Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Neither Here Nor There

“Nul is Nie Niks Nie”

What can a movie do for a person? What can making that movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South African society and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie (“Nil Isn’t Nothing”) by Morné du Toit, who previously directed the Afrikaans comedy Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two pre-pubescent boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their home town, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him. The plot and the director’s competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who’s been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent — and will seem that way no matter how a film crew may photograph them. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and — far more importantly — inspire South African artists to aesthetic equivalent heights of richness and nobility.

Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs’s children’s book Oor ’n motorfiets, ’n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word (“About a motorbike, a zombie movie, and long numbers that can be divided by eleven”). It involves the thirteen-year old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender (“Chicken”), both derisively and affectionately, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his older sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world in their old farmhouse while mourning his father, who died two years before the film’s action begins. One day, Martin comes to meet the son of the new neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is kept under strict and constant supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with and attachment to old zombie movies — he’s projecting an old print of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first sees his bedroom, and film posters adorn the walls — and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film’s obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes jarringly with Martin’s clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus and breaks his camera, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus’s movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin’s, stumbles upon their production, and is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus’s character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.

The title is a reference to Martin’s gift for mathematics (his father left mathematical puzzles for him to solve around the house), his ideas on the number zero that he illustrates in an essay and a conversation, and the connection Drikus makes between that number and the imminence of death. Zero is nothing, Drikus moans, and, when we die, all is lost. Zero is by no means nothing, Martin counters, but the origin of two opposite and infinite, continuous number lines; death is not an end but a transition, and, therefore, another beginning. It’d be good to know what du Toit, Vosloo, and Jacobs each thinks death may be a beginning to, but none of the many picturesque shots of the Drakensberg or the Elands River hint at those sorts of answers. The platitude makes far more sense when applied to those in the film in mourning, such as Martin, Cindy, Trisa, and Drikus’s wearied parents, as well as the jaded townspeople — one’s life is not brought to an end by grief, even though it sometimes seems that way, and loss marks an end to something in one’s life as well as the beginning of something else.

A conspicuous and extended metaphor is laid across the plot and its setting — resembling the bleak, stark household of Martin’s grieving family, the whole town is under what seems like a deadening haze of desolation. A neat parallel is drawn between the subject of Drikus’s movie and the lethargy of the town — it’s more than a mere joke when Martin tries to scare his classmates by telling them his mother’s a zombie. Things like money, food, homes, and social or political circumstances aren’t quite the problem, but the emotionally, psychically, artistically, communally lifeless beings of the townspeople are, though there is a subplot involving a band of delinquents who have broken into and robbed a number of houses in the town. Drikus, Martin, and Chris get caught up unwillingly in the criminal activities of the delinquents, and are threatened to keep what they’ve seen secret, on pain of some vague reprisal. They arrange to include the whole town in the climax of Drikus’s zombie movie, and I won’t spoil the details of that occasion (which serves both as the climax of Drikus’s movie and of the actual film), but it links the reinvigoration of the town to the resolution of the crime subplot.

A number of interesting strands of thought are introduced through these trite metaphors and the resolution, and the precise number of strands and degree of interestingness depend on how sincerely and how thoroughly the filmmakers meant to express their views through the film. Should we take it, for instance, that the problems they set out in the story can be seen as problems facing South Africa, or are they particular to the town of Waterval Boven in the film? Considering the immense scale on which teams of slick, oily gangsters have managed to trade Constitutional imperatives and rob the country of its autonomy, not many viewers should find fault with painting the rightful owners of South Africa as inert citizens; but the film leaves out much else to be said about South African society. I, for one, don’t believe it’s really possible to make a movie about South Africa that isn’t also about race, but Nul is Nie Niks Nie manages to totally dodge the matter, firstly by including cast members of colour to avoid any issues of privilege or monochrome, and secondly by making no distinction between the different ethnicities.

It may well be that in the society of Waterval Boven, where I haven’t spent more time than is required for a rest stop, this racial harmony and equality really is the case, but that uniqueness of the town and the particular ideas any filmmaker may have about it should merit inclusion in the one feature film set there. It may otherwise be that the filmmakers wished to avoid all social and political issues in their film, even from the perspective of merely acknowledging them or giving their view of the circumstances, but they’d do well to remember that, in a country with as limited a cinematic output as our own, every movie carries the significant soft power of its images and story — box office figures suggest that more people went to see Keeping Up With the Kandasamys this year than read the Sunday Times, and the same situation occurred with last year’s hits Vir Altyd and Happiness is a Four-Letter Word. Surely someone with the education background and artistic temperament of a filmmaker has something to say about the country, society, political situation, and social circumstances he finds himself in, or in which he has placed his characters; to excise any of those personal insinuations from one’s work can only lessen its effect and significance. 

The young critics and filmmakers in France in the 1950s recognised that the way to revolutionise the country’s cinematic system that they were unsatisfied with was for filmmakers to unite their personal lives — their biographical details, political views, emotional experiences, philosophies, social insights, local settings, fascinations, dreams, fears, worldviews, and passions — and their work; essentially, they moved to exhume the stories that were spoken about on the Oscar stage this year. From this, the French New Wave was born, which ignited national New Wave movements across the globe. South African writers have long taken this counsel and vaunted the culture to a global stage. When South African cinema and its practitioners are similarly sanctioned, we can look forward to comparable artistic returns.

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