is sunk even lower by the filmmakers’ indifference to the characters’ psychologies and finer emotions. When Roodt does take to putting in commentary, his images and rhetoric are so plain, so indelicate, and so blunt that all artistic potential is lost. Seun is not worthy of its subjects, and we need something far more substantial and challenging if a South African film is to engage in discussing this or any other of our historical issues.

Seun is written and directed by Darrell Roodt, and stars Deanre Reiners, Elzette Maarschalk, Chris de Clerq and Candice Weber; director of photography, William Collinson; editor, Byron Davis.

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