It’s the odd that makes the Durban film festival

Apart from the host of interesting titles from abroad, Durban International Film Festival (Diff) also premieres many new South African movies: among them, this year, is Of Good Record, the second movie from Jahmil XT Qubeka, who made A Small Town Called Descent, and Durban Poison, which the festival programme accurately describes as “long-awaited”. That’s because its writer-director, Andrew Worsdale, has left a gap of about 25 years between this and his first film, the 1980s cult classic Shot Down.

Then there’s the film mart, the workshops, the initiatives for emerging filmmakers — more to make Diff a busy, exciting event that film-industry people won’t want to miss. In fact, there’s so much going on that some industry attendees are likely to complain that they can’t manage to see many movies. For the non-industry filmgoer seizing the opportunity to see movies that won’t appear on the cinema circuit, the problem is likely to be how to pick the key ones to prioritise and/or how to fit in as many screenings as possible.

At this stage, all I can offer is a quick look at two feature films, just to whet your appetite — two of the oddest. Oddness is something to treasure when there is so much pressure on filmmakers to conform to the rules of what is seen as a commercially viable kind of storytelling. And that, in South Africa at least, is even odder — because those rule-bound movies still don’t make much money. But that’s another argument.

Rubber, which showed at a previous Diff, is certainly one of the oddest films I’ve ever seen: it’s a kind of horror parody, perhaps, with a car tyre as its protagonist. Yes, that’s right. A tyre. Wrong, the new movie from Rubber director Quentin Dupieux, is less odd in that respect — it actually has a human protagonist, in this case one Dolph (Jack Plotnick), who wakes up one day to find that his dog Paul has vanished. This is all very disturbing for the mild-mannered dope who is Dolph, but the odyssey on which he goes in search of Paul will be even more disturbing.

Wrong more or less states what kind of movie it is pretty early on. There’s one of those shots you’ve seen a million times: that of the alarm clock beside the bed, ticking from 7.59 to … well, in this case, 7.60. And from then on it just gets weirder, but it does so drip by drip, as it were, rather than in a rush of weirdness. It’s deliberate and it’s deadpan. This is a world in which everything seems real enough but is in fact plain wrong, out of kilter, at an angle. Each encounter goes in an unexpected direction, each conversation has its own peculiar logic that takes it somewhere surprising.

Similarly, the situation in Berberian Sound Studio has a particular oddness, in this case an oddness that develops into a kind of horror scenario, though it’s more complicated than that. When the nebbishly little Brit Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives in Rome to do some sound recording and dubbing for an Italian movie, he finds it’s not the kind of movie he usually works on: it’s very much in the vein of what in the 1970s were labelled gialli (as in “yellow”), the kind of overheated, ultrastylised movies made by Dario Argento and Mario Bava. When Gilderoy finally meets the mysterious director of the film (named, hilariously, The Equestrian Vortex), he admits he’s never worked on a horror movie before — to be told, with great seriousness, that this is no mere horror movie.

Which goes for Berberian Sound Studio itself, of course. It’s a chiller, yes, a psychological horror movie, but it’s also one in which the precise boundary of reality, as in Wrong, is uncertain. And, because it’s about the business of making movies, which is about constructing fantasies that look (and sound) as real as possible, the nature of perception itself is at issue. Take the scene in which a melon is dashed to the floor, making a sound that mixes plop and squish — a sound that, in the final movie-within-the-movie, will represent the sound of someone hitting the ground, having fallen some distance. Plop, squish … No, says the ever-alert soundman Gilderoy, it’s too wet. So they have to try another melon, or perhaps another vegetable entirely.

The dark humour here is apparent, introduced as it was a little before in a sequence of frenetic watermelon chopping and stabbing — this to give the sound to a sequence of, well, the chopping and stabbing of a human body. We never see any of The Equestrian Vortex, apart from a striking title sequence, but we watch the sound people watching it, and it’s a curiously displacing as well as rivetingly scary experience.

Berberian Sound Studio is, besides all that, beautifully done — a neat period piece, perfectly settled in its 1970s era and in this weird space in which reality and fantasy seem to bleed into one another. You will, at least, come to feel quite differently about melons.

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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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