Crimes of the heart

Two South African films showing at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown (July 2 to 11) might be classified as “indie” productions.

Not that we really have an indie film sector as such. In the United States, where the term originated, “indie” means lower-budget films other than those made by the big studios, and we don’t have studios of that ilk in South Africa, so maybe all our films are indies.

But “indie” is also a look and a feel, and both Crime and My Black Little Heart have that feel.
Perhaps it’s just the relatively minor budgets, though the latter wasn’t a whole lot cheaper to make than White Wedding, which is very much a mainstream movie (and a commercial success).

It is also the apparent determination of both movies to tell an uncomfortable story head-on—and not to attempt to ingratiate themselves with audiences by getting all entertaining.

Both deal with trauma, either as a specific event and its aftermath (Crime), or as the pain and unhappiness generated by drug addiction (My Black Little Heart). Which leads one to wonder: when narratives are about trauma and pain, what’s the pay-off for the audience? It may feel helluva good for one to watch a movie about a whole lot of suffering, as if you were getting the unvarnished truth about life rather than mere escapist fantasy, but where’s the fun for viewers of unremittingly dark, traumatic films?

I don’t really know. This is a question I keep pondering, not just in relation to certain movies but also about some novels. The issue was raised when JM Coetzee’s Disgrace became, briefly, part of a national discourse about self-perception and representation (of, in part, “the other”).

If I recall correctly, one view expressed at the time was that Coetzee wasn’t actually such a gloom-merchant as it seemed from his books, but rather a charlatan who sort of pretended to be so gloomy because that’s what we expect of “high art”, of serious literature with a “message”.

I think that’s a silly argument, and I can’t see Coetzee’s gloom as anything other than genuine, but it does make one ask about the usefulness and/or the pleasure of depressing art works.

No thinking viewer or reader likes to slip into the position of the empty-headed hedonist who just wants to be entertained.

Rather, we want to feel tougher than that, able to take a bit of hardcore high art— work that claims to speak about something real and relevant. It feels more meaningful than laughing at Seth Rogen or being thrilled by Jet Li.

Is that just intellectual snobbery? After all, we’re not all artistic masochists. If we got nothing enjoyable or stimulating from such works, would we watch or read them? There is, surely, an authentic desire to get from such a work a sense that it has penetrated to a more profound level of reality and has come back with insights we need to hear.

It may be a need for what Aristotle famously called catharsis, the emotional release achieved by vicariously participating in the tragedies of others.

I think I tend to deal with this question on a case-by-case basis; that is, I try to decide if a particular novel or film (traumatic or not) worked for me or not, and why. This may have as much to do with a day’s mood or preoccupations as anything else, and may also have to do with the way trauma is presented in fictional narrative, which feeds into the much larger question of realism and fantasy. As far as realism goes, at least, there may be some clues in Crime and My Black Little Heart.

Crime is about a well-off bourgeois (Kevin Smith) who comes home one evening to find that his wife (Kim Cloete) has cornered a man (Tsepo Desandro) who broke into the house. She believes he is one of the men who hijacked her a few weeks before, and she wants revenge.

What to do? (Apart from get better security.) As the increasingly heated discussion between husband and wife proceeds, the film flashes back in fits and starts to the earlier hijacking and the trauma visited upon the wife.

And traumatic it certainly is. Crime gets harder and harder to watch as it goes on. That’s mostly because the events it portrays are hard to come to terms with, and because they haunt all our lives in South Africa (except perhaps politicians with bodyguards and motorcades). It’s also hard to watch, though, because the acting can’t always bear the weight placed on it as the characters become ever more unhinged— which is really to say, I suppose, that I wasn’t entirely convinced by their emotional journey.

Cloete, for instance, is very good in the hijack scenes but seems to be straining in the discussions with hubby.

My Black Little Heart, by comparison, is very convincing indeed—almost too much so. In a meandering, back-and-forth way, it traces the experiences of a young Durban woman who’s a heroin addict. It’s ugly, it’s sordid, it’s depressing. And, as in so many such narratives, from Requiem for a Dream and Candy to Melinda Ferguson’s autobiographical book, Smacked, the line from addiction to dereliction to prostitution and violent abuse seems to follow a horribly inevitable course.

It is undoubtedly courageous of writer-director Claire Angelique to make such a film, let alone to cast herself in the lead as Chloe (though the credits tell us coyly that Chloe is played by one Skyf Umlungu). And My Black Little Heart is undoubtedly a good film. The acting never feels like acting, the storyline seldom feels contrived (I place a question mark next to the Nigerian-voodoo passages, shockingly photogenic though they are—they feel like exotica for a non-African audience). The narrative confuses at points, and one is not sure if that’s just muddled storytelling or a deliberately “non-linear” approach, but it doesn’t matter much.

This story is compelling for as long as it lasts— you’re horrified, but you can’t quite tear yourself away. It’s hard to watch, like Crime, but somehow it delivers more satisfaction to the viewer.

Why is this? You get increasingly irritated with the Chloe character—often you want to give her a very hard slap. You get exasperated by the cycles of repetition that characterise addiction. You fall into the kind of despair that anyone who has dealt with an addict will know. But there’s enough in My Black Little Heart to keep you watching.

I think what makes all the difference is aesthetic stuff. The music by Chris Letcher is excellent, and the grungy-beautiful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (who shot Slumdog Millionaire and a few films for Lars von Trier) is what gives this unhappy tale its poetry.

So, after all that querulous pondering, I come to a conclusion I’m not sure I want to embrace: the idea that look and style and feel, indie or not, can make trauma bearable as a viewing experience. If Crime were more good-looking, would it be more watchable? It might be less realistic.

Perhaps I am just punting the “consolations of form”. Or I’m merely echoing Nietzsche, without knowing whether I agree with him, when he said: “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world justified.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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