A history of violence

Two South African movies open this week, and they couldn’t be more different — Tim Greene’s farcical comedy Skeem and Khalo Matabane’s dark drama A State of Violence. It might be argued that they represent widely different tendencies in how South African filmmakers wish to narrativise this country, its situation and its people.

Skeem has a disparate bunch of holidaymakers at a rundown resort off a national highway, all trying desperately to get their hands on a big box of cash. The emphasis is on humour, on the mishaps and misadventures of a range of South Africans all obsessed with money — an obsession that is perhaps the movie’s main sociopolitical echo. Otherwise, Skeem seems to take place in a South Africa where race is of no particular relevance, a South Africa in which all such social divisions have disappeared in the scrabble for personal gain.

In that respect, the highly amusing Skeem is as idealised or stylised as those famous beer adverts that had a team of multicoloured South African men (all men, note, and all muscled up to a Californian degree) pulling together to create a semblance of national cross-race unity. In such ads, rainbowism is deployed to sell alcohol and make us feel all manly and proud in a golden-hued, attractively sweaty way. In Skeem, rainbowism just means we’re all equally flawed, whatever the past. History is erased in the venal present, and we’re asked to shrug and to laugh.

Ghosts of the past
By contrast, A State of Violence contains scarcely a chuckle, and I don’t think I saw a single white face in it. Its focus is on the inner tragedies of black South Africans today, tragedies that have their roots in the years of struggle against apartheid. It’s about how the ghosts of the past haunt the present, not so much in the big-picture sense of apartheid’s huge social and economic hangover, but on the personal level.

Fana Mokoena plays Bobedi, who, at the start of the movie, is seen to be ascending to the top job in a big mining company, presumably the beneficiary of black economic empowerment as well as his own history in the struggle — or at least in the “ungovernable” township unrest of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His nickname, “Terror”, is something of a clue.

But that past is not just a highlight on an impressive CV. Barely has Bobedi celebrated his new job than he and his wife are under attack in their posh suburban home; a terrible act of violence in the present links back to another terrible act of violence, one that took place in Bobedi’s youth, and sets him on a journey to discover who is responsible — and to attempt to take his revenge.

It’s not a long way, for Bobedi at least, from the comforts of the suburbs and the luxuries of the corporate boardroom to a world of township skulduggery in which illegal weapons are cheaply available and the possibility of yet more violence is always hovering. As Bobedi tucks that just-acquired gun into his belt and goes looking for a perpetrator, the film coolly marks the contrast between his almost sterile suburban mansion and the busy, decaying, patched-together clutter of the streets and homes of Alexandra township.

Bobedi is partly assisted in his vengeful quest by his younger brother, Boy-Boy, played by Presley Chweneyagae. Boy-Boy is a counterpoint to Bobedi’s anger and his reversion to violent ways of dealing with his pain; he is the presence constantly questioning Bobedi’s motives and warning of the consequences should Bobedi be able to keep that cycle of violence and revenge turning. Chweneyagae’s visible sensitivity, and the vulnerability he displays as Boy-Boy, contrast tellingly in their softness with the hard rage Bobedi is acting out.

Nexus of pain and anger
A State of Violence tells its story very well, tightly gripping the viewer and dragging him or her almost unwillingly into this nexus of pain and anger. Beautifully shot by Matthys Mocke, it lingers on faces and reaction shots in a way that asks us to consider characters’ feelings, their puzzlements and questions, as well as their fear. (This works particularly well with Chweneyagae; Mokoena is more opaque.) The film is about this “state of violence” within the characters’ hearts as well as in the more obviously public, communal sense.

It’s not a long movie, and it ends with startling abruptness. In a way this is powerfully in keeping with the rest of the film, and leaves open certain questions that are doubtless still open, or at least unanswered, in many South African lives. But it also feels like it lacks a denouement; I, for one, felt as though A State of Violence was heading for more revelations than we viewers are given, another twist that would reveal secrets at which the film seems to hint in its narrative course, an explanation beneath the explanations already shown or outlined.

In that respect, A State of Violence leaves one impressed but less than fully satisfied — in narrative terms. It’s a valid strategy, though, for Matabane to leave us as unsatisfied as his protagonist. Perhaps there are no more explanations on this level of personal historical pain, no formal closure, and nowhere left to go.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Author 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.

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