Life, Above All (Le secret de Chanda)


Determination mixed with sadness.

Determination mixed with sadness.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana, Aubrey Poolo, Mapaseka Mathebe, Thato Kgaladi, Kgomotso Ditshweni, Rami Chuene, Jerry Marobyane, Tshepo Emmanuel Nonyane, Johanna Refilwe Sihlangu, Vusi Muzi Given Nyathi, Patrick Shai, Nelson Motloung, Ernest Mokoena, Mary Twala. Directed by Oliver Schmitz

Here in America, AIDS isn’t the same issue it used to be. Advancements in pharmaceuticals and care have given many their lives. It’s a different story in other places

Chanda (Manyaka) is a bright 12-year-old girl in the Elandsdoorn township near Johannesburg, South Africa but this day she is far from happy – she’s picking out a coffin for her baby sister. Her mother is too overcome with grief to do it and her father is too busy drinking and hanging out with floozies to do it. Not long after the funeral, her mother (Mvelase) takes ill and is sent away.

This leaves Chanda with younger sisters who basically don’t want anything to do with her and a sympathetic neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Manamela) keeping an eye on them. Chanda’s best friend Esther (Makanyane) has taken to prostituting herself to truck drivers in order to survive – she has been orphaned as both her parents passed away from AIDS.

Meanwhile in the township rumors are starting to circulate and whispers that Chanda is cursed – sickness seems to revolve in the air around her. Chanda needs answers and the only person who can supply them is her mother, so she sets off to find her. But be careful what questions you ask – you might not like the answers.

This is a searing, emotionally powerful movie that takes on AIDS and the way that sufferers of the disease are treating in Africa. There are those who ostracize and stigmatize the victims, as if they were to blame for  their illness. Chanda’s situation isn’t uncommon in South Africa – in Africa in general in fact.

Manyaka delivers an amazingly intuitive performance; as you can see above, her eyes are incredibly expressive and she fills the character of Chanda with plenty of energy and strength. Chanda as written is an impressive girl but I think Manyaka might just be as impressive. You don’t accomplish this kind of performance without real soul.

This isn’t always a pretty picture. There is some ugliness to how the villagers react and of course the situation is pretty grim in and of itself. The thought of 12 year old girls giving truckers blow jobs is absolutely outrageous to me, and yet it is a way of life for girls in that part of the world.

The ending is pretty upbeat despite the overwhelming despair that you would think is part of everyday life in Elandsdoorn (which is actually a pretty middle class suburb in many ways). The title can be interpreted in a few different ways (and is a bit of a clue to the denouement if you think about it) but for the girls in this movie, you can’t help but admire the strength of the African women here. It is a strength that seems to be part of their genetic make-up and it is nice to see it portrayed so positively even given the bleakness of the subject matter.

WHY RENT THIS: Astounding performances by the mainly local and inexperienced cast. Calls attention to the continuing stigmatization of AIDS victims.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Improbable ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are very adult in nature; there is also a bit of sexuality in the mix.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Canadian Dennis Foon adapted the screenplay from Allan Stratton’s novel Chanda’s Secrets.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134,461 (domestic) on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunt

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Closed Circuit

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The Forgotten Kingdom


An African road trip.

An African road trip.

(2013) Drama (Black Kettle) Zenzo Ngqobe, Nozipho Nkelemba, Jerry Mofokeng, Lebohang Ntsane, Moshoshoe Chabeli, Lillian Dube,  Sam Phillips, Jerry Phele, Reitumetse Qobo, Silas Monyatsi, Leonard Mopeli, Jabari Makhooane, Khotso Molibei, Mokoenya Cheli, Stephen Mofokeng, Harriet Manamela. Directed by Andrew Mudge. 

 Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

When one is a young man, one tends to judge the actions of their father quite harshly. We think of our old man as just that – an old man, ignorant in the ways of the modern world, one who doesn’t understand us and what we’re going through, one whose own actions are as unfathomable as a Lars von Trier film. Yet when we get some life experience of our own, most times the sins of our fathers (real or imagined) are brought into crystal clarity.

Joseph (Ngqobe) is a young man, living in Johannesburg, South Africa with a huge chip on his shoulder. He drinks, he carouses, he womanizes and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anybody. When he hears his father is ill, he’s not too concerned – his father has always been ill. When he goes to visit him in a mean, dirty tenement in a shantytown outside of the city, he discovers that his father (Phele) has passed away.

It becomes apparent that his father wants to be buried in Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa where Joseph (whose tribal name is Atang, which seems to irritate him) was born. After the death of his mother and after his father contracted AIDS, Dad had sent Atang into Jo-burg, which didn’t sit well with Joseph/Atang – ah hell, Atang – at all. However, he can’t deny his father his final rest so he takes the body back to the village in Lesotho.

The priest (Chabeli) seems to think that Atang’s father was a good man but Atang is having none of it – to him, his father was a coward who abandoned him when he needed him most. Atang is getting ready to go home when he is reintroduced to Dineo (Nkelemba), a childhood friend who has become the local schoolteacher. The two catch up somewhat and Atang realizes that his feelings for Dineo have deepened. However at last he has to go back to Johannesburg.

He gets a job, motivated to make some money and marry Dineo. However, when he arrives back at the village, he discovers that Dineo’s father (Mofokeng) has moved the family to a distant, remote village inaccessible by road or train. Dineo’s sister (Qobo) has also contracted AIDS and the shame has prompted dear old dad to move the whole family away, where he can lock up his diseased daughter away from the world.

With the aid of an Orphan (Ntsane) who happens to have a couple of horses, Atang goes off on a journey across the vast landscape of Lesotho. It is a journey in which he will discover who his father was, who he is and what is truly important.

Putting it bluntly, this is an early contender for the Best Movie of 2013. It is rare to find a movie that packs such narrative impact as well as emotional connection without having to sacrifice one for the other. The cinematography is breathtaking and Robert Miller has contributed a wonderful score that enhances the mood without distracting you from it.

While there are plenty of veteran South African actors in the cast, there are also many local actors and non-actors also in the cast. The performances are all compelling, but particularly that of Ngqobe who undergoes quite a transformation during the course of the film, from a somewhat sullen and self-centered man into one who has become much more self-aware and loving. His transformation is the center of the film, and the journey that he and the Orphan take across the stunning landscape of Lesotho is centered on that change.

Yes, in some ways this is a road picture in the tradition of Hope and Crosby but while there are some moments that are funny, this isn’t a comedy – but the basics are there. This is more of a self-discovery rather than a means to find laughs and as Atang discovers himself, so too will the audience. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt very keenly the need to explore my own relationship with my father and my son, as well as my own roles as both. I felt my own background wash over me like a warm blanket, followed by the sense of Africa covering me and holding me in a warm embrace.

It is easy to sentimentalize Africa (considering that most of us, myself included, have never been there) but it is the cradle of civilization and evidence points that we all have a connection there in one form or another as human life began there. This movie neither sentimentalizes Africa nor demonizes it; we get a sense of some of the problems there, but we also get a sense of the beauty of the environment and of its people, not to mention the wisdom of their civilization which in many ways far outdistances that of our own. This is a movie everyone should experience and I’m very grateful that I got to see this with my own mother. It’s one that will dwell in both your heart and mind for a very long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed and a story that will grab hold of you from beginning to end. Surprisingly well-acted.

REASONS TO STAY: American audiences seem to have a built-in prejudice against subtitled films.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult themes, some bad language and a lot of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Ngqobe and Nkelemba were cast members in the popular South African soap opera Rhythm City.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie is just embarking on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Straight Story

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Offshoring, Day 5

Skin


Skin

Sophie Okonedo ruminates on how ironic it is that her skin, so beautiful, could cause her so much trouble.

(2008) True Life Drama (Elysian) Sophie Okonedo, Alice Krige, Sam Neill, Ella Ramangwane, Hannes Brummer, Tembi Murake, Danny Keogh, Ben Botha, Nicole Holme, Lauren Das Neves, Jonathan Pienaar, Gordon Van Rooyan, Tony Kgoroge, Corbus Venter, Anna-Mart van der Merwe. Directed by Anthony Fabian

 

South Africa is a changed land. There are, however, many in the United States – particularly of the younger generation – who have little or no memory of the system of apartheid that reigned there until 1994 that relegated the black majority to second class status. Nearly all of us are unaware of the story of Sandra Laing, for whom apartheid did far more insidious damage.

Sandra (Ramangwane) was a well-adjusted little girl, adored by her shopkeeper parents Abraham (Neill) and Sannie (Krige). They are Afrikaans, living in the East Transvaal of South Africa in the 1950s, but while Abraham and Sannie are both lily-white, Sandra’s skin is darker-hued and her hair curly. Despite evidence to the contrary, she appears to have at least some African blood in here.

That is a problem in South African society. When Sandra’s parents drop her off in an all-white boarding school, after a short time during which she undergoes brutal teasing and extensive ostracizing, she is pulled from school by police officers and escorted home. Her parents are outraged – their daughter has been classified as colored, even though both parents are white. They go through extensive legal battles to reclassify her as white, finally getting a geneticist to testify that it is entirely possible that there is enough African DNA in even the whitest of Afrikaans to show up dominant unexpectedly. The Supreme Court at last classifies Sandra as white.

But that doesn’t make the now-teenaged Sandra (Okonedo) happy, although her parents are pleased as punch. Sandra knows she’s never going to be accepted by white South Africa, legal or not. On top of that, she falls in love with a black vegetable seller named Petrus (Kgoroge) who does business with her father.

However her father is not nearly as tolerant perhaps as you might think, and not only forbids the relationship but chases off Petrus with a shotgun. Like most willful daughters, this only strengthens Sandra’s resolve and soon enough she’s pregnant. When she elopes with her man to Swaziland, her father disowns her. They remain estranged for a very long time.

In the meantime, Sandra – cut off from her family and now living the life that most black members of South African society were experiencing with no running water, no electricity, no sanitation, low pay and few prospects. The pressure begins to take its toll on her marriage to Petrus, who grows more abusive until now with two small children, she is forced to leave.

She goes to find her parents only to discover that they no longer live where she grew up and for a time her attempts to find them are fruitless. However as the apartheid government falls and free elections are conducted for the first time, South African media takes an interest in the young woman who’d suffered so much because of a division that was really, when it comes down to it, only skin deep.

This is Fabian’s first effort and it shows in places. Some of his scenes dwell on minutiae a bit too much, be it cinematographically or through dialogue. That said, he captures the atmosphere of apartheid-era South Africa nicely; I’ve read comments from South African natives who have said so and far be it for me to disagree.

The main attraction here is Okonedo. Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda, she proves that nomination was no fluke, turning in a performance that is nuanced and believable. Her Sandra shows the scars of being thought inferior to the point where she partially believes it, before she is forced to make a choice to save her kids from her abusive husband.

Neill and Krige, both tested veterans, perform pretty well although Neill is a bit over-the-top as the somewhat bombastic Abraham. There’s some scenery chewing going on, but not so much that it becomes irritating – it’s merely noticeable. Kgoroge  also turns in a fine performance, although he tends to be overshadowed in his scenes with Okonedo.

This is one of the tragic stories of apartheid, and that it hasn’t gotten virtually any coverage in the States is a bit of a crime. This might have been the movie to rectify that but it wasn’t picked up by a major or even a major indie distributor, getting barely any theatrical release in the States and relegated to cable where it can be found even as we speak. It is worth seeking out though if for no other reason for Okonedo’s performance.

WHY RENT THIS: The story is extremely moving. Okonedo gives a tremendous performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing drags occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and a little bit of violence, but the thing to remember here is that the subject matter is on the adult side and might be too much for immature sensibilities.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won 19 international festival awards and was nominated for six mainstream awards.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tsotsi

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snow White and the Huntsman