Sunday, 8 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vaselinetjie”

Corné van Rooyen’s Afrikaans film about a white girl raised by brown caregivers in the Northern Cape, who is taken away to be schooled in Johannesburg, adapted from Anoeschka von Meck’s novel, was released at the end of last month, and, though I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I’ve collected a few reviews of it here, for your perusal and for those interested in seeing the film. Let me know of any others I may have missed.

In what looks like a four-star review for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople writes that “the course that this young life takes will warm even a heart of stone.”

“Yet van Meck and van Rooyen don’t employ cheap sentiment. They tell, explore, and allow you to experience it as befits true storytellers. They hold up a mirror, without once judging or pointing fingers. … The acclaimed novel (prescribed for a number of years in schools) turned brittle identity politics on its head in 2004 and broaded the debate on colour. … Von Meck’s insider knowledge of the life of a children’s home, where she worked as a caregiver, brought much more to the table. Van Rooyen chimes in perfectly …
Nicole Bond plays the young Vaselinetjie with a primal wisdom and courage. … Indeed, all the young performers impress throughout in portrayals that tug at the heartstrings, but that also leave you rolling with laughter — because, even though their situation is dire, they find adventure and humour in highly unlikely places, exactly as children would. Vaselinetjie will affect you totally if it’s a first meeting; if you already know her, this film offers additional dividends of great value.”

Graye Morkel wrote a two-star review for Channel24, in which he declares,

“it becomes evident early on in the onscreen adaption of Anoeschka von Meck’s novel that not enough attention was given to executing language and regional variants. Instead, Nicole Bond (young Vaselinetjie) and Marguerite von Eden (older Vaselinetjie) sounded like Afrikaans-speaking actresses who were not correctly coached or were not able to capture the Northern Cape dialect, which left me with a great sense of inauthenticity. The director tried to hide these shortcomings by giving Nicole Bond very little dialogue, and having her tell her story mainly through body language.
The adaptation suffered from major condensing, leaving out vital story arcs and romanticising her experience at boarding school. This brought on poor pacing and poor character development. The movie took Vaselinetjie — a complex character — and greatly simplified her. However, the local film still deserves merit for the stunning cinematography. The small village of Bulletrap in the Northern Cape is captured beautifully with light playing a key factor in capturing the mood and milieu.
Vaselinetjie succeeds in telling its story … but only brushes over the core issues of race identity in a post-apartheid South Africa.”

In his column for the Rapport, Leon van Nierop affirms that “no Vaseline is spread over the coarseness” of the story.

“Colour differences, this film reassures us, will also divide people in our country, whatever legislation might say. In this deft adaptation of Anoeschka von Meck’s novel by Corné van Rooyen and René van Rooyen, we embark on a journey through the displaced child’s roots in ground that is never watered, and she becomes symbolic of so many people who are either too white or too brown to ‘fit in’. …
What makes the script even more successful is what is left out, because the writers had to decide to speak an economic movie language by removing some of the beloved scenes in the book. And it’s the camera that that does the best storytelling and lays out the visual subtext. The images say a lot about what was described over pages in the book. This is economic screenwriting. …
There is an untouched simplicity and stylish sincerity in which one can smell the aridity of the Northern Cape and which the cinematographer Adam Joshua Bentel exposes with honesty. He shows what’s happening when no one’s looking. The contrast between the sea and the drabness of the town becomes metaphoric for the wide-open life that awaits Vaselinetjie after she has overcome disadvantages and short-sightedness. …
Nothing is contrived or softened. There is a subtlety that in the direction that leads the performers to deliver performances where one can read between the lines (or images) to find the character’s soul. What’s also pleasing is that the director doesn’t manipulate or entertain the audience, nor does he preach or bow to the box office. Just as in [Jans Rautenbach’s] Katrina, it is the tragedy that characterises her existence, the ironic way by which her spiritual growth is hampered, and the distressing way in which colour differences are exposed. …
Sometimes one must be pulled back to reality, look deeper at what’s really going on around you, and learn from those mistakes. Vaselinetjie gives hope and inspiration in that regard.”

On her own movie blog, Gabi Zietsman awarded the film nine stars out of ten and asserts that

“Race is an important element in the story, and it’s a difficult concept that the titular character and her love interest struggle with. Luckily the filmmakers didn’t shy away from it, and rather embraced the difficult questions that the story asks, and doesn’t pretend to know the answers. 
The style of the movie fit the tone of the book, and exactly how you imagined it looked when you read the book. Vaselinetjie has that sombre feel to it that serious Afrikaans films have, but it doesn’t weigh the audience down. Director Corné van Rooyen is quite a versatile filmmaker, as the film is quite different to [his previous films] Hollywood in my huis and Sy klink soos lente, and looking forward to more work from him. The use of visual metaphors was cleverly used, with the washed-out colours matching the washed-out life of the lead. … 
Vaselinetjie is the kind of film that will make you cry from the very beginning and won’t really give you a chance to recover, but it’s not a depressing film. The end of the journey where the girl finally discovers that she doesn’t have to fit into any criteria — she can just be herself — will resonate with many and especially for South Africans. Though it falls just under Johnny is nie dood nie as one of the best Afrikaans films of the year for me, Vaselinetjie certainly deserves its title as Best Film of the Year at the Silwerskermfees.”

On her own blog, Robyn Sassen describes the film as “sensitive, but probing and compelling” and

“a simply magnificently crafted piece of South African narrative, which places a white child in a Coloured context: the amorphous mixed race community which is historically too black to be considered white, and too white to be considered black, but has a cultural identity which is potent with its sense of self. …
This is no soppy love story, and while it ends with a satisfying denouement, the characters are put through the proverbial wringer in terms of their need to grapple with the conflict of where they need to fit in. Themes dovetail and resonate in circles and cycles, and conjoined with breathtakingly fine cinematography, make you feel able to smell the atmosphere in the red brick orphanage with its peeling paintwork and high ceilings, a decaying testament to an earlier era, as you’re able to taste the dust of the Coloured township and feel the unrelenting heat of its climate. … The orphanage is rich with gemstones of stories within stories, character vignettes that are haunting yet tiny, and the creative team behind this film doesn’t stint on this.” 

On the Afrikaans website Bioskoop, Dee Theart writes that the “daring team of Corné and René van Rooyen grabbed this story firmly by the reigns to create a viewing experience that will stay with moviegoers for a long time.” She offers further praise:

“With every minute that went by on the big screen, I was more and more convinced that this is the most seamless adaptation from book to silver screen that I’ve ever seen (especially on the local front). Just as I had seen the story playing out in my mind’s eye as I read the book, is how it look on the big screen: from the location, characters, events, to even that lump-in-the-throat feeling that comes to the fore. With Vaselinetjie’s screenplay, the van Rooyens have worked magic and they deserve all the praise that’s coming to them, as well as regarding the casting. …
Vaselinetjie is in no way a movie about the cruelty of orphanages. It will make you think twice about the meaning of identity and community. The movie captures, just like the book did, sharp social commentary with poetic elements and uses many clever tricks to take the viewer along on this young girl’s adventure.”

Let me know of any other responses to the film I may have missed, including your own, in the comments.

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