In Dust, filmmaker Pieter du Plessis uses an isolated setting to bring to life a post-apocalyptic world in which the scarcity of water has tested the will and character of those who inhabit it.
The setting isn’t quite the aftermath of a war: Dust takes us more into its periphery, being in part a study of how territories are carved up anew in times of conflict. The rural landscape, a hidden backwater to city slickers in times of plenty, becomes a safe haven, while the cities, which we never see in the film, are imagined as the epicentres of mayhem, run by warlords gorging on the spoils of war.
Du Plessis’s chosen landscape is a desolate, almost barren farm. Within the context of war, it functions as a kind of utopia, with water and other life-sustaining resources seemingly available in abundance. But, as the story develops, one finds that there is more to this relative idyll than meets the eye. Just as the landscape has been reordered, so too have human values.
What appears at first to be easily decipherable turns out to be murky.
In the film, a family on the run ends up taking refuge on a farm after being discovered trespassing. The trespassers, wounded and parched, are on their way “north” in a bid to escape the conflict. What begins as a period of regrouping and recovery for the refugees is, deliberately, revealed to be yet another trap.
A contained space in which a matriarchal figure calls the shots turns out to be rich terrain to explore moral and ethical dilemmas. On one level, the story explores the roles women are forced to occupy in society and the limited set of choices on offer to escape them. When they rise in attempts to escape that wretched state, the film seems to ask what follows.
Du Plessis intentionally grounds us in the perspective of women. It is they who bear the brunt of the morals of this new society. Also, in the case of the film’s matriarchal figure, it is they who lord over its mores.
Over and above the use of pacing, lighting and setting to draw us into the characters’ inner worlds, there are also hints throughout that point to a darker, hidden dimension of this society. A key underlying thread is the question of what it takes for a woman to be at the helm in a world built on violence as a form of coercion.
“Violence against women is a huge problem in South Africa but also the whole world,” says Du Plessis in an exchange. “Women are often kept in a metaphorical box, and then, when they try to break out of it, are subjected to extreme violence or have to resort to violence. In this way, the film mirrors the realities of our world.”
So although the post-apocalyptic setting “ups the danger, and ups the tension and allows us to do interesting things culturally”, it also has its limitations, if only in the context of this film being a South African production. Dust, as spatially contained as it is as a creative project, exists in a cultural setting in which the land is evocative, animated even, leading to its increased representation as a protagonist in recent films.
Several South African films have gestured at this, with uneven success. An easy, recent example is the film 8: A South African Horror Story, an opening night film at the 2019 Joburg Film Festival. Set on a South African farm in 1977, Harold Holscher’s film appears to confront the context of its setting head on. On the other side of our indulgence of this “confrontation”, we emerge with superficial renderings of African spiritual forms and expedient endings that betray this apparent grappling with environment.
Dust takes an almost inverse approach. The land — which is even tilled in one scene — and the cities (by implication) are all-white settings. Although this shields Du Plessis from the immediate issues of representing a reality authored by racial power, as evoked by the land, the shield is more a mirage.
As he says, he sought and attained a language in which to speak back to reality, in other words, a world not entirely steeped in escapism. The reality is that scenes of white people collectively tilling their own land in South Africa evoke Orania, making it hard to read this film as a representation of universal concerns inclusive of all humanity. The land, rugged, desolate but definitely inhabited, is not to be outdone in Dust.
By working within the ambit of speculative fiction, Du Plessis reproduces its all-too-familiar limitations, at least in its mainstream iterations. Representations of black people in an imagined, cinematic future have posed problems for filmmakers through the ages, leaving black people to take matters into their own hands creatively.
In the case of Dust, even with the apparent absence of race as a factor, the question lingers: In this dystopia, if blacks were factored into the equation, would they be also coming for the water or would they be the loyal farm hands content with the rations of their masters, ala 8?
These uncomfortable questions do not require filmmakers in South Africa to make movies loyal to a circumscribed reality, it just requires them to work a little harder in representing plausible alternate ones.
Dust is the closing film at the Durban International Film Festival, which runs until September 20. Films shown at the festival can be viewed here.