Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
In South Africa, films that echo themes from the country’s darkest days are often criticised for being stuck in a time most would rather forget. While a painful reminder, these historical recreations can serve as a contrast to show how much progress we’ve made or how far we’ve still got to go. Depending on when these films were made, filmmakers who opt to wrestle with our history are typically doing so as a form of catharsis, a political statement or both. Amandla isn’t preachy but is ambitious. For writer-director Nerina De Jager, whose sense of wanderlust was coaxed by intrepid family trips in the VW combi, it was important for her to film Amandla in her home country. This after travelling to 65 countries and becoming a host of FMA as well as a red carpet correspondent, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers.
The script was written by 2011, filmed in 2016 but has only graced screens in 2022. In the film business, it’s anyone’s guess as to why some films get the green light and others get shelved. Taking 6 years to finally get to screen, the best guesses would be that it either deemed too bleak or needed considerable reworking. Either way, the good news is that the hard work that goes into producing a film – a veritable miracle in most cases – has finally paid off.
Amandla journeys with brothers, Impi and Nkosana, who spend their days playing and hunting birds with slingshot catapults on a farm in the ’80s. Having relocated from Natal (now Kwazulu-Natal) with their parents to get jobs, Impi longs to return home. Yet, when tragedy strikes, the brothers are forced to flee to the closest safe haven, a place where they’re forced to live by their wits. Each finding their own path and dealing with the childhood trauma, Impi makes sacrifices to get his brother an education. However, their fraternal bonds are tested when they fall on opposite sides of the law.
This crime drama thriller stars Lemogang Tsipa, Thabo Rametsi and Israel Matseke-Zulu, a solid local line up whose passion and love for acting translates to screen. Some of the roles do seem a bit typecast with Tsipa (Back of the Moon) and Matseke-Zulu (Four Corners) often playing thugs, reversing this trend in a refreshing mentor dynamic in Beyond the River. Rametsi starred in the visceral biographical thriller, Kalushi, rounding off an exciting trio of actors. Taking a while to ramp up to the New South Africa era and 1997, the child actors help immerse us in this rather Shakespearean tale of crime and consequence.
It’s a visually-striking and potent chronicle of two vulnerable young brothers who start their lives over in Isando. Moving from farmlands to shantytown communities, the contrasts are stark as the boys escape wide open rural spaces to find solace in the city. While a bleak, brutal and tragic representation of South Africa, there’s a raw urgency to the storytelling as Impi and Nkosana’s paths diverge. This intensity drives this brave and ruthless crime thriller, embroidered by emphatic performances, vivid storytelling and a haunting soundtrack. The pacing and slow-boiling suspense keep this film captivating as it grapples with family responsibility, justice and morality. Starting with lofty prestige ambitions, the sweeping cinematography and score adds weight and cinematic appeal.
Unfortunately, while promising and even inspired in places, Amandla suffers from some fundamental flaws. Most of these can be derived from its self-aware screenplay, stereotyping and sense of the familiar. As a feature film debut, De Jager’s enthusiasm parries but is subverted by naïve interpretation. One of the biggest issues is that it seems like every character has read the script giving an all-knowing feel. Being on par with the storyteller and audience, some interchanges seem contrived, further exacerbated by heavy-handed direction to move things along. Soweto is a huge place, yet it’s treated like everyone lives in the same street and have dossiers on each others back stories. When it comes to characters, there are some persistent and even harmful narratives, which are cliched could have used more nuance.
While there do seem to be missing pieces, this probably points to Amandla being salvaged from an iteration where the trio of childhood friends each had more screen time. Taking time to make it about the brothers, this dissolves into being more Impi’s story. This version works well enough to keep this focus but based on the set up and title, there are hints that Elizabeth originally had more of a follow-through adult role. De Jager could have taken a Rashomon style gambit by filming three separate perspectives for Impi, Nkosana and Elizabeth respectively and turning them into a trilogy but this would’ve been ambitious even for an established auteur. Being in such a diverse country with such a complex history, it would be fascinating to see a more seasoned filmmaker mount this The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby kind of triptych.
Amandla is visually compelling, well-paced, promising, fearless, taut and impassioned enough to keep watching, crafting some curious characters and swathing the story in rich themes. This is enough to power home with a tragic resolution that will probably disappoint and challenge. The bleak tone and brutal violence gives it a similar spin to many other intense crime drama thrillers from South Africa. The screenplay is deeply flawed, has gaps and doesn’t do all that much to distinguish itself from other local genre entries. While you never doubt the underlying passion of this production, the film is stunted by a half-baked script and a rerouted edit. It’s entertaining enough if you’re willing to roll with it but may prove to be frustrating at times and have you scratching your head when all’s said and done.
Amandla first published at SPL!NG.