South African film Flatland opened the Panorama section of the Berlinale Film Festival on Thursday night. Directed by Jenna Bass (Love the One You Love, High Fantasy), the film filled four theatres on its opening night and was sold out for several subsequent screenings.
Part Western, part road movie, the genre-mashing film tells the story of the painfully shy Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) and the outgoing Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout), two young South African women of different races who grew up together as “sisters”.
When Natalie’s wedding night turns violent, she returns to the arms of Poppie, who takes her on a journey through the flatlands of the Karoo and beyond.
As the two women move through the idiosyncratic landscape, meeting a rich cast of characters who both help and hinder them in their quest, they are followed by a policewoman and soap opera addict named Beauty (Faith Baloyi), whose own narrative is haunted by violence and an overwhelming love for her former fiancé.
Shifting between the gritty violence of South African life and a left-field magical realism fuelled by a specifically South African kitsch, the film offers a disturbing portrait of gender relations in the country and also brings to mind the broader #MeToo movement of the past year or so.
Asked about the significance of the film in relation to contemporary South Africa and the gender politics of the day, Bass said that although these were obvious themes in the film, it was only while watching the premiere that she fully appreciated the allegorical weight of the film’s narrative.
Bass, whose earlier films offered incisive, but engaging explorations of gender, class and race in South Africa, was also the co-writer of last year’s festival favourite Rafiki, a Kenyan co-production.
Clearly a labour of love for everyone involved, Flatland was first pitched as a project at the third edition of the Durban FilmMart in 2012.
Produced by David Horler-Blankenfield, with a host of South African and European co-producers, the film was well received by the Berlin audience.
With high-end art film sales agent The Match Factory responsible for worldwide sales, Flatland looks poised to do well on the festival circuit in the next year.
It will probably be released in South Africa before the end of the year, with digital and broadcast rights now being finalised.
Talking about the screening, Horler-Blankenfield said: “To sell out four screens on the opening night of the Berlinale was an experience we’ll no doubt remember for many years to come.
“It’s been a privilege and honour to be welcomed back to such a powerful festival and we are so grateful and happy the Berlinale was the place to kick-start Flatland’s release to the world.”
Flatland was produced in association with the National Film and Video Foundation of SA, as well as the Hubert Bals Fund and the Berlinale World Cinema Fund.