New local film Back of the Moon, set in 1958 Sophiatown, sees a love story unfold against the backdrop of apartheid forces about to demolish the neighbourhood. While Phumlani S Langa found it to be iconic local cinema, Charl Blignaut did not appreciate how Sophiatown was romanticised.
Back of the Moon
Director: Angus Gibson
Starring: Moneoa Moshesh, Richard Lukunku
A TOXIC ROMANTICISM
Before the premiere of Back of the Moon, Angus Gibson told of a documentary he had co-created in the 1980s about Sophiatown, adding that he had been accused of romanticising the famous site of cultural flowering and brutal forced eviction.
I am a bit of a fan of Gibson’s work, but after watching the film I was left wondering how that had changed with this new film many decades later.
Like Janet Jackson’s video for Got ’Til It’s Gone, which shamelessly rose-tints Sophiatown as a style movement, Back of the Moon – set on the night before the evictions – is a romanticised and beautified version of history.
It also has little – basically nothing – to do with Sophiatown. In the film, Sophiatown is a backdrop and an event, an eviction that provides dramatic stakes. Sophiatown’s character, nature and realities are largely unexplored; its universal gangsters and torchsong singers foregrounded.
If this was a real exploration of the lives of Sophiatown, the viewer would have had context for the rape scene in the film, as jackrolling (a crime born in South Africa’s townships, where men gang-rape their victim in retaliation for a perceived slight) is a historically documented aspect of the time and place.
But unshackled from history the rape reads as a special effect, a gimmick.
Was it really necessary in getting the point across? Casual rape plays into the country’s rape culture, where our trauma is often glibly dismissed and our triggering ignored.
As with myriad South African gangster films, Back of the Moon offered us a full display of toxic masculinity and entitlement. But did it unpack it and offer us new insights? Nope. It emboldens young men to act with toxicity because gangsters are cool.
The film is beautifully costumed and art directed, but, shot on set, it becomes theatrical and ends up looking like a musical in search of songs.
That said, it’s a classic piece of South African invention. Gibson’s production company had a retro set that they had finished shooting on for a TV series and so decided to shoot a feature on it before it was dismantled, making something out of nothing.
If there’s one really compelling reason to go and watch this film, it’s the astonishingly good cast. The leading couple is magnetic and showed that they both possess true star quality. – Charl Blignaut
ART IMITATES LIFE
Unlike my esteemed colleague and mentor, I found this film to be the most refreshing local content I have encountered all year.
We need to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction and, in my opinion, a world imagined doesn’t have to be an exact fit with historical accuracy.
Yes, the people who were forced to live in and leave Sophiatown were by no means happy about their situation, but in the midst of the institutionalised hatred, this was a hotbed for artistic talent.
Writers, jazz musicians and poets emerged from this place and I’d like to think they went about the business of their art in a fashionable way, with a touch of black swagger.
This film takes us to this reimagined Sophiatown, a time when shebeens were frequented by well-dressed mobsters and sultry singers serenaded the ills of society away.
In 1958 this town is being dismantled by apartheid police. A band of thugs, The Vipers, has a steely grip on the town, led by Max AKA Badman (Lukunku), a smart brother who uses crime to pave a way towards his future. He also has a burning pride in this hood and decides to stay and defend it to the death.
Eve (Moshesh) is a singer and rising star who has an abusive boxer boyfriend, Strike (S’dumo Mtshali).
Lukunku is of Congolese heritage but he completely assigns himself to this role and wrapped his tongue around some Sotho dialogue quite well. He’s come leaps and bounds since playing the local equivalent of McSteamy on Isidingo.
Eve’s friend and manager – played by Thomas Gumede – wants nothing more than to see her leave the dusty streets of Sophiatown with her talents carrying her over the seas to fame and freedom.
I remember thinking to myself how Gumede would just be one of these presenter-type dudes for most of his career. He’s one of the most promising producers we have and his acting chops are well documented.
The imagery is captured confidently and Gibson brings a unique, signature style to his work.
At the end of the film is archival footage of actual removals showing people on the back of trucks not looking anywhere near as glamorous as they are shown to be in this feature.
This suggests that the creators are aware of the actual history of this place, but simply gave life to an alternative trajectory. We gave praise to Quentin Tarantino when he did it with his latest, and yes Back of the Moon did win at the Durban International Film Festival.
This is a gangster flick; I’m yet to see a film in that genre played out in a meadow with fights being resolved with stern chit-chat.
When you look out your window and gaze on our enflamed and enraged city, is that what you see? Art generally imitates life, not the other way around. – Phumlani S Langa