Saturday, 11 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Kalushi”

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, the directorial début of cinematographer Mandla Dube, opened on Friday, 10 March, in theatres across the country. Probably the most anticipated South African release of 2017 so far, it tracks Mahlangu’s progress from hawking on weekends as a Mamelodi adolescent in 1976 through his enlisting and foreign training in uMkhonto weSizwe to his eventual capture and trial, and death in 1979. Dube spent a number of years developing the film, reportedly in response to the indifference he witnessed among students regarding the history of the antiapartheid struggle during his time teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand. For those eager to hear what is being said about the film, I’ve compiled excerpts from the reviews I could find.

Read The Back Rows review of the film here.

Writing for the City Press last June, when the film was being screened at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut reports that he “cried at least half a dozen times during the screening … Okay, maybe more like a dozen times.” He goes on:

Kalushi is flawed in many places, but it is a hugely important film. … The very real and hideously brutal violence Mahlangu met is shown without flinching. But the audience sure as hell does flinch. …

Yes, Kalushi is uneven in places, yes it’s very commercial in a Hollywood way, yes Rashid Lanie’s very good score is way sappy at times, yes [Pearl] Thusi is too old for her role and [Thabo] Rametsi a bit Model C, yes the MK camps are a bit romanticised. But, frankly, so what? If a narrative connects the way Kalushi does, if it restores dignity to black life and reversions the narratives of history we are taught, then it negates these petty critical concerns.

The cinematography is brilliant, shot by Tommy Maddox-Shaw, the universe is beautifully realised, the research is thorough, and there are performances that will make you reach for your tissues – including scenes from Thusi. And the fantastical scenes of June 16 transposed to a township backyard are nothing short of genius. Kalushi is the struggle film we have been waiting for even though we thought we had lost our appetite for apartheid atrocities on screen.”

Read a timeline of Mahlangu’s life, published in the City Press, here.

On the IOL website, for the film’s theatrical release, Jamal Grootboom charges off a shopping list of shortcomings:

“What hinders the film from really pulling the heartstrings is the screenplay, casting, and inadequate direction. … The pacing is also all over the place. One minute we have these fast-paced scenes, which are then stopped abruptly by weird camera angles and static emotional scenes. The pacing then also bleeds into a lack of a real emotional connection to the characters and their tragic situations.

The casting of the movie is also a bit off, especially casting Quantico star Pearl Thusi as a schoolgirl. I know that actors often play characters that are much older or younger than their real age; however, Pearl does not look that young. She still gives a stellar performance and makes a lasting impression, but really – a schoolgirl? The cast as a whole also lacks chemistry.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when films use narration to move the story along. I understand why Dube uses it as a storytelling mechanism, but by doing this it treats the audience like idiots. Number one for good filmmaking – show, don’t tell.”

Sihle Mthembu writes an excellent piece for last Sundays City Press, relating the story back to his own personal experiences. I quote very briefly from it, because Id like readers all to go read the piece in full (click here to read it) themselves:

“Director Mandla Dube’s biopic Kalushi … is an effective attempt at helping us understand the space between the man and the myth. …

Some of the stylistic choices that Dube makes are strange and at odds with what we’ve come to expect from a film about this period. … Visually, he shows off his knowledge of the medium, playing around with choppy cuts and manipulating us through music. Kalushi’s lack of earnestness is an act of resistance.”

An even better piece by the same author appears on the Mail & Guardian website. The paywall will be taken down on Monday, 20 March, and it will also appear in the print version of the paper on Friday, 17 March, in the Friday arts section. Again, I quote briefly, because I encourage readers to read the piece (click here) in its entirety.

Kalushi as a film is not grief porn or trauma tourism; it is a sensitive piece of cinema that has been made by a nuance addict. Dube has resisted giving the bird’s eye view of a political life that we’ve come to expect of films set in this period in our history. Specificity is what gives Kalushi its agency. Dube tries not to fall victim to the convenient tropes of apartheid hero-worship and, when he does use them, he subverts them to make a statement about how we digest our history.”

Writing in the Beeld for the film’s theatrical release, Carla Lewis exhorts readers to see it:

“The young actor Thabo Rametsi’s interpretation of Mahlangu is a tour de force … Whether you regard Mahlangu as a terrorist or a freedom fighter, go see the film. It shows how an ordinary South African, whose main priorities were his family and his beloved, could be swept up in a whirlpool of events and end up as a guerilla fighter who would stake his life on his sacrifices and decisions.

Also writing for the film’s theatrical release, Julia Breakey reviews Kalushi on the site Memeburn:

“Uncompromising in its politics, the South African-made film about struggle stalwart Solomon Mahlangu holds no punches in its retelling of the violence of the apartheid regime. … Mandla Dube makes his directorial début with the ambitious feature. Dube … displays a powerful political vision – but he gets carried away by visual opportunities. It is because of this that the film struggles to find its footing at first. …

The moment Solomon Mahlangu decides he needs to fight is the moment Kalushi is turned into a powerhouse of a film. All signs of indecisive storytelling are pushed aside, and the film flourishes. Kalushi moves from strength to strength as it tells of Mahlangu’s uMkhonto weSizwe training and subsequent trial. From heartfelt performances to beautiful scoring, the film knows how to hold its viewers’ attention. …

Kalushi works because it is uncompromising in its argument. Instead of beating around the bush for the sake of the Rainbow Nation ideal, Dube lays out his side with unflinching sincerity. And it doesn’t matter on which side of the debate you’re on [sic]: what Kalushi does well is keep conversation going.”

Writing for the film’s release on the Channel24 webiste, Alex Isaacs declares:

“My favourite moments involved Wandile Molebatsi, who played Phineus; Pearl Thusi, who played Solomon’s love interest Brenda; and Gcina Mhlophe, who plays Solomon’s mother Martha. … I also enjoyed some of the departures from a more traditional style of filmmaking, such as the non-linear plot.

The cinematography was lovely and overall the film was very well shot. There were some beautiful frames and themes that ran throughout the film. The set design and costumes were, for the most part, also really good at putting you in the ear of the late 1970s. With all that being said, I feel as though there were some technical elements that let the film down at its most important moments. …

There were moments throughout the film where I felt that real opportunities for character development were lost. Therefore, Solomon and Mondy – who are two of the main leads in the film – were left without a real character arc. Some of the editing also felt a bit off to me. Some shots lasted longer than they should have, whereas others were almost too short – a character would be speaking and suddenly then you’d be looking at someone else. …

I think that this award winning local film is really worth your money at the cinema. It might not be perfect but it gets a lot right. I especially want to add that young people should go watch this movie so that our nation’s troubled past can be retold to them in a vibrant way.”

Emmanuel Tjiya begins his review for the Sowetan with the proclamation of Mandla Dube as an auteur, and describes the film as “well worth the wait.” He goes on:

Kalushi is an admirable, audacious, potent, and chilling historical account of the life of struggle stalwart Solomon Mahlangu that comes at a timely moment in South Africa. … Dube perfectly marries cultural politics and artistic creativity, without compromising one over the other. Sure, the film is artfully modulated, but not once does it feel romanticised or jerky. …

The hauntingly beautiful score, courtesy of Rashid Lanie, and breathtaking cinematography, driven by Tommy Maddox-Upshaw – not forgetting the riveting dialogue and skillful editing by Craig Hayes – immediately positions the film as one of the most visually appealing and strongly packaged films to come out of this country.”

On the EWN website last Friday, Africa Melane offers further praise for Dubes film-making:

“Dube directs the feature with great sensitivity. He neither praises nor judges Mahlangu. He does not idealise the young man, even when Mahlangu reflects on a very romantic ideal of the revolution being the greatest act of love. Thabo Rametsi is a strong, though quiet actor. He allows us to see the compassion and the naivety of the youthful Solomon Mahlangu. … The script, sadly, does not allow us to share fully in his evolution …

Rametsi is well supported by the rest of the cast. Special mention has to go to Thabo Malema and his superior portrayal of Mondy Motloung. And, of course, Wandile Molebatsi, who only has a few minutes on screen as Mahlangu’s cowardly cousin, Phineas. His performance makes you wish that he had been given more lines.

The film does have its flaws. The editing could have been more efficient. The pacing more even. The accents of the various actors could have been more consistent with the period portrayed. And Dube could have delivered a more refined moving picture experience when he was directing the scene that informs the life-changing decision that is taken by Mahlangu. But do not let any of this deter you from seeing this important film.”

Writing for the site TVSA last March, the blogger identified as tha – bang asserts:

“Dube and his D.O.P., Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, do a great visual job of telling Mahlangu’s story. The standout moment is their recreation of June 16, for something that’s been done so many times before, they bring some visionary flare to the sequence. I believe film students will write theses about the sequence for years to come.”

Comment with your thoughts on the film, and let me know of any more reviews that I can feature here.

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