New protest film lays bare SA's unresolved pain and its wrath

Scorched earth: Six young filmmakers came together to make the searing documenting Soweto, Time of Wrath. (Supplied)

Scorched earth: Six young filmmakers came together to make the searing documenting Soweto, Time of Wrath. (Supplied)

When films from the capitalist powers began to flow into Soviet cinemas in the 1920s following New Economic Policy concessions, Dziga Vertov, a pioneer of the Soviet avant garde, didn’t mince his words. He described the films as “living corpses of movie dramas garbed in splendid technological dressing, numbed by the terrible poison of habit” and declared: “The film drama is the opium of the people … down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios … long live life as it is.”

His antidote came in the form of Kino-Pravda, a monthly newsreel that depicted the daily reality of the people. It presented unembellished images of quotidian life, which, when strung together, were meant to reveal a deeper and more authentic truth. 

Although in the 21st century we have grown cynical of the idea of truth, the need for a proletarian cinema in South Africa could not be more pressing.

A subtle visual paradox strikes the first dissonant chords in the concise and powerful documentary Soweto, Time of Wrath, which opens the Encounters Documentary Festival in Cape Town on Thursday night.

The skinny form of a young man skips between lunar quartzite rock faces.
The contents of the frame are harsh and arid, and the boy leaps from outcrop to outcrop, appearing and disappearing. This is not a space that seems hospitable to life.

This barren scene gives way to a bright image of a jubilant Nelson Mandela circa 1994. He is a mesmerising prism, jiving on stage alongside a chorus of women dazzled by the radiance of the rainbow he refracts.

But the juxtaposition renders the illusion apparent. The dancers’ joyful expressions now read as a worrying delirium — an intoxication with the hallucinatory image of a South Africa that didn’t, and doesn’t, exist.

Soweto is the product of an initiative by French company JBA Productions, which brought together six filmmakers of the “born-free” generation to workshop a film that explores life two decades into democracy.

The film is by Siphamandla Bongwane, Jerry Obakeng Gaegane, Stanford Gibson, Asanda Kupa, Gontse More and Nduduzo Shandu, and mentorship was provided by director Jean-Loïc Portron. The result is a film that is not only urgent and relevant, but also flecked with traces of poignant auto-ethnography that will feel familiar to many South Africans.

Endearing archival footage of a young boy’s precocious oratory on the promises of new democracy melts into the harsh reality of the present day: a Kliptown shackdwellers’ movement battles to make its demands for housing heard by politicians; a community tries to take control of a severe drug epidemic; a group of illegal miners choose to hold their ground against the threat of the police’s rubber bullets.

A taut line is strung between where South Africa was in 1994 and where we ought to have been by now, and it bears the ever-increasing tension of a nation’s frustrated coming-of-age.

This is a difficult landscape in which to come of age, its epidermis pockmarked and scarified by the heavy machinery of history. When a group of boys is rescued from an illegal initiation school among the mine dumps, we encounter a people suspended in precariousness, searching for new rites of passage to chart a way through the liminal space of disillusionment.

Kliptown is the home of the Freedom Charter, but its inhabitants remain deprived of the most basic services, living in shacks that are flooded with mud every time it rains.

The film captures people at the threshold of wrath, refusing to be treated no better than the mine tailings that surround them. The futility of anger is thrown into relief by the absurdest disconnect between the nonchalant rhetoric of politicians and the citizens to whom they occasionally avail themselves.

Their coolness in the face of rage only adds fuel to their fire.

When one official expresses expedient sadness at the sight of old women at protests, the irony is clear. The camera’s vantage point takes the position of an insider, showing that the movement for change is being led by strong women – mothers, particularly – who are motivated not by hot-headed idealism, but by the pragmatism of caring for their families.

Still from Soweto, Time of Wrath
Still from Soweto, Time of Wrath. (Supplied)

Last month, two KwaZulu-Natal ANC councillors were jailed for the murder of Abahlali baseMjondolo activist Thuli Ndlovu. Last week, the SABC announced that it will no longer allow images of violent protest to air, out of fear that it may encourage others to follow suit. The officials’ nonchalance masks a dangerous hostility towards protest.

Soweto, Time of Wrath is one of a steady stream of films that documents resistance in post-apartheid South Africa, including Dear Mandela in 2012 and Miners Shot Down in 2014 (both of which can be found on YouTube), as well as The Shore Break from last year.

These films don’t only bear witness to protest; their grounded, observational style is in itself part of the resistance to dominant narratives. The gritty 60 minutes of Soweto, Time of Wrath give voice to people whose subjective truth is being actively kept in the shadow of the gleam of polished grand narratives.

As a collaborative film made by young filmmakers, its rawness resists the opiate of the myth presented by glossy Mandela biopics, and instead seeks a deeper authenticity.

This searing truth of ordinariness is found in a quiet moment in Eldorado Park. From outside a window, we hear a group of people praying together, and their unassuming plea for salvation echoes far beyond the walls of their modest community hall: “Lord, grant us the patience to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.”

The film will screen in Jo’burg on Friday June 3 at 8:45pm (Bioscope) and in Cape Town on Monday June 6 at 6.30pm (V&A Cinema Nouveau) and Wednesday June 8 at 8:30pm (Labia).

Encounters Film Festival runs from June 2 to 12 at The Labia and Cinema Nouveau (V&A Waterfront) in Cape Town, and at The Bioscope and Cinema Nouveau (Rosebank) in Johannesburg.

The 37th Durban International Film Festival runs from June 16 -to 26 at multiple venues in Durban. 

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