Michael Matthews’s first feature film, the Sesotho-language Five Fingers for Marseilles, written by Sean Drummond, has been marketed everywhere with maximum ostentation as South Africa’s very first western, and, reflecting on the experience of watching it, that fact bodes well for the future of South African cinema: Other attempts at the genre have nowhere to go from here but up. The film is a hefty haul of all-too-familiar features that have come to characterise what I think of as our country’s prestige cinema: the movies meant to show off and advance our slowly developing film industry, but that, to me, throw its limits and shortcomings into sharp relief. These features include an ostensibly detailed attention to quality photography, a plot thrown together from local television and international blockbuster clichés, an elision of personal and idiosyncratic style for the sake of specious substance, dialogue of the most hackneyed and unimaginative variety (in whatever language is chosen), a conspicuous absence of directorial presence or artistic personae, a dismayingly narrowed and uniformly professional attitude to performance, a totally conventional notion of drama, a view of character and method of drawing characters that is both blunt and shallow, and the lack of detailed attention to milieu or specific setting.
Read others’ reviews of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.
The weak drama unfolds the plot doggedly, without accumulating details or views of anything on show, whether the setting, the characters, the broad contexts of the story, or the ideas meant to be introduced to it. Does it matter which small town was chosen as the location of the fictitious Marseilles? Would it have been any different if it had been filmed at any one of the many dozens of other small towns surrounded by dry landscapes across the country? Is there anything at all that this specific location offered to the filmmakers’ vision? If so, it isn’t to be seen in their film. If not, should it not then be used to springboard more general ideas about the country at large? I didn’t come across these, either. The script introduces elements without developing them any further than the first subordinating conjunction of a basic character sketch or plot synopsis, without tightening the emotional tensions of the film, and without mapping out a perspective or context for it. Avoiding spoilers, the resolution of the drama renders pretty much all of what came before inconsequential and insignificant. It wastes the resources of a hard-working cast of dedicated actors, who fixed their grim facial expressions in place for the entirety of the shoot, as well as the location scouts who went to great lengths to find the appropriately harsh and windswept natural settings.
The fact that it’s a western couldn’t be disputed, nor that it’s a South African written by and for South Africans (hopefully not unique in that regard for long). It depicts small-town civilians in conflict, first with an oppressive and brutal government regime (in an apartheid-era setting in which white policeman bully the town’s black residents), and then with a rotting tangle of violent criminal elements and their corrupt government collaborators. There appears (then disappears, and reappears) an exceptional, hard-edged and reckless individual among the townspeople, who bravely prosecutes its cause, and re-enters many years later as the long-lost son and brother, and now stranger to the town. There’s the business of a mayor not serving citizens, police inverting the objects and actions of their duty, gangsters cloaking the town in fear and darkness, the absence of anything of an outside world of cities and transport and electronic communications, the rocky mountains and sweeping, flattened plains rolled out beneath them. The differences from classic westerns are also immediately apparent: the heroes ride over the mountains on bicycles and motorbikes instead of horses, the landscape is of the Free State flat-topped mountains instead of Grand Canyon vistas, karoo scrubland covers it rather than Texan desert, and it’s all filmed with a strained grandiosity, and not a hint of actual grandeur and import.
But the fact of being South Africa’s first western is also irrelevant as an aesthetic marker, as the hype surrounding it is totally unfounded. The genre of your work, like the language you speak, adds nothing of value in itself, but only through what you do with it; how you approach its rules and conventions — and, of course, where and when and how you depart from them; and how you use it to launch your own voice. Nothing of distinctive personal value and style is added to (or taken from) the western genre here; there’s nothing of Mathews’s affection or awe for, nor perspective or critique of the genre. Just as he sees and discovers and forges nothing new about the characters, the plot, or the setting as he films them, there’s nothing there regarding the form or his art, either. The technical failings of the film show that not even a thorough adherence could be maintained: Five Fingers for Marseilles has all the absurdity of a parody film, with none of the irony.
The settings of classic Hollywood westerns are often frontier towns or pioneering villages; the fictitious Marseilles is not at any frontier nor new, brave, exploratory location, but decrepit and dying, and the filmmakers fail to diagnose its plights as well as to find whatever it is within it or its people that can sustain culture and life. Indeed, culture seems entirely absent from the film, except the basic and primal culture of taking what you want, by force if necessary, and of violently resisting the violence of others. What is there that the heroes of the film — the eponymous five fingers — are fighting for, other than protection from harm? Why is it that their town has fallen into this state, and what does it say about them and about our country? What are they to do to save it? They wouldn’t be regaining any former glory, because, as put explicitly at the film’s opening, there is no happy time in the land’s history, only transitions from one violent oppression to another. John Ford is perhaps the principal exponent of the western genre in the classic Hollywood era; his films embodied a grand political philosophy, in which his frequent star, John Wayne, engaged in fighting which, though shockingly violent and harrowingly physical, were abstractions of the vast struggles society undertakes in its ostensibly tamer and more formal or more domestic settings.
The inclusion of horrific violence and corrupt politicians and law enforcement is not a helpful inclusion to show the state of our country: any resident and any visitor could gather as much and more from paging through a newspaper any day of the week. There’s no actual political views or philosophies here, no abstraction of political, economic, or social realities. There’s hardly even an actual depiction of those aspects, as the characters neglect to ever speak to each other like they’re actual living people living out actual real-life issues. I cannot recall, for instance, what Emmanuel Tjiya refers to as important aspects of the land reform debate depicted by Drummond and Matthews using western themes; all that is given is a brief mention of land grabs by colonialists in a quick, broad prologue, and a hackneyed depiction of brutality exacted by white police upon black citizens during apartheid. Again, it’s nothing you couldn’t find anywhere else. The Sunday Times reviewer, Yolisa Mkele, approaches a truer view of the movie when he compares it to fantastical superhero movies rather than to westerns, but artificial superhero fantasies — even the most centrally mainstream and commercial fare of Marvel productions — can present political allegories and theories together with their competent entertainments.
One of the chief areas of focus in responses to the film is in its striking cinematography, in which I again found little value for the story and its ideas, the characters and their experiences, the country and its realities, and the filmmakers (and actors) and their artistic presences and personae. I recall a quote I encountered earlier this week, from Jean Renoir, the great French film director:
All technical refinements discourage me. Perfect photography, larger screens, hi-fi sound, all make it possible for mediocrities slavishly to reproduce nature; and this reproduction bores me. What interests me is the interpretation of life by an artist, the personality of a filmmaker interests me more than the copy of an object.
A don’t share Renoir’s discouragement, but I do share his interest in and preference for more human, greater inward and deep qualities of artistic creation than aspects of mere technical achievement. Larger budgets, advancing technological resources, and heightened prestige in so-called quality is not what will progress South African cinema, but the outpouring of the artist’s presence and being into their work, the heartfelt and urgent activity of creation to bring the artist themselves into view, as well as the realities of the country in which they find themselves located (and, to which, I dare myself to say, they find themselves owing service).