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From Beaufort West to Berlin, Flatland reaches great heights

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Film director Jenna Cato Bass and producer David Horler first met when they were growing up in Cape Town and were in the same year at school. Little did they know that they would one day join forces to create groundbreaking films that have made waves locally and internationally.

Their latest project, Flatland, premiered at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) in February 2019, opening its Panorama section to much acclaim, and hit South African cinemas on 30 October 2020.

Daily Maverick called it “fearless filmmaking from one of our own”. Bass told the SA Jewish Report “My grandmother grew up as a Jewish Afrikaans farm girl in Malmesbury. In many ways, this film is in homage to her.”

Set in Beaufort West in the Karoo, it tells the story of Natalie, whose disastrous wedding night leads to an accidental killing. She flees her husband and the rural town where the landscape is so flat that “you can see your future rolling in”.

After reuniting with her rebellious best friend, Poppie, the two young women escape together on horseback. Hot on their trail is police captain Beauty Cuba. The fates of these three different – yet equally desperate – South African women eventually converge.

A few days after its release on South African shores, Horler told the SA Jewish Report that, “The film has been travelling the world since February 2019 at festivals and screenings, so we’re really grateful and relieved it can finally come home and be seen by South African audiences.

“It’s been an interesting experience as this film started its life outside South Africa, and at the same time is very South African in terms of its cultural relevance and experience. While audiences abroad really appreciated and enjoyed the plot, the complexity of the characters, and messages explored in the film, there were undoubtedly many moments that only South African audiences would really appreciate.”

COVID-19 has meant that fewer South Africans are going to cinemas and, Horler says, “attendance is still a fraction of what it was this time last year, and we’re the first South African film to screen post-lockdown. So there are many unknowns.” But they remain positive that South Africans will welcome their work, and if the reactions of critics are anything to go by, it has definitely caused a stir.

Flatland has been described as modern, feminist version of the classic Western film, and Bass says she was definitely inspired by that field.

“The Western was one of my dad’s favourite genres, and we watched a lot of them together when I was getting into cinema. There was so much about them I loved – the action, the high stakes, the landscape, the horses – but at the same time there were never any characters I particularly related to. I started to realise how few – if any – Westerns placed women centrally in the narrative, and what this said about the genre. I realised that if I was going to make a Western, I would have to address this, and allow the characters to drive the genre, rather than the other way around.

“It also made sense to question the Western’s history as a colonial narrative – how this reflected in contemporary South Africa when we are still very much dealing with these issues of conquest and oppression,” she says.

The film is shot in Afrikaans and in a desolate rural town – not Bass’ first language or home environment. “There were most certainly challenges, but that’s when I as a director or writer like to acknowledge what I don’t know, and where I need help,” she says. “There was a huge contribution from our cast in realising the characters you see in the film. We also would never have been able to make the movie without the enthusiastic support and hospitality of Beaufort West and the surrounding communities.”

Horler says the majority of the film was shot in and around Beaufort West, with several days in Cape Town, which was a challenge for his production company, Proper Films. “As Beaufort West had no film infrastructure or support from vendors and suppliers – and we were at the height of the drought in the Western Cape – we had to be particularly meticulous with our planning and make sure we brought absolutely everything we needed with us from both a technical and personnel perspective.

“We also had an incredibly dedicated team of drivers travelling to and from Cape Town on an almost daily basis, bringing additional supplies or transporting actors and personnel that weren’t with us full time. Otherwise, the entire crew and cast lived in Beaufort West throughout the shoot.

“The hospitality of the town was unparalleled, from accommodation providers to the actors that we cast locally, even the mayor and local municipality. It’s an incredibly special place that in many ways simply cannot be matched on screen, which is why we decided to take both the financial and logistical risk of basing ourselves there instead of trying to recreate the environment in Cape Town.”

Going back to how they first met, Horler explains that “Jenna and I were both at Herzlia together and matriculated in 2004, but only connected properly at film school after I approached her to work together. We have worked together on and off ever since.” The duo’s major film from 2017, High Fantasy, was shot using cell phones, and has won multiple awards.

“The fact that we give each other the freedom and mutual respect to do our jobs makes it conducive for us to excel when working together,” says Horler. “We acknowledge each other’s unique skill sets and experiences, and give each other that freedom and trust to run with things. And when things do go wrong, there is always an openness to discuss issues and how best to fix them.”

Bass says that growing up in the Jewish community meant that “my life was very insular and secluded. When I left school, everything felt new, and I really appreciated how little I knew about the greater South Africa. I think this inspired me to learn and listen more to the world around me, because in a lot of ways, I was still a stranger to it.”

While South African cinema faces many challenges, especially in the “new normal” post-pandemic, both are excited about the future. “It’s always been and remains a challenge to realise an independent film, so we are both always working on multiple projects in the hope that a handful of them will pick up momentum and be able to be realised,” says Horler.

“Over the past few years, there is a very clear trend towards more authentic, engaging, and powerful local cinema. You can also see this playing out across the continent. Filmmakers are finding the confidence to tell their unique stories instead of trying to emulate Hollywood styles or focus on issue-driven identity films,” he adds.

“There is definitely a palpable excitement across the industry, with films today really standing out, having more successful lives outside of South Africa and resonating with people without needing to fit into narrow boxes,” says Horler. “At the same time, our production values and strength of storytelling continues to increase, making the films competitive in the international marketplace. So I do believe there is a renaissance of sorts taking place. A lot of the South African films that have come out in the past few years are a clear testament to this.”

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Mogoeng comes out swinging against apology ruling

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Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng came out swinging in his appeal against Judge Phineas Mojapelo’s judgment ordering him to apologise for comments made about Israel.

Mogoeng criticised Mojapelo at every turn, describing his reasoning as “flawed and disturbingly superficial”. He said “the learned judge failed to deal with the constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief, thought, and opinion”.

In his 38-page appeal submitted to the Judicial Service Commission on 2 April 2021, Mogoeng reiterated why he had the right to express his support for both Israel and the Palestinians during a webinar hosted by the Jerusalem Post last year.

His appeal was in response to the Judicial Conduct Committee’s ruling on 4 March 2021 that he had 10 days to apologise for comments he made about Israel in the webinar. At the time, he said South Africa had a role to play in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he supported both peoples, and as a Christian, he had an obligation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Africa4Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA) coalition, and the Women’s Cultural Group laid complaints against Mogoeng, saying he had flouted rules regarding judicial ethics. The matter was adjudicated by Mojapelo.

One of Mogoeng’s most pertinent points was that “several precautions need to be sounded to avoid the trap that His Lordship Mr Justice Mojapelo unreflectingly allowed himself to fall into”. According to the chief justice, this includes the fact that “it’s necessary to distinguish between official government policy and the policies of lobby groups and non-government organisations. And it’s necessary for decision-maker[s] to tell the difference between politics and policy, which his lordship failed to do.”

He also insisted that the judge’s “insinuation that I was possibly involved in some conspiracy with the Israeli government and ‘timed’ the webinar in such a way to undermine international law or United Nations conventions/resolutions … is a material misdirection”.

Mogoeng said there was no difference between what he said and the South African government’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “After a thorough search, I vouch for the fact that there is no official policy of the South African government that contradicts any part of what I actually said. Even the two agreements signed by President Mandela and President Mbeki with Israel don’t contradict anything I have said. I was therefore found guilty of five complaints or counts of misconduct that turn on a non-existent official policy of the South African government towards Israel.”

He emphasised that “the supremacy of the constitution and the entitlement of all citizens, including judges and magistrates, to enjoy fundamental rights cannot be wished away. Where these rights are limited by legislation or the code, a proper explanation is called for. Judges have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, association, and religion, belief, thought, and opinion. As is the case with other citizens, these rights may be limited. But the limitations must, broadly speaking, be reasonable and justifiable. They cannot be arbitrary or whimsical.”

He went on to describe how other judges had waded into political waters, including Mojapelo himself. He also described how “my brother Dennis Davis hosted speakers, including politicians, on his then Judge for Yourself eNCA television programme about the Israeli-Palestinian political situation and a range of political controversies to which leaders of political parties were invited and participated. He was exercising his constitutional right to free expression although different views might be expressed about being a regular anchor or host of a TV programme.”

Mogoeng described how other judges had involved themselves in political controversies in Fiji, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, “And my dear brother Cameron J [Justice Edwin Cameron] essentially said what I said on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the real difference being, unlike me, he didn’t rely on the Bible.” Yet, none of these men were hauled over the coals for their comments or actions.

A senior member of the legal profession, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The grounds of appeal make some sharp points against a senior retired and respected judge. It’s most unfortunate for judges to have such a public and divisive difference – both judges firing heavy ammunition at each other as to how the other has misconstrued the law. It doesn’t do much for confidence in the law and judiciary by the public generally.” He pointed out, however, that the chief justice “makes some powerful points, which need to be taken seriously”.

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Tony Leon shrugs off attack from anti-Israel lobby

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It has been a busy time for Tony Leon, the erstwhile leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), but one he takes in his stride.

Leon has faced a barrage of criticism from numerous quarters for his recent pro-Israel comments, and for saying in a News24 interview that former DA leader Mmusi Maimane was “an experiment that went wrong”.

The two aren’t related but coincide with the release of his fifth book, Future Tense: Reflections on My Troubled Land.

The outspoken and bold politician-turned-diplomat-turned-communications specialist caused waves among the anti-Israel lobby with his recent controversial views on South Africa’s foreign policy – or lack thereof – and its anti-Israel fixation.

In an opinion piece in the Sunday Times on 28 March titled: “Israel a handy alibi for SA’s poor foreign policy”, Leon berates the government’s numerous dubious foreign policy decisions, notably its silence on serious global issues compared to its vocal condemnation and criticism of the state of Israel.

This “fervour” of anti-Israel sentiment, he said, was “infectious” noting the “swift condemnation” by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for his pro-Israel comments in a webinar held in June last year.

Leon said the speed it took for the Judicial Conduct Committee (of the JSC) to find Mogoeng guilty of contravening articles of the code of judicial conduct and ordering him to apologise was “breathtaking”, pointing out how other judges’ cases have taken years. He accused the JSC of being “hypocritical, lax, and dilatory in its core tasks”.

Leon lauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vaccination programme, which has resulted in 70% of the country being vaccinated, leading the world in this regard.

In his piece he said, “To the extent that South Africa has a foreign policy at all, beyond a series of outdated impulses and struggle-retro gestures, Israel is the one place where President Cyril Ramaphosa, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, and Pretoria’s paladins can shine their human-rights credentials.”

He cited examples of some of the government’s regretful decisions, including “Silence on the slaughter in Syria; assent to concentration camps for China’s Uighurs; no entry here for His Highness the Dalai Lama; no censure for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea; and heralding stolen elections across the continent from Congo to Uganda,” and added that “at least Israel and its violations of the rights of Palestinians provides a handy alibi and a lonely exception to our generous support everywhere else in the world for ‘tyrannical leaders hated by their own populations’”.

Leon’s comments have elicited a seething-mad reaction from the anti-Israel chamber, which responded a week later in a burst of opinion pieces and letters in the Sunday paper.

One opined that Leon’s criticism of the country’s foreign policy and judiciary was “an attempt to defend Israel and its supporters in South Africa”. The writer said Leon used the “well-worn pro-Israeli tactic of ‘whataboutery’, deflecting attention from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Another accused him of resorting to a “misleading narrative of virtue and victimhood”.

Leon this week shrugged off the attacks, telling the SA Jewish Report, “My view on the selectivity and myopia of current South African foreign policy is well founded and impeccably documented, as is the success of Israel vaccine rollout, whatever Netanyahu’s motives for it might have been. I hardly expected my view to go unchallenged, and I have no problem at all with the voluble and inevitable expression of a contrary view as contained in Sunday Times last week”.

Leon is executive chair of Resolve Communications, an advocacy company for reputational management and strategic communication. He is married to an Israeli woman, Michal.

The attacks on Leon come as no surprise to political commentator Daniel Silke, who said the African National Congress (ANC) and members of the anti-Israel lobby weren’t ready to take a giant leap into a more balanced environment regarding Israel.

“Israel is a useful rallying cry for the ruling party, which continues to beat Israel instead of having to confront tough foreign policy and global issues. This is a comfortable foreign policy angle for the ANC to employ, and plays into the old anger of Israel co-operating with the apartheid regime.”

Silke said it showed how the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement) had largely influenced and infiltrated the higher echelons of foreign policy in South Africa.

“South Africa is increasingly out of touch with the changing dynamics vis a vis Israel’s relationship with not only Gulf states but also a number of African countries. South Africa is becoming an outlier in terms of its blanket condemnation of Israel. She is isolated on the continent as far as Israel is concerned, and she will have to live with the consequences.”

He said the anti-Israel lobby faced “a crisis of credibility” by continuing to propagate a particular message that was no longer the consensus in the Middle East.

“The broader macro issues of how to deal with the Abraham Accords has made life difficult for an organisation like BDS. It’s undermined by the broader diplomatic events taking place. These developments are making it difficult for the anti-Israel lobby to continue to lambast Israel when any number of Arab nations have decided to take a more co-operative stance with Jerusalem. In future, it will either have to take a more radical line which will totally exclude it from the changes, or [engage in] a more pragmatic, constructive engagement with Israel.”

Meanwhile One South Africa Movement leader Maimane hit back at Leon for telling News24 at the weekend that he was “an experiment that went wrong”, calling the statement dehumanising.

In an interview with Newzroom Afrika, Leon said the statement was made in an interview with News24 about his book, where he said “Mmusi was an experiment that went wrong as he had never committed to the party’s ideals before he joined it.”

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Albie Sachs on the handshake that shook him

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Justice Albie Sachs felt a real sense of liberation after encountering the man who orchestrated the car bombing in which he lost an arm and the sight in one eye.

Sachs told the Temple Israel Passover Freedom online event last week that his “heart [was] beating very, very fast” when apartheid soldier Henry van der Westhuizen asked to see him for the first time.

At the time, in 1996, Sachs was serving as a judge at the Constitutional Court, and the man called at reception, Sachs told the audience of the Hillbrow-based shul’s talk.

“I open the security gate, and there is this man, tall and thin like me, although younger. He is looking at me, and I’m looking at him. In his eyes, I can see [reflecting] this is the man I tried to kill and, in my eyes, you can see [reflecting] this is the man who tried to kill me. We didn’t know each other; we hadn’t fought [personally]. He was just on that side, I was on this side, and he tried to kill me.”

The men spoke extensively during a meeting in his chambers, with Van der Westhuizen boasting about his own educational success and then rise in the ranks of the army “as if he wanted a pat on the back for that”.

At the end of the meeting, Sachs told Van der Westhuizen, “Henry, normally, when I say goodbye to somebody. I shake that person’s hand, but I can’t shake your hand. Go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and tell them what you know. Maybe we’ll meet one day.”

Although Van der Westhuizen jauntily strode in, he “shuffled” out.

Sachs said he forgot about the incident until sometime later when he was attending a party in Johannesburg. He heard someone calling his name, and it was Van der Westhuizen. Again, he asked to speak to Sachs.

“We went into a corner so I could hear him over the music, and he said, ‘I spoke to the TRC and I told them everything I know’. I put out my hand, and I shook his. I almost fainted. He went away beaming.

“I heard afterwards that he suddenly left the party and he went home and cried for two weeks. I don’t know if it’s true. I want to leave it as a possibility.

“For me it was more important that this former killer … can now cry because of what he did. It was liberating.

“I wanted him to enter into the new South Africa and accept [new] norms and standards. The door would be open for him now to tell the truth and become a more dignified human being, and he walked through that door.”

Sachs went on to speak about the plight of refugees, speaking of his own experience in exile in England. He described how he was first “a psychological wreck” when he went there after being tortured in prison, and then after the car bombing, he was there as a “physical wreck”.

From the British nurses who cared for him, literally picking the shrapnel out his chest, he learnt that refugees need more help than just safety and survival. “The nurses, washing my body, that laying on of hands, gave me a sense of connection with England I never had before. It was a kind of organised love.”

Sachs said this is what we as South Africans need to offer those seeking solace in fleeing their homes.

He told the audience that he had been reflecting recently on his Jewish identity and what it meant to be “a good Jew”.

Two events made him contemplate the topic.

First, he always remembered how the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris had spoken at former anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo’s funeral. “At the funeral, he said Joe was a good Jew. Now that surprised me: the head of the Orthodox rabbinate is calling Joe a good Jew. It was on ethical grounds.”

The second incident was when he was visiting England at a time when there was a legal challenge to a Jewish school that had excluded the child of a converted woman. The court was asked to establish if this was in contravention of race-discrimination laws.

Then chief justice of England, Nick Phillips, asserted that he suddenly found himself in the position of having to “decide who is a Jew”.

Sachs remembers a member of the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies being called as a witness, and asserting that there were three criteria to being Jewish: to have a mezuzah; to contribute to Jewish charities; and to go to shul for at least the high holy days.

“Joe didn’t do these things – and I’ll be exactly the same. So I don’t know.”

Sachs said what was very pronounced for him was a “horror of antisemitism”.

He recalled visiting Bulgaria on holiday in 1968, and coming across two synagogues which had been hoarded by Nazis with looted memorabilia from other synagogues all over Europe as part of Hitler’s plans to build a monument to an extinct race.

“I went back to the apartment, and wept,” he said.

Others questioned why he was overwrought, saying, everyone found it horrific. “I wept and said it was a decimation of my family, my aunties and uncles whom I had never known. It’s something, in that sense, visceral for me, and very profound.”

He said his connection was in terms of Jewish experience, rather than doctrine. “It might be something to do with our grandparents living in the shtetls. The only book they would have had would be the Torah; the only school would be the cheder. [It showed] that ideas mattered.

“For those of us who were activists, ideas mattered, not just compassion, but ideas and a kind of rationality connected with justice. If that’s part of the Jewish experience, then I’m imbued with that aspect.

“I’m a proud Jew and I’m proudly secular. I don’t know what the connection is. It’s between opposites.”

He has always been certain about one thing: “My auntie Rosie’s taiglach that she made every Rosh Hashanah in a big round tin. She made the best taiglach in Cape Town!”

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