Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
Flatland is an adventure crime western from writer-director, Jenna Cato Bass. Her films push cinematic boundaries and are never dull, starting with Love the One You Love, then High Fantasy and now Flatland. Romance drama, Love the One You Love, showed great promise… settling into the lives of several people searching for love and happiness in the New South Africa. The micro budget production, High Fantasy, ventured into the wilderness with several students taking an active role in the film-making process, while she wrote Kenyan romance comedy drama, Rafiki. Flatland is more epic and sprawling, set in and around Beaufort West, tracking the lives of three women trying to break free.
This is a bold and striking film. The camera is up close and fixed on the characters. This refreshing choice fills the frame with human interest, takes some of the pressure off the production’s minutiae and facilitates more contained and nuanced performances. It creates a sense of urgency, pulls you into the characters’ lives and fosters a untrustworthy intimacy. The in-their-face energy is compelling and reinforces the fearless approach in spite of the frame’s ever-present sense of claustrophobia.
Giving the actors so much face time means you’ve got to trust your cast implicitly, which is why Bass has assembled a solid ensemble for Flatland. Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin and Izel Bezuidenhout are charged with the trio of leads. Cool-headed Baloyi plays Capt. Beauty Cuba who’s trying to find a balance between her duty as a woman and a cop while pursuing two girls on-the-run from their lives and the law. Young and wild, Fortuin and Bezuidenhout inject the same anger and excitement into their performances that compel the storytelling. Filling every role with purpose and poise, the main supporting cast is made up of Albert Pretorius, Clayton Evertson, Brendon Daniels, Eric Nobbs with an impassioned De Klerk Oelofse.
Flatland is a feminist film, exploring the lives of its main protagonists against the backdrop of a hostile society where women are objectified and mistreated. Unflinching in its sledgehammer representation of a partriarchal system, it’s still nuanced enough to offer a a number of multi-dimensional male characters. While most are portrayed as vicious, self-serving reprobates there’s some greater complexity at play among the supporting characters. The overarching and ever-present dangers abound as the three women navigate their way through the dark night. It’s not all doom and gloom, armed with a sense of humour and sporadic flickers of hope.
The soundtrack is another highlight to Flatland, offering a dreamy soundscape to activate the Karoo landscape and film’s bold choices. The mix of colours and electronic sound do to the western genre what It Follows was to horror. Blending Afrikaans and English, the South African flavour is strong capturing the essence of a self-perpetuating and toxic culture where sport, drinking, music and womanising seem to be the only choices for men. While the toxic outlook is scattershot, even demonising local women who view suffering as a rite of passage, there’s a special focus on the Afrikaans male identity.
This is a beautiful and often immersive film experience. The strong cast keep the drama locked and loaded, the elemental electronic soundtrack gives everything an extra layer of cool, the timely themes are fiery and the brave cinematography keeps Flatland distinct and edgy. While kitsch, it’s a stylish and exhilarating affair, hampered by its missing pieces when it comes to storytelling. Starting in the dark with a few nuggets of story, this air of mystery continues as we try to unpack Natalie’s motivations beyond pure escape, Poppie’s reckless behaviour and Beauty’s attempts to resurrect a flagging relationship.
Flatland has a poetic understanding of character, offering a few wisps in order to get the ball rolling and relying quite heavily on style, circumstance and performance. The stylistic choices keep the frenetic visual aesthetic front and centre like Run Lola Run while the Thelma & Louise meets Fargo story compel the drama. Five Fingers for Marseilles demonstrated what a full-on South African western could look like, while Flatland offers a contemporary take rooted in South Africa.
Flatland soars at times as it traverses churches, bars and the dusty Flatlands of the Great Karoo. It would’ve been better at a more clipped running time and if it had a more substantial and emotionally connective handling of character. It’s symbolically powerful to see these women graduate through a series of events but the irony of the close ups is that you still don’t feel the emotional undertow as if you’d lived through their lives by the time the credits roll. Still, Flatland’s highlights are so provocative and sure-footed, they largely overpower these shortfalls.
Flatland review first published at SPL!NG.