DIRECTOR: Jans Rautenbach
CAST: DJ Mouton, Hannes Muller, Chantel Phillipus, Franci Swanepoel,
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
DIRECTOR Jans Rautenbach’s return to the big screen after more than three decades is a heart-wrenching portrait of creativity stifled by a community’s inward-looking conservatism.
Narrated by Rautenbach, it is also an expiation of guilt, specifically regret around one man’s inability to really see what was right in front of him.
Koos Roets’s cinematography is expansive when it needs to show the Klein Karoo setting, yet intimate when showing us the people.
Riku Lätti’s atmospheric music is evocative Kalahari blues and by the time the ending swings around – an ending the narrator presages all along – you are rooting for the characters.
Rautenbach introduces the film in the opening scene, explaining how this is a story he has repeated to many people since it happened in the early 1980s in Kannaland.
The film then shifts to Abraham’s story. Abraham Soetlander (Mouton) is a coloured labourer who creates clay animals to sell to support his wife Katie (Phillipus) and little girl.
Persuaded by his wife Almerie (Swanepoel), Rautenbach (portrayed by Muller in the film) reluctantly buys a clay leopard from Abraham and, despite himself, enters into a push-pull relationship with the would-be artist.
In the Oubie (coloureds in the area call Rautenbach their own version of “Oubaas”), Abraham sees someone who could possibly nurture his creative instinct, but his inability to articulate his thoughts makes it difficult for the older white man to grasp that Abraham wanted a creative and business mentor.
Abraham is a dreamer who wants to make something of himself, but at the same time he has to deal on a practical level with his wife’s alcoholism and their deep-seated poverty. Katie and Abraham have a supportive relationship and even when her depression gets the better of her, he only sees the best in her, while she loves him fiercely.
Phillipus gives an unaffected, natural performance, intense in her portrayal of a potentially bipolar character, but never overplaying her character’s foibles.
There are several poignant moments that speak to early 1980s race relations and identity issues, specifically coloured identity. The people of Kannaland who make up Abraham’s community are staunchly religious in their belief that their lot in life is to be exactly where they are and while they take pride in his creative ability, they don’t like him getting ideas beyond his station.
“Dink jy ek dans van die lekker kry?” Abraham asks the Jan character while trying to persuade him to buy a new creation. Abraham plays the clown to stop the white man from becoming angry or rejecting him because he depends on Jan’s largesse to survive. After all, in that day and age, where else could he look to for survival?
Rautenbach’s narration slows down the film, constantly pulling you out of Abraham’s story and putting the focus back on him. This is a calculated gamble to give the white Afrikaner market a focus to identify with.
While the film might be totally in Afrikaans, poor coloured people – as well fleshed out as their characters may be – are a tough sell to the tiny market that supports Afrikaans movies which tend to run towards comforting rom-coms.
Yet, time and again, what draws your eye and attention back to the story is Mouton’s performance. His Magnet Theatre background in physical performance is evident in his fluid performance as a man who danced the riel to express himself when words did not suffice. Mouton banks his energy in certain scenes, parsing it out in bursts of focused creativity in others, creating a haunting character who only wanted to create, but was ultimately stifled by the expectations of others.
If you liked Meisie or Beasts of the Southern Wild, you will like this.