Featured Movie Review: Viva Dada (2021)

viva dada film

Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling

Viva Dada is an introspective documentary from filmmaker Matthew Kalil, featuring his inspirational friend and author Sjaka Septembir . The two were part of Kalil’s first documentary Porsellynkas, a retrospective exploration of the legacy of a performance arts group whose notorious and free-spirited works captured some of the disillusionment around the Afrikaans identity of the time. Sticking closely along the lines of identity with a soul-searching quest around self-worth, Viva Dada sets about trying to recover a long lost book authored by Sjaka. Recalling his suicide attempt, this honest work spoke to people at the time of its release but was so underground that the few copies that were distributed become difficult to track down.

Loosely centred on the quest to find Viva Dada, working through a list of people who last had a copy or some form of contact with it, the duo make it their mission to interview or locate the people on their list. Revisiting old haunts in the process of unearthing the origins of Viva Dada, the documentary takes these creatives on a nostalgic tour of their childhoods, triggering dormant memories and emotions in the search. Admittedly not quite sure what the documentary is about, Kalil’s open-handed approach begins with Sjaka turning the camera on him so that by way of gonzo journalism he too becomes the subject.

This free-flowing approach leads Viva Dada as Kalil is guided by feeling and mood rather than trying to adhere to a linear story line. Questioning beliefs in a reflective way, self-doubt and a series of false starts characterise the documentary as the men share intimate thoughts and memories. From small victories to suicidal thoughts, Viva Dada echoes the very spirit of Dadaism, a movement around happenings and found objects. Questioning the intrinsic nature and value of things, the movement had a blend of the absurd with a comical undertow. Viva Dada seems to move by way of feel and makes for an honest and challenging cinematic experience, which while full of questions around self-worth is mostly ironically funny. Tripping into special moments and even losing valuable takes, there’s a fatalistic undercurrent to this melancholic film.

viva dada movie

Sjaka comes across like a clown without make up, an idea that his hairstyle and expressions invoke. This is further impressed upon us by his blend of happy/sad as he jokes about and reminisces, culminating in him literally wearing a red nose. A doccie with a dual biographical slant, Viva Dada‘s outward perspective is inversed so that Kalil actually becomes the primary subject. Porsellynkas saw him adopt the behind-the-camera role of director and narrator, yet he takes a much more active role in this unofficial sequel. A charming and likable guy, his refreshing honesty reveals some of his triumphs and relative failures, charting his previous documentary, his screenwriting book ‘The Three Wheels of Screenwriting’ and his unfinished film about growing up in Table View.

Filming meditation, mini road trips, surf expeditions and suburban views, we get a raw semblance of their worlds with moody settings that echo the film’s nostalgic and self-reflective ebb-and-flow. Viva Dada‘s novelty, subjects and unpredictability make it an entertaining film that finds inspiration in some of the darkest places. Not afraid to represent the shadowier, doubtful side of humanity it works against the natural order of modern entertainment. Complementing this rather spiritual quest with some magical drone footage, Viva Dada moves from eclectic to ethereal.

Shot on a shoestring budget, it echoes the indie spirit of Porsellynkas, reinforced by its soundtrack comprised of Afrikaans folk music from Caltex. Filmed in English and Afrikaans, it’s a uniquely South African film that focusses on the existential crisis of its subjects, embedded in their hometowns and familiar environments. Touching on identity, white guilt and the disparities of living in a city like Cape Town, this heavy and somber mood permeates unapologetically. It’s a truth-seeking documentary, an artistic and spiritual endeavour, which while constrained by its no-budget origins still has plenty to say without saying anything at all.

Moving from introductions to introspection and a form of inquisitive visual poetry, Viva Dada isn’t for everyone. While its complex characters remain compelling, its see-what-happens approach work for and against… pushing the quest forward as the novel search continues, yet constrained by its own commentary on honest, heart-on-the-sleeve frustration. A deeply personal story, the scattershot come-what-may approach remains fascinating and checking in at 45 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Viva Dada‘s searching spirit underpins this journey where self-understanding and greater awareness make a worthy spin-off for achievements not unlocked.

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