Sunday, 20 August 2017

Band of Insiders

Reading Paul Boekkooi’s review of the local movie Finders Keepers that appeared in Friday’s Beeld, in which he bemoans the decline of South African comedy films, I was reminded of a number of complaints I invariably have about the local film industry and the work it produces; but Boekkooi provides some interesting points of discussion, indicating the vast difference in taste and ideas that he and I have regarding cinema, not only that of South Africa, but of the art form at large.

He suggests that the reason South African comedy movies are becoming less and less funny is that “all the things we could once laugh at have dried up”. Yet I find that the greatest humour arises from the breaking of rules — defying logic, surprising twists, the irony or campness of artifice, subverting (or perverting) mores and conventions have led to sublime works of comedic genius and great artistic insight from filmmaking proponents as diverse as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Charlie Chaplin, the Coen brothers, Paul Feig, Howard Hawks, Peyton Reed, Nicholas Stoller, Billy Wilder, or as evidenced in a multitude of humourous moments or scenes from any number of the other, less comedic directors mentioned in this blog’s posts. It isn’t possible for the things we laugh at to dry up, as long as we have a capacity for laughter. It may be true that a large number of socially and politically aware South African citizens are not, generally, in a laughing mood at this moment, but, when attention is given to an occasional diversion, any sufficiently imaginative, inventive, and energetic filmmaker could find any number of things for a South African moviegoer to laugh at.

I don’t dispute with Boekkooi that current South African movies are not the paragon of cinematic comedy — and I’ve expressed that disappointment in a number of my posts — but the reason they’re not has nothing to do with the country or its people; it has to do with the kinds of people making movies, and the ways in which they’re influenced to make those movies. As I wrote before, South African filmmakers are mostly dependent on the state for the funding of their work. In fact, I’ve never heard of a South African production not receiving funds from various government programmes (in addition to other private and corporate donors, in most cases). As I understand it — with the disclaimer that I’ve never worked in the South African film industry and am not entirely aware of all its goings-on and actual procedures — a major basis on which the decision to award funding or not to a film is the government administrator’s perception that the filmmakers have a good idea of what they’re doing and what they’re supposed to do: They should know what a film is, how it is made, and how it is supposed to turn out. But the answers to those questions are agreed upon by the committees and subjective individuals who make the essential decisions, and, as a result, filmmakers are encouraged to conceive of, plan for, and execute productions of a strikingly uniform and conventional kind. They submit proposals that offer criteria for boxes to be ticked rather than imaginative surprises and cinematic inventions, proposals that fulfill rubrics rather than a creative vision for the representation of a worldview. And the comedy is devised to follow rules set by the films that came before, rather than break any rules of any kind.

I suspect that it’s for similar reasons that no serious political discussions or visions arise from any of the South African works I’ve been to see in theatres. Presumably, filmmakers in South Africa are exactly the kind of people who have been explicitly and publicly criticising the current administration and political climate in the country, and have done for at least the last eight years. But none of that ever makes it into their movies — films about poor, underprivileged, underclass individuals never make reference to the reason for their circumstances, or the widespread causes and effects of a society where this is commonplace; films with views on both rich and poor characters give only oblique representations of the vast inequalities in our country, without offering any personal takes on how we arrived at it, what it gives rise to in society, or how we could begin to move upwards and away from it; films that highlight struggles by South Africans due to ubiquitous racism or sexism neglect to fill in a historical context for either, a sufficiently complex and comprehensive view of the perpetrators, or even much psychological subtlety and individual expression in the victims. No doubt, these are not criteria that government administrators expect filmmakers to meet in their proposals. Nor do reviewers bring them up in the discussion of local work, nor audiences in their reactions. I know these ideas are prolific among young creative people in the country — I come across new instances of the expression of them among my friends and their friends just about every day. But that expression has yet to take a cinematic form, and a place in cinematic appreciation, of either local films or international ones (these ideas, and many more, are indeed present in the work of the best international filmmakers).

I encourage this blog’s readers to apply a more active consideration of what is and is not on offer in South African movies, and themselves to encourage everyone they know working in the film industry to break through any molds, prejudices, and constraining perceptions to create the worlds they imagine, and find deeper and more meaningful visual expression of their personal visions and experiences. We’d all be the richer for it.

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