Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An African in Oceania

I'm a South African who used to write the DVD reviews for the Sunday Times magazine in Johannesburg. I am also, as the saying goes, an award-winning filmmaker. Now I’m living in New Zealand, I’m unemployed and this is my blog, which will inevitably be informed by my past experiences.

My first review is of the Oscar winner for a foreign film this year, The Secret In Their Eyes, which has plenty of echoes of what happened in my homeland. Also, I happen to be a bit of a Hispanophile (go Barca) and think that the best of Spanish-speaking films, like the one just mentioned, are the best in the world.

I will write mainly, but not exclusively, about films, whether they are new releases, DVDs or oldies. This week, for example, I also look at how Africa has been portrayed on Kiwi TV during the present soccer World Cup. But if a book, writer, artwork or artist grabs my fancy, I’m going to write about them – or get someone else to do so. Further, this blog might even become a diary for a film I make or contain an interview with a filmmaker I like. It might even become a travel journal!

The possibilities are endless, but the media impart messages and values and I’m fascinated by them, much as they often annoy me. This blog allows me the freedom to see and write what I like and for you to agree or disagree or do what I might do to you, which is ignore you. So a lot of fun could be and - why not? - should be had by all.

As far as a rating system is concerned, I started with a whole convoluted affair, but each movie has its completely subjective reason for being seen or not seen - now, later or never. Some movies are so bad that they simply have to be seen, albeit for reasons their makers did not intend. Some are mediocre but it’s Sunday night, and some are so good that you want to rave about them ad nauseam.

I’ll have at least one new review posted every Friday. Here goes.

Neil Sonnekus

Johannesburg, as seen from the Melville Koppies

Ghosts of the Past

Rotting in a South African prison right now is a man they used to call Prime Evil. He was the apartheid government’s chief assassin, but none of the men who gave Eugene de Kock his orders are sitting. Not in prison anyway. They’re languishing on state pensions or they’re dead of natural causes.

So there he sits like a ghost, and that is what The Secret In Their Eyes is about, except it’s in an Argentinean context. What do you do with such ghosts and the even more difficult ones that are embedded in our memory, whether we want to admit their presence or – as most people do – deny them? Why does one feel more pity for the Prime Evils of this world than those who gave them their orders?

And, to dwell on South Africa for just a little while longer, why do most films about that country’s sordid past not work, yet one like Secret works a treat? Probably because in the case of the former the story is being told in the language of the perpetrator, not the victim. Africans – black Africans - are always seeing and hearing their own stories second-hand, in their second or third language. That is something only they can rectify. For now their great gift to the world is musical, not cinematic.

In The Secret In Their Eyes, to state the glaringly obvious, both perpetrator and victim speak the third most spoken language in the world, Spanish. If they are divided politically - in the time of Isabella Peron’s seemingly glittering democracy - then they are united linguistically. The characters are all universally recognisable. There is plenty of political and romantic tension, as well as some welcome comedy. My only minor criticism is that the murder scenes are somewhat overly art directed.

But the film is like a good, thick, old-fashioned novel. You so love the lead characters that you don’t want to leave them, but know you must. You don’t want it to end badly yet know it will, so all you’re really doing is waiting to see whether that “bad” ending is going to be dignified, somehow redemptive, human.

Not for nothing did this film win the foreign Oscar. But if a Pedro Almadovar script could win an Oscar for best screenplay, though it was in Spanish, then Secret should have won the statuette for best film in any language. It’s as close to flawless as a political thriller can get, and all that really happens is that a retired state prosecutor starts re-investigating the rape and murder of a young woman 25 years ago. Why was the case never solved, yet closed?

Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is, one suspects, a typical Argentinean male. Vulgar, flirtatious, hung up, sexy. The latter two characteristics easily sum up his upper-class colleague and counterpart, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Then there is Benjamin’s eccentric and alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval, one of cinema’s great comic-tragic creations, played by Guillermo Francella. He, too, should have got an Oscar, along with writer/director Juan Jose Campanella.

Lastly, if the long-but-it-doesn’t-matter Secret In Their Eyes underlines the importance of dialogue in movies, it still uses and delivers on the visual qualities of film to seduce and, disturbingly, deceive us.

For example, towards the end we are given eye-witness evidence to solve at least part of the decades-old mystery, evidence we refuse to accept, mainly and tellingly out of fear for our very fallible protagonist and therefore ourselves.

Yet when the revelation comes it is all perfectly, sickeningly logical. In a single scene we see what the problem was and what its result is. If the film is seductive in the commercial sense then its trade-off is an image that will haunt us and remind us that the most poisonous consequence of all dictatorships, personally and collectively, is silence.

Rangitoto, Auckland, as seen form Kohimarama

Africa as Victim and Offender in the World Cup

There he is, Chris Clarke, whoever he may be. He of the check shirt, cozy pullover and placid eyes, looking and sounding like that smirking know-all who used to fuss over a kitten while the rest of us played sport, read or pursued our romantic interests behind the school pavilion. A mommy’s boy. Very nice nature and all that.

But now, having grown up, he is imploring us to give money to the starving children of Africa during halftime breaks in the World Cup 2010. Appealing to our humane side. In close-up. Almost steaming up the lens with his niceness. Radiating love for the downtrodden. How can we resist his bleeding-hearted, patronising, obsequious little persona?

But, to an African in Oceania, he represents a particularly sickening aspect of the “outside” world’s perception of Africa, which is seen as either corrupt to the core or the perpetual victim of horrible, horrible white men. Yet, perversely, it seems that only white men like Mr Clarke can help right that terrible wrong. And if we give money to his cause, whatever it might be – I had to check that it was World Vision for journalistic purposes - then life will just be so much easier for all those starving little snot-nosed angels.

Hasn’t he heard of, say, Bono? Whatever you might think of the latter on this front, he at least has some kind of credibility, some oomph, to put it politely. The persona Mr Clarke projects, however, is utterly, nauseatingly condescending. Hell, even he looks mildly embarrassed about what he’s trying to do.

But he probably understands his market as well as any other NGO type who knows how to milk our guilt instead of inspire our generosity, let alone investment. So for this Euro-African anyway, the persona Mr Clarke projects has what we used to call a please-hit-me face.


On the other end of the scale, Martin Devlin has been an informative, witty and delightfully eccentric host whose obvious love for the game is infectious. But here comes the other perception of Africa, and I don’t think it was even meant to be negative. They’ve been disappointing in the World Cup, the African nations, the implication being that for such a large continent it’s a shame that “they” only have one team in the final eight contestants.

Excuse me, how many teams from a somewhat bigger landmass, Asia, are through? Nil. How many from the richest and most powerful continent, North America? Nil. How many teams from the powerhouse of South America are through to the quarters? One, and it isn’t Argentina or Brazil. How many African players take part in the richest and most competitive European leagues as compared with, say, players from Asia and New Zealand? Many more, one suspects.

So be careful with those clich├ęs, Mr Devlin. It reminds me of that upper-class kid, in non-racist New Zealand, who told my son that the only thing positive about Africa is HIV. That kind of comment doesn’t exactly come from thin air, does it?

1 comment:

  1. Neil! I am soooo pleased that you are doing this! I look forward to reading it every week and hope that you and the family are doing well. We miss Hanka a great deal - thank goodness for emails and modern technology. Take care and keep writing Tamsyn van Gelderen