Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Free as a Flightless Bird

“Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

As I noted a few weeks ago on this blog, South African films seem rarely to earn back their budgets in commercial theatrical releases (what happens when films reach their DVD release is, as yet, unknown to me); connected to this is the observation that – here, as in every other country – the box office returns for a film are hardly ever correlated with the critical response to them by reviewers and other pundits. Many South African critics have praised Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut feature film of director Christiaan Olwagen, in the highest terms, yet its box office earnings are among the lowest of any South African features this year. Rankings on Box Office Mojo indicate that the only South African commercial release that made less money was The Tribe (which I have not yet seen), and that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie grossed a little less than half a million rand.

As told in its script, the story of Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is more or less a synecdoche for the story of the Afrikaans youth of the late 1980s: those who were brought up in conventional middle-class Afrikaans households and came of age during the most uncertain and unstable period of the apartheid regime, as the National Party was writhing in its final death agonies. Any reader can guess that the prevailing drive among these youths, and, therefore, the characters in the film, was largely one of resistance to the ruling party, its leader, State President PW Botha, its extreme political conservatism, its war in Angola and Namibia, its totalitarian affinities, and its infamously nationalistic and cruel policies of racial apartheid. The basis for this resistance was the broader rebellion against the constricting, socially and politically conservative Afrikaans society of the time. That this rebellion only really took hold in the late 80s, while the youth of other developed nations around the world had already brought about massive and radical upheaval in their societies in the 60s, shows just how inhibiting and controlling a regime the National Party’s was. My impression, both of the party and many of its constituents, has long been that, throughout their history, they pined for their European homelands that they had been forced to leave, and worked their hardest to bring about an idealised replica of those homelands here, at the bottom of Africa, complete with a strong and secure mother nation (headed by the state, in conjunction with the dominant Dutch Reformed church) resourced through exploitation of its colonies and their inhabitants (the South African land and its indigenous peoples); the necessary difference in this case was that the motherland and the colonies were in the same country, and had to be separated by a strong force of permanent division in every regard imaginable – spatial, economic, political, cultural, intellectual (through education), even emotional and (to the best of the state’s ability) psychological. Against this grisly backdrop, like the children of a domineering deacon-father, young Afrikaners began turning the rumbling wheels of their defiance.

To see what other critics had to say about the film, click here.

Johannes Kerkorrel, born Ralph John Rabie in 1960, was one of those young Afrikaners in the late days of apartheid, who began working as a journalist in the 80s for the central Afrikaans papers Die Burger and the Rapport, and performed songs that he had written with political themes. After being fired as a journalist, he formed the group Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band (“Johannes Kerkorrel and the Reformed Blues Band”), a nudging reference to the Dutch Reformed church (“kerkorrel” is the Afrikaans for church organ), which included other now legendary Afrikaans performers such as Koos Kombuis and Bernoldus Niemand. The group formed part of the popular music “Voëlvry” movement (“voëlvry” is the Afrikaans for outlaw, and literally means “free as a bird”), which swept across the country, exposing dissenting political views through rock and roll, mostly to university students and young workers. In the 90s, Kerkorrel – an openly gay celebrity as well as anti-establishment figure – also travelled to Europe, where he gained a large following, and remained a popular musical cult figure until his suicide in the Western Cape in 2002. Today, he retains legendary status among those who lived through the era of the height of his fame, and his songs are sung and listened to just as dearly, even though the rebellious fervour among most of the exponents of that resistance has now all but died down.

In Olwagen’s film, despite his name’s prominence in the title, very little of a portrait of Kerkorrel is given, as well as little of his art and nothing at all of his career, nor those of the other members of his band. The little that is shown of him is as he’s reflected in the other characters of the film – Lise, Anja, Dirk, and Hein. The five live together in a house in Stellenbosch that they’ve turned into their own intimate commune, and their close bonds mingle, a little incestuously, as their relationships waver between friendship, mentorship, romance, and sex, and they flutter from one lover to another. The film’s loose plot follows the five of them through these developments over three or four years, culminating in the de facto close of the apartheid regime (the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990), and intercuts with a single night soon after Kerkorrel’s suicide when the four remaining friends meet up once more for dinner. A somber voiceover, accompanied and announced by total silence on the soundtrack, fills in the historical developments in the background to the friends’ lives in the 80s, and the film is interspersed with moments from Lise’s dream sequence, which she experiences the night before the 2002 dinner, but is set over a decade earlier during the heyday of the Voëlvry movement. The assertion in the film’s title is reinforced by the continual cutting from the aftermath of Kerkorrel’s death, which is where the film begins, to the character’s experiences living with him, as well as by the fact that the voice over is apparently given by Kerkorrel, as if from beyond the grave.

The political retrogression of the characters plays almost like a part-cautionary, part-horror tale for the politically active young South Africans of today. Olwagen presents them as their era’s equivalent of the Fallists, with equally furious opposition to the establishment and revolutionary fervour; they even refer to their movement as a revolution. But their personalities couldn’t sustain it; somewhere between 1990 and 2002, that fervour was lost, and I couldn’t quite tell from the film where or how it happened. Lise, Anja, and Hein (whatever political motivations Dirk may possess are indiscernible) are only socialist anarchists in the cultural moment, and it’s implied that many of the band’s followers are not at all politically active but ride along simply for the party. In the throes of New South African calm and comfort, they’ve become disaffected, disappointed, disillusioned bourgeois, flailing about in lethargy and the ennui of what the LitNet film critic called “post-revolutionary blues”. The causes of workers’ rights, feminism, racial reconciliation, domestic and sexual politics, and a counter culture have been totally abandoned while the needs of those causes in South Africa remain as strong as ever. In this bleak depiction, I discerned a canny allegory for the opposing political inclinations of our times: the radical and progressive exponents are generally younger, because they’re the ones looking forward in their lives and with a significant stake in the future of society; those who have grown older and lost energy look back on times when they perceive their lives to have been better, and often take their politics in correlation. But Lise, Anja, and Hein don’t so much wish to return to the galvinising crises of late nationalism as they dread any further changes to their lives. They recognise that resistance to the National Party brought about change and progress, but they’ve also realised that with change came inevitable loss; in their youth they found it easy to discard anything they wanted to, and even took heart; now, they can hardly withstand the losses they’ve already sustained, don’t believe that what they gave up achieved very much in return, and have no strength at all for what change may yet come. Dirk remains the only one encouraged by the action of the Voëlvry movement, declaring that it was they who broke Botha’s heart and delivered the winning blow against the nationalist regime; to the others, and to many in the audience, that impression sounds rather too wishful.

Olwagen is a recognised and accomplished theatre director, a fact I only discovered when reading about the film after I saw it, but which didn’t surprise me at all. From the first few moments of the film, I could trace the influence of recent prestige and highbrow commentary films from America and Europe, in which forms resembling those of literature and the theatre are held in high regard and expounded upon, to maximum ostentation and praise. Of course, the film I thought of immediately – and kept in mind throughout – was Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, which, as a celebrant of the rarefied art and crafts of the theatre, makes sense as something that would inspire a theatre director. Olwagen’s camera follows actors as they move around their settings for long, free-flowing tracking shots, with clever movements from one focal point to another to simulate edits, and hard cuts from the earlier scenes in the 80s to the later scene in 2002 that jolt the film abruptly from the halcyon past to the callous present. Actors deliver smart, text-heavy dialogue and monologues while performing for the viewer, as in a play, but while trying to ignore the camera in their faces. The 2002 scene is set all in one setting, and the actors and action rove about the house and garden, ambling from one topic of discussion to another, and conveniently drawing the deeper recesses of character flaws, personal history, and uncouth commentary from one another. The different sections of the scene and the evening run into each other, as they would in the single act of a play, but Olwagen has the extra advantage of editing, through which he can place extended flashbacks in between conversations in the scene, and can cut from one pair of characters to another, or introduce a new conversation without segueing into it. In short, Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie plays like a theatre piece, devised to benefit from the technological and cultural advantages of cinema.

This contrasts with films that were adapted from plays, like Barry Jenkins’s recent masterpiece Moonlight, in which the camera also takes in movements and action in a few extended and travelling shots. Jenkins, having drawn the very images of his film from deep within himself and filmed with a fierce devotion to image-making, brought about a creation very much in the realm of cinema, that was not only performed and caught on camera and subsequently edited together, but that wouldn’t exist without the camera and cutting room through which it was wrought. The performances in Moonlight aren’t merely recorded line deliveries, but living images in themselves, while the performances in Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie are redolent of the diligent rehearsal that went into them, as well as of the conscientious actors who work hard to be natural for the camera and the director who conducts that naturalism. Rather than focusing on infinitesimal and precise details and gestures to catch psychological and spiritual intimacies for the big screen, or head in the opposite direction and vault his actors into heights of frenzy and eccentricity and excess that could play with a formalistic fury, Olwagen takes a middle route of directing performances of a bland naturalism and calibrated realism. Perhaps this decision was deliberate, and, in the face of political rebellion and cultural upheaval, Olwagen meant to counter the circumstances of the story with a totally familiar and unchallenging mode of performance. But it gives little insight into Olwagen’s view of the more complex and less obvious emotional, psychological, and spiritual states of the characters and the story. It seems that it was conceived in the same way as his long takes were: the removal of directorial intervention in the filming and the acting can seem to lead to an increase in a sort of documentary faithfulness to the story and its realisation, with a more accurate and objective representation of reality. It’s for this, I suspect, that many reviewers and pundits were so strongly inclined to praise the film – at a time in our country when any strong political stance could prove incendiary and even irreparably destructive and many Afrikaans people may feel increasingly hindered from taking pride in their heritage and history, a more literal and apparently realistic approach to a political artwork in Afrikaans and about Afrikaans people in history can be taken confidently as an objective and less objectionable statement. Things really were like this at that time, many people really did respond in this way, and many of those people really do feel that way now, viewers can say in response to Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie, and take comfort in the veracity of the artwork’s standpoints. It works well culturally, but not aesthetically nor artistically, and I suspect that, in the long term, the political returns of the film will also run rather thin.

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