Thursday, 15 March 2018

“Wonderboy for President” and Inoffensive Satire

Available on Showmax.

In conjunction with the release of Kagiso Lediga’s new romantic comedy Catching Feelings, which was released last Friday, I watched the 2016 comedy Wonderboy for President, directed by John Barker and also starring Lediga, which is now streaming on Showmax.

Wonderboy for President is set up as a mockumentary in a political context. Shakes (Ntosh Madlingozi, who also appears in Catching Feelings) and Brutus (Tony Miyambo), two ostensible high-ups in the ANC back office, are remonstrated by leadership for the weakening public image of the party and its growing disconnect with its base, particularly among the youth and particularly in Johannesburg. They are tasked with travelling to the Eastern Cape to meet with a rumoured charismatic young leader named Wonderboy (Lediga), whom leadership believes will bring sufficient credibility and appeal as the face of the party to lure back voters.

Wonderboy is quickly brought up to Johannesburg, introduced to the big city and its ways, rapidly flung into the party leadership, and just as rapidly brought into the party’s disfavour when he falls for an attractive young leader (Thishiwe Ziqubu) in the DA, the main opposition party, which brings along a selection of predictable conflicts.

The comedy is pretty sharp for a South African production (which, admittedly, is not a high standard), and is mostly due to quick editing and the comedic expertise of the performers. Lediga’s Wonderboy is set up as if modeled on a black Mr Bones — he speaks with a similar accent (which is entirely the fault of Leon Schuster), has long dreadlocks hanging on his neck and shoulders, and is endlessly astonished by and unfamiliar with the features and ways of the big city. He brings a fresh new style to the ANC, and a naïve view of its failings and idiosyncrasies. Commentary on his breakneck rise and fall is provided by bystanders interviewed on the street (actually played by South African actors and comedians, including Akin Omotoso, who features in Catching Feelings as well), as well as edited clips of prominent politicians, such as President Zuma, Mmusi Maimane, and Commander in Chief Malema, as well as stand-up comedians Robbie Collins and Loyiso Gola. (Helen Zille appears giving commentary on Wonderboy’s love interest, Mbali.) The clips were obviously taken from other sources, but Maimane looks as though he genuinely signed on for a cameo in the film, as does Commissar Floyd Shivambu. Collins and Gola were recruited as late-night political commentators to provide their standard comic routines, only this time they’re taking aim at a fictional puppet of the ANC. (The clips of the ANC election conference in Mangaung in 2012, where then-party president Jacob Zuma and newly elected deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa look on and grin as Wonderboy takes the stage as the new ANCYL president, are reportedly real and were filmed specifically for the movie.)

The film packs enough humour to satisfy viewers who enjoy mockumentary comedies (think The Office and Parks and Recreation, but at a semi-fictional Luthuli House) and who are familiar with the South African electoral politics context. The funniest scene for me personally was the interaction between Shakes and Brutus and a contracted killer, played by John Vlismas, whose accent and shifty neurotics are hilariously at odds with his function in the plot, as well as with the setting and tone of the film. Yet Wonderboy for President doesn’t represent any kind of shift in South African cinema or noteworthy advance in aesthetics. It’s among the best of what’s on offer, of which the selection on Showmax is a very good approximation, but, as I’ve noted, South African cinema can only really take off when South African artists dare to do their own work, consisting of their own content, built up of their own substance, realised in their own personal styles, taking into account their own social, economic, political, cultural, and personal contexts, and brought to life with their own sense of being.

And the lack of a radical aesthetic is matched by the lack of radical politics on show in this political satire. Wonderboy for President proposes no real policy ideas for the ANC, the DA, the EFF, or South Africans in general, only the ordinary (and, frankly, banal) idea that politicians and the structures of power are very far out of contact with the people, and should be brought back into alignment with popular interests. It seems to poke fun at the popular idea in the South African media (and, therefore, prevalent in the South African middle and working classes) that an individual can rescue the organisation and recalibrate the entire nation towards pride and prosperity. As for whether or not the ANC in its current form is fit to run the country, Wonder for President suggests that it’s hardly fit to run its own office equipment. Party officials and administrators are shown to be wholly corrupt, gluttonous, lecherous, credulous, and ruthlessly self-seeking. They adhere thoughtlessly and ridiculously to the party rhetoric and slogans, without a single moment’s thought for what any of it means or was intended for. “The people” are repeatedly invoked without ever being considered.

The comedy is hardly biting or gripping, with no real critique or criticism, whether of politics, politicians, political parties, social mores, social norms, social behaviour, personal behaviour, personal creation, or any other aspect of South African life. Even though the filmmakers shot some of their scenes (at the ANC electoral conference and victory rally) in real-life situations, partly under false pretences, there’s no sense of risk or existential danger to their art; compare it to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which was shot entirely in that kind of setting, and whose riotous comedy and excess of spirit break through the bounds of its framework. I found it nearly unbearably funny — in a physiological sense, in that my laughter became painful — but it’s also uncomfortable to watch, for the way it pokes and prods at real life and invariably locates its pressure points and shortcomings. Graye Morkel’s review for Channel24 of Wonderboy for President wrongly advises that if you’re easily offended, this isn’t the movie for you, yet inoffensive is exactly the quality that Wonderboy for President’s humour conforms to, which is never good for a political satire.

However, the story of its success should provide encouragement for those of us interested in the growth and development of South African cinema: it reportedly cost only R200 000 to make, even though the filmmakers had to fight for most of that amount, and had to work to make the film intermittently over the course of five years. When it was finally released, its screenings proved very popular, and has now secured the deal from MultiChoice to be streamed in a number of countries on Showmax (and, presumably, be shown on DStv). That success is likely what led to Catching Feelings being made, and, hopefully, can bring about much more work and opportunities for all those interested in making movies here.

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