Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Emptiness of a South African Adaptation

“Happiness is a Four-Letter Word”

From what we’re shown in Thabang Moleya’s new film, I might judge that that four-letter word is “skin”. The writers seem to have surveyed their source material – the 2010 novel by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, unread by me – for all scenes in which they could free their actresses from sleeves, shoulder straps, knee-length skirts, and backs of clothing; and their actors of tops altogether. Tongayi Chirisa – playing Thomas, the fiance of Mmabatho Montsho’s Nandi – spends little time in more than just a pair of shorts, and the other men (whose specific identities are difficult to discern from the film’s IMDb page) don’t keep much warmer. And in a scene with her lover, we witness Khanyi Mbau (playing the forlorn rich wife Zaza) stripping down to thigh-high stockings and scant bright pink underwear, while being tossed about the comfortable living room of her half-naked fellow adulterer.

To say the film deals with sex is too simple – these characters’ lives move beyond their bedrooms. Well, so do their sexual pursuits, but these don’t take up the whole story. To say it deals with love is to miss the mark – the love Zaza has for her husband (and her lack of it for her lover) is a matter of course; Nandi’s love triangle connecting her fiance and newly rich ex-boyfriend is not a choice between two passions or affections (in fact, I’m not sure what it’s a choice between nor why she struggles to make it at all); and the time spent on Princess’s (Renate Stuurman) rather sad tale is more about the tragic circumstances of her romance than about the romance itself. To say the film deals with friendship would just about do it – the director struggles to connect the scenes of each of the three women in their individual sagas; but in the scenes where they’re together, he manages to prop the film up and leave it standing for a minute or two.

The sturdy friendship between Zaza, Nandi, and Princess is the key to the film’s commercial success as well (it’s racked up well over R5 million, but I can’t find any definitive figures), but can’t save the movie from its artistic hindrances. Moleya is a director of television series (and, incidentally, was a presenter on K-T.V.), and that disregard for the image and its use to evoke and reveal that pervades television, both locally and internationally, troubles his first feature film. Not a single shot seems to have been set up with the intention of imparting an idea or experience, and the actors are sadly unterutilised throughout. I know, having seen their previous work, that Mbau and Montsho are remarkably talented actors, but that talent is squandered here by a faltering imagination and vacant sense of purpose.

The trouble with many South African films is that, in the effort to compete with comparatively enormous productions from Hollywood, local filmmakers often try especially hard to fulfill all the tropes of the chosen genre of their film, not realising that, in Hollywood, genre is really only a vehicle for style and ideas. Genre is treated in too much of South African cinema as the end goal, and not as a mere tool in the artist’s belt. The same can be said for production values and picture quality. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Moleya displays a distinct lack of artistic consideration in the discussion of his film. When asked what drew him to the story, he gives a description of the business processes that landed him in the director’s chair, and in response to a question about his choice of Khanyi Mbau for her role, he gives her commercial success and appeal as his reason. In fact, the only three intentions he expresses for his movie is that, firstly, the actors have good chemistry together as friends (in which he somewhat succeeded), the production values should be high so that audiences aren’t put off by the poor quality of the picture, and that he’d like the movie to feel like a book – the very thing that Hollywood was invented to avoid.

One has some hope for the awareness of this movie: there were a few moments every now and then when I thought Moleya may have been trying to say something more than what we’re given in the script. The characters in the film live in rather affluent areas of Johannesburg – Zaza, in particular, lives in a vast and well-furnished northern mansion – which is clearly different to what many in the audience are used to living in, as well as seeing on the screen. In the background, intermittently, we see a silent black servant, obviously living a life in stark contrast to that of the main characters. Moleya may be inviting us to enjoy the luxury of his stars’ lives, while reminding us that, though he’d like his story to be seen as fundamentally South African, it is not what most South Africans can ever hope to experience themselves. There is the possibility of a quiet socioeconomic commentary on the classes running beneath the story, as unlikely as that may be given the restricted consciousness of the rest of the film.

I’m immensely glad whenever a South African film performs well commercially, because it provides direly needed funds for our developing film industry, and makes possible more features in our theatres. But I’m disheartened to see that few South African filmmakers are using these opportunities for more personal, more revelatory, more distinctive and radiantly South African features.

Image: www.sowetanlive.co.za

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