Sunday, September 25, 2005

We survived with a helluva lot of pain

I was very pleased to find a special edition double-disc edition of the two James WhaleFrankenstein’ movies on sale at HMV yesterday, and would have watched at least one of them last night had my boyfriend not found another ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-monster?’ movie (not on sale) instead.

We were quite excited to find the movie about the South African bank robber, André Stander, which we’ve wanted to see for some time. There aren’t that many international films made in or about South Africa, and when they are, they’re generally about the big ‘A’ – which is quite annoying. That isn’t to downplay the enormity if the big ‘A’ or its symbolic significance to the world. But imagine if the only films depicting America were ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Mississippi Burning’. So I hope you see where I’m coming from.

Before I continue, let me get something off my chest. If the world is going to use our national catastrophe, our shameful contribution to the world’s political lexicon, please at least learn to say it right. The big ‘A’ is not pronounced ay-pard-hide, it is uh-part-hate. ApartHATE.

And perhaps now would be a good time to mention that ‘Stander’ is pronounced stun-duh to rhyme with wonder, not gander. Yes indeedio, this is the first thing (for there are three) we South Africans worry about when watching a film about our country – will the US and UK actors drafted in over the locals manage the accent. Well, that should be plural. There are 11 official languages in South Africa before we even get started on the regional differences.

True, Hollywood thinks that the British only have 2 accents – Michael Caine or Hugh Grant, and of course a third that will do for either Scottish or Irish… but I digress.

So far the two best impersonations of South African accents have been Ian McKellen’s in ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (though to be honest, McKellen’s natural accent sounds a bit South African) and Arabella Weir’s deranged cosmetic rep in ‘The Fast Show’. Don’t get me started on Val Kilmer’s in ‘The Saint’, though to be fair, he did base it on my artist friend Bowen Boshier – whose voice is, shall we say, atypical… as if Anthony Hopkins had studied Gerry Garcia to play Richard Nixon… but once again, I digress.

American Tom Jane did a marvellous job in the title role. Okay, he struggled here and there with an Afrikaans word or name, but very convincing generally. Londoner Dexter Fletcher who played gang member Lee McCall did a pretty good job too, especially since as a Londoner he had to play a South African attempting to pass himself of as Australian for a part of the movie. David O’Hara from Glasgow as Alan Heyl, Stander’s No 2, wasn’t that good in the accent department. The rest of the case was made up of local talent, and it was quite fun to spot the everyone-who-is-anybody in South African film playing Bank Manger #2, Commissioner of Police or Man in Shebeen.

Oh dear, with all this stream of consciousness musing, I’ve forgotten to tell you what the movie is about. In a nutshell, white police captain André Stander is badly affected after shooting an unarmed man during a demonstration in a black township. He realises that the police seem more geared towards suppressing growing black anger at the injustices of Apartheid rather than on solving crime. His growing disillusionment with his role is all of this leads him to act out one day and rob a bank. It seems he wanted to test his theory that a white person good get away with anything because the police were too involved in suppressing township protests. He gets away with it, and tries another, and then another. Eventually he is caught and sent to prison, but escapes with two friends he’s made while inside – McCall and Heyl. They form a gang and embark on a crime spree that had the authorities baffled for years, becoming sort of folk heroes. But I won’t give everything away because I think you should see this movie.

The second thing is Apartheid. Will it be a caricature or will it be realistically depicted? Often the half-century is condensed into the few weeks covered by the story. The real thing was often tragically mundane, as the machinery of oppression often is. As shocking as violent confrontations like the 1976 riots depicted at the start of the movie were, Apartheid was actually in the details – in the nuances of daily life between the “big” events – like the “non-white queue here” sign in the bank, like the casualness of racist language in idle conversation.

It is easy to forget that amidst this all, people – both black and white – had lives, had jobs, fell in love, brought up children, had a favourite brand of toothpaste… the story of South Africans isn’t just about this one thing, although ‘The Big A’ is the bone that contains the marrow of our lives and the meat of our stories.

The lyrics of a Jennifer Ferguson song come to mind. “Letters to Dickie’ tells the story of a women writing to her fiancé who is in the army doing his national service. It really sums up how the routine and the monstrous combine to form the mundane realities of our lives – ordinary people in an extraordinary place which – for us – was still ordinary.

Dickie baby, your mother and me,
We’ve been shopping for a white dress for our wedding
and now we’ve got a colour TV
They say some terrible things are happening in the townships
I’m glad that you’re not there
There are bombs going off in the dustbins here in Jo’burg
I’m feeling so scared and alone, Dicky Baby.

I hope I remembered that right. I haven’t played that LP in a while. Not since I became ‘British’ and started fighting different battles. Jennifer, by the way, became an ANC MP later on.

The first time Apartheid affected me in a personal way was mundane. I suppose it is obvious that it had been affecting me my whole life – but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the retrospective weirdness of going to an all-white school in an all-white area, or being brought up by a black woman whose Anglicised name was not her own or whose last name I never learned. No, I’m talking about that “oh shit” moment when you realise “this is actually real, this is actually happening”. Liberal universities – like Rhodes, the one I went to - were “multi-racial”. Rhodes is largely residential, being, as it is, squirreled away in a small town. My first friends in my first year there were Graham and Miles. Miles was black and Graham was white. We had a lot of the same classes and we were in the same residence so we hung out a lot. The moment I remember most clearly was when I realised that while we could take the same train home for the holidays, the three of us would not be allowed to travel together. See, a mundane detail. Unlike in the movie, there was no huge historic moment with the news cameras rolling and the smoke and the dogs and the screams and the blood and the death. No, for me, just 18, it was a simple logistic: one of the hundreds or thousands of petty rules that tore our country apart – into separate queues, separate trains and separate lives – for one more decade.

Stander, while acknowledging the huge impact Apartheid had on the South African psyche – on individual South Africans – manages not to grandstand. It manages to make it the backdrop, the mood, the menace, even, but not the story… and that is no mean feat.

And that third thing we look for? I can’t remember. I had some smart-arse idea which I lost along the way. I think it must be this: we look for landmarks. When you grow up with a diet of foreign media – British and American films – the locations seems so exotic. Car chases past Trafalgar Square? Spies using payphones in Liverpool Street Station? These places, iconic places, now too seem mundane as I walk past these spots every other day. So to watch a movie and see the video store in Yeoville, Johannesburg where I hired my first gay movie in the background of a crime caper… once mundane, now seems special.

In Quartz Straat hoor ek ‘n meisie my roep,
daar’s ‘n Hare Krishna wat vra wat ek soek
En ken ek vir Jesus? Vra ‘n man op die stoep,
tussen Hillbrow records en Estoril Books
En dis lank na twaalfuur, en die Hillbrow toring stuur
Sy seine in die nag, sy sein in die nag…

En die ligte gaan aan in die Chelsea Hotel,
en stemme en musiek klink in elke woonstel.
Ons sit in die son, drink wyn,
Ons survive met ‘n helse lot pyn in hierdie land, ja
Kom ons drink op die een wat sy drome oorleef,
op die een wat kry wat hy vra…

Aah, Johnny K


At 9:53 am, Blogger Brett Lock said...

The translation of the excerpt from the late Johannes Kerkorrel's song 'Hilbrow' is below. Hilbrow is a very "cosmopolitan" area of Johannesburg...

In Quartz Street I hear a girl calling me
There's a Hare Krishna that asks what I'm looking for
And do I know Jesus, asks a man sitting on a porch
between Hillbrow Records and Estoril Books
And its long after midnigh and the Hilbrow (Broadcast) Tower sends
its signals into the night...

And the lighs go on in the Chelsea Hotel
and voices and music can be heard in every flat
We sit in the sun and drink wine
We survive with a helluva lot of pain in this country - yes
Let's drink to the one that survives his dreams, on the one that gets what he asks for.

At 12:48 pm, Blogger Brett Lock said...

Ah, I just remembered what the 3rd thing was - non-English swearwords. They can get away with those. ;-)

At 9:38 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brett lock, hillbrow very cosmopolitan, you say? maybe 20 years ago. I am currently 26 and hillbrow was never great in my lifetime. it used to be, with such buildings like Ponte being top-class. but now hillbrow, along with Ponte, has become a hole. the only time people travel into hillbrow is to buy drugs or sell drugs. it the place to stay away from. i do occasional drive through there, but only on a must-do situation. im not saying hillbrow wasnt at one point nice. my parents used to go partying their all the time, and Ponte used to be for the rich-of-the-rich. now ponte is just filled with illegals and hillbrow is the centre of joburg drug market. to some it up, hillbrow in the last 20 years has become a hole, and if you ever visit south africa, thats one neighborhood you avoid.


Post a Comment

<< Home