Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

The new Afrikaans film Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut directorial feature by theatre director Christiaan Olwagen about the life and death of queer Afrikaans rock singer and popular cult figure Johannes Kerkorrel, was released on the 5th of May. In the two-and-a-half weeks since then it’s been hailed as a landmark feature in South African cinema, and has garnered much media attention for both its subject – it follows a small group of rebellious Afrikaner youths in the late 80s and their brief reunion on a single evening in 2002, and the discussion roves among such topics as the National Party, PW Botha, apartheid, communism, sexual experimentation, the Border War, the characters’ place in the new South Africa, and the rejection of the social and political strictures of Afrikaans conservatism – and the acclaim it’s garnered. I’ve collected here excerpts from the South African reviews of the film that I could find.

Click here to read The Back Rows review of the film.

Reviewing the film for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople – who awarded it five stars – writes that “you’re drawn in” from the first shots, and that “at times it feels as though you yourself are in a drug-induced hallucination.”

Olwagen’s use of long shots places you in the middle of the five friends’ experiences, then and now. Everything feels real and in the moment. You experience everything immediately, without a filter, and the tragedy of it wrings your heart. The archival material and a sober voiceover narration ensures a context that is true to life. The music of the Voëlvry-beweging (“Outlaw movement”) on the soundtrack heightens not only the immediacy, but also the nostalgia of the events. Was Voëlvry the stone that brought down Goliath? …

Johnny’s (Roelof Storm) character is an ethereal, lovable being who gets along with everyone, the resin that keeps the circle together, with whom everyone instantly falls in love. His presence is girded in a halcyon faintness, as though he were standing in for the real Kerkorrel. … Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie can steer you to nostalgia if you experienced that period and want to muse on it again. And in that it’s a celebration of friendship, the only counterweight to a life in a country that has been turned on its head.

In another five-star review, in his weekly Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, Leon van Nierop remembers South African film history: “Christiaan Olwagen gets something right here that Jans Rautenbach last did with Jannie Totsiens. With a surrealistic spring in his step, he frees the Afrikaans film from scores of cinematic sins in the past.” He follows with a sad recount of what he sees as the recent decline in interest in Afrikaans movies, because a few “individual movies nowadays give Afrikaans cinema a rotten name,” and the flaws in those films he cites are “banal predictability, sappy rom-coms, self-conscious preaching, and sometimes constipated and naïve teen movies.”

Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie, however, swings into the Afrikaans stratosphere with its affecting story, so that it feels as though Johannes Kerkorrel has totally knocked you out with his guitar. It has daring, originality, fearlessness, and a stimulating headlong rashness that drugs you. Only Rautenbach got it right this fearlessly. …

Yet it’s not only in delirious madcap techniques that cinematic rules are broken. Often the camera comes to a standstill and looks with bewilderment at the futureless youths at their half-way station between some place and another, such as when Rolanda Marais, in a performance that cannot be improved upon, and the dazzling Ilana Cilliers talk in a res room. It’s this superficial chatting, loaded with subtext about where Afrikaners found themselves, in a natural student way of speaking, that shakes the foundations of the Afrikaans cinema. …

The film reaches a highpoint during a pool party when Olwagen uses surrealism, but he knows precisely how far to go, and it tugs the film back to its roots, this representation of the alternative no-man’s-land that destroyed many young people. His control over style and image emphasises the absurdity and melancholy of political restrictions like no Afrikaans film since Die Kandidaat (“The Candidate”). Simplicity, a neck-wringing of stereotypes, a casualness with history, the objectionable manners in which Kerkorrel’s songs originated, and the frustration with a stillborn political framework are portrayed dazzlingly.

Olwagen, who has already proved himself as an excellent theatre director, has finally found his medium. He knocks down the fourth wall with a sledge-hammer and sweeps you off your feet to become part of the madhouse where the patients speak the truth in a language that no one wants to listen to. The irony is: in those days there was still a back door to escape from the madhouse. Today we’re still neurotic prisoners, but without relief. Perhaps Olwagen’s next film should show that. The closing image about the walls between people, higher today than ever, is one of the most powerful images ever in Afrikaans.

Gabi Zietsman wrote another five-star review for the entertainment site Channel24. She states that “the song that also titles this film – ‘Johnny is nie dood nie’ – is one of my favourite songs ever, and venerates the great Johannes Kerkorrel. The film, based on a play by Malan Steyn, is also an ode to those that went against cultural norms, but it becomes more personal by showing its impact on a generation scarred by the Border War and their growing opposition to apartheid.”

Instead of a biopic of the musicians (which we should still make, though), the audience experiences the film’s impact on a personal level, with characters that will make you laugh and break your heart. … [The film] looks and sounds beautiful as well. Continuous shots are a unique mark of the film, especially the big psychedelic party scene that was done in one take and with a massive cast, which will be one of the most impressive local movie scenes you’ll ever see. Beyond that, the cast also gave stellar performances and worked as a unit to create a picturesque chaos tamed by their adult years, though not fully harnessed. … Seven awards from the prestigious Silwerskermfess, including Best Feature Film, should be an indication that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is a masterpiece of Afrikaans cinema.

On her personal blog, the blogger Theresa the Wordsmith reviews the film and calls it “an effective, yet intriguing way of learning more about the music and its meaning to an entire generation.”

Cinematographer Chris Vermaak’s penchant for the swirling camera does get a bit nauseating, but his use of continuous long tracking shots every now and then makes up for it. The opening sequence, especially, is beautifully unnerving … There is also a grotesquely gorgeous long tracking shot at a party – the kind of party only students can really throw properly or appreciate in all its weirdness. One long shot slowly travelling through and around the house captures the surreal feel and brings you right into the moment. … Touching on friendship, betrayal, sexual and political awakening, this film is as layered and nuanced as any of the theatre work Olwagen has worked on over the years and bodes well for his film career.

Writing for the Bizcommunity site, Daniel Dercksen calls the film “as radical as the Voëlvry movement” it depicts.

Olwagen’s enthused adaptation … is a significant South African film that reveals a truth about our lives that deserves to be seen and will most definitely spark lively debate. Olwagen’s extensive experience as an actor, writer, and director … infuses the film with a vibrant and savvy sensibility, reaping powerhouse performances from a potent ensemble cast. If there’s one reason to see the film, other than for Olwagen’s daring vision and execution, it’s for the outstanding performances by Roelof Storm, Ludwig Binge, Albert Pretorius, Rolanda Marais, and Ilana Cilliers, who crawl under the skin of their characters and bring them to life with passion and sincere honesty. …

Olwagen’s choices as a visionary are sometimes risky, but ultimately rewarding and meaningful. He tells the story in motion and brings it vividly to life through the lens of DOP Chris Vermaak, who shot the entire film on Steadicam to achieve Olwagen’s theatrical style of rehearsal on set and to execute the director’s vision of continuous movement whilst shooting. … Olwagen’s powerful vision overpowers the senses and offers moments of pure genius, giving the film a haunting realism … Olwagen effectively balances physical confrontations with gentle intimate moments that result in a dynamic cinematic experience. The film also has a heightened realism where Olwagen uses theatrical devices as exposition.

On the Afrikaans literary site Litnet, Reney Warrington declares that she knew from the opening shot that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie “is something exceptional.”

The cinematography and styling of the late 80s and 2002 are flawless. … There are scenes where the design, the camerawork, the story, and the actors merge perfectly. … The tracking shots, in which a cameraman follows the actors at a party, or circles around them as they sit at a table and eat, draws you in immediately against your will. So far as I understand, the one shot at the house party was about 16 minutes long. It feels as though you are in a dream. Olwagen said he wanted to make it feel like a car accident that you can’t stop watching. Christiaan, you got it right. … Although the film looks specifically at the Afrikaner, and the soundtrack speaks to a certain generation, I believe it is a universal film. Post-revolution blues is a universal phenomenon and the quality of the film, the story, and the music will cross borders.

On the Afrikaans movie site Bioskoop, Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren goes so far as to compare the experience of watching it to that of reading Shakespeare:

Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is not an easy movie to watch. Just like it isn’t easy the first time you read a piece of Shakespeare. Yet you realise that you will be poorer for not at least making an attempt to devour and digest a piece of the English bard. The same goes for Christiaan Olwagen’s debut feature film. It asks uncomfortable questions about the Voëlvry-beweging’s legacy, while it confronts us with the sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll of the era. …

With such an ambitious and daring film, the script is make or break. But the weathered and seasoned ensemble cut their teeth on the stage and show us what they’re made of. They cultivate empathy with the characters, help us to identify with them (no matter how far they are from our own frames of reference) and don’t let us feel uncomfortable (until the end) that we’re sharing their experiences as voyeurs. My only criticism against the script (if it can be presented as a criticism) is that Ludwig Binge often takes over the screen with his charm and electricity, where I believe that that should actually be Johnny’s role. Yet Roelof Storm dazzles in the latter role and I couldn’t suggest a different Johnny. …

Olwagen and the cinematographer, Chris Vermaak, create the illusion that the viewer is part of the story, and take techniques, which, among others, Alfred Hitchcock perfected in his film Rope, to a new level. In terms of sound design, an original soundtrack, and editing, I can only say once again: seamless (and excellent). Birrie Le Roux and the rest of the production design team: everything from the costumes to the scenery is of Oscar quality (or perhaps rather of Golden Globe quality, seeing as the Oscars are so politically motivated).

A director could decide that he would like to bring forth a scene right out of Alice in Wonderland – complete with a hubbly-smoking Cheshire cat … but it’s the production designer who has to pull the rabbit out of the hat … to get the madcap Mad Hatter into a Voortrekker’s cap. An LSD experience is surely a first for an Afrikaans film. Not since Jans Rautenbach’s Jannie Totsiens have I witnessed something so experimental in Afrikaans cinema. But the devil is also in the small details … And in every area in the house, every shot, and every prop, there is a symbolic picture locked away, which a viewer will notice only on the third or fourth viewing.

On her blog My View, Robyn Sassen asserts that she knows Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie “will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit, or its importance as a piece of research.” She specifies that brilliance:

Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film. …

There are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a social-political nexus laced with ideals and fury. … While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched, and hard-hitting. … The work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Leave your thoughts on these reviews in the comments, and let me know of any other views of the film that you think should be included here.

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