Death and sex: The SA story?

Alex McGregor and Bjorn Steinbach in Impunity.

Alex McGregor and Bjorn Steinbach in Impunity.

Ladies, here’s a great suggestion for Women’s Month: how about a killing spree? It’s a suggestion that the main character of Jyoti Mistry’s new film, Impunity, would certainly take me up on.

Meet Echo, played by the dangerously doe-eyed Alex McGregor, who works in a sleaze-pit bar somewhere in one of South Africa’s dangerous cities. Late one night, following her shift, Echo’s boss rapes her.
Echo isn’t named Echo for nothing.

But this Echo is also the protagonist of a dreamlike, violent South African noir. So with the help of a handsome patron named Derren (Bjorn Steinbach), she murders her boss, empties the till of its contents, and heads out into the maelstrom of this country, surfing a wave of blood.

I first caught the film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where a packed theatre could have been faulted for thinking Mistry’s film served as oblique yet pointed summary of Occupied Azania’s manifold ills.

On a gravelly beach, after Echo washes herself of the blood, she and Derren consummate the part of their relationship left unconsummated by the murder. Sex and death, death and sex. If Echo and Derren had stopped there and a domestic drama had unfolded, perhaps Impunity would feel less like a précis of the South African condition. Instead, they go on a killing spree.

Their first stop is the species of gated compound in which the country’s middle class imprison themselves – a high-end, minimalist, white-washed cell that almost seems designed to be splattered with gore. Derren’s pal and his sultry wife invite the couple to stay. Sex and death ensue. A domestic servant is wrapped into the unfolding carnage. We are safe nowhere and from no one – not in our home-prisons, and not from our friends.

All of these actions are caught on surveillance camera; all of it is detailed in headlines hanging from trees. The violence is perpetrated, and then it is consumed. If all of this makes the viewer think of the Oscar Pistorius thing – well, good.

You remember the story: a celebrity with no legs fires bullets into a locked bathroom door, aiming for the intruder he thinks has broken into his bespoke Tuscan security village. Instead, a woman is killed. Every last detail of the murder – every last speck of blood and brain tissue, including the contents of the woman’s stomach – is pored over by the media. When the ghost of Reeva Steenkamp speaks, she does so through text messages and emails. Otherwise, she is silent.

Echo, an alchemist, transforms the silence into dissonance. She is an agent of death in an age of violence. In the fractured, stream-of-consciousness narrative – deliberately broken into shards by coeditors Melissa Parry and Khalid Shamis – Echo and Derren find themselves working as servers at an engagement party. The bride-to-be is the daughter of a patrician politician (shades of Thabo Mbeki) and when she too is taken in by the now uncontrollable urges of the neo-Bonnie and Clyde duo, two cops are brought on board to solve the crime.

One is on the take. The other is clean. The safety of South Africa is now in their hands. When they find Echo and Derren, the viewer wonders whether anything at all has been solved. It’s not a spoiler to say that everyone gets away with everything. You know how it goes, because you live in South Africa. Impunity.

This strange, confounding, disturbing film discards narrative coherence for mouth feel – this is about textures, the individual pixels in security-cam footage before they converge to make up an image.

It’s an approach that won’t satisfy everyone – the Tiff crowd seemed baffled – but perhaps that’s the point. Cinema doesn’t have to tell it straight. Sometimes, it serves to speak in echoes.

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