Strikdas is unforgivably flawed

Boy meets girl. Leandie du Randt plays Willimien de la Harpe, opposite Kaz McFadden as Don 'Vossie' Vorster. Photograph courtesy Indigenous Films.

Boy meets girl. Leandie du Randt plays Willimien de la Harpe, opposite Kaz McFadden as Don ‘Vossie’ Vorster. Photograph courtesy Indigenous Films.

The Afrikaans language is rich in talent – poets and authors, performers and playwrights. There’s a deep and full tradition of radio drama in Afrikaans as there is a history of children of Afrikaans heritage being schooled in the traditional performing arts and being audience members at ballets and operas from babyhood. Indeed, there’s a fabulous tradition of anti-establishment pop music in Afrikaans, to say nothing of a burgeoning presence of Afrikaans productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov on our stages. Why then, should Afrikaans-speaking film going audiences be subjected to such utter trash as Strikdas?

Strikdas – ‘n Familie Gedoente is billed as a comedy which makes it all the more horrifying. Since when is the humiliation of someone because he is poor considered laugh-a-second material? This is basically the theme of this offensively written story, which comprises characters boasting the depth of cardboard cutouts and an engagement with society through the narrative as though this were 1972 and a mandate was in place to shelter white Afrikaans speakers from ‘die swart gevaar’.

It pretends to be a university tale set in the beautiful environs of Stellenbosch University. Well, it is, indeed, set in Stellenbosch University’s beautiful environs, but the level of repartee between the youngsters make the idea that they are university students, laughable. The level of intrigue in this nonsense is as sophisticated as something Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or Secret Seven could have coined on a bad day.

Two kids, Willemien De La Harpe (Leandie du Randt) and Don ‘Vossie’ Voster (Kaz McFadden) are about to embark on their university careers and the plot ahead from the get-go seems so obvious, you sigh. It’s cobbled with the pride of families and a disparate set of social skills, so crudely constructed that it is not clear how or why Vossie is at university altogether, he so radically lacks any level of intelligence, social skills or credibility.

Similarly Willemien: she cooks up an idiotic plan to defeat her stern father who wants her to marry her boyfriend AJ Blignaut (Sean-Marco Vorster), the son of a rich businessman. The boyfriend is yet another weakly cast stereotype, his greatest sin being talking to another young lady, it seems, other than the sin of his limp-wristed portrayal of the handsome young suitor. But the sneaky plan cooked up by the young blonde is one that flippantly features the humiliation of a boy she doesn’t like because he comes of a lesser social set to her. Oh, and he wears a bowtie, which is a family heirloom. Riveting stuff, I tell you.

But it hardly seems fair to only isolate the central characters in this appalling piece of bilge. Each character – from the pseudo gothic little sister to the sinister grandmother to the boyfriend’s father with a hairstyle that speaks of the 1970s with revolting boldness, so patently lacks any level of development and the tale which should pin them together is so lacking in fluidity that could give it reason that you find yourself thrust into 90 minutes too much of witnessing a half-cocked situation that involves rich farm families and complex money deals and forged documents.

Nary an actor of colour is to be seen in this impossibly poor piece of film which has an obvious denouement and features such blatant cruelty from such undeveloped characters that you have to ask yourself what the funders of such nonsense are thinking? Or maybe you have to ask yourself why this industry deserves any funding at all, if this is what it can produce. Above all, you have to ponder why the Afrikaans-speaking film-going audiences are being so miserably patronised by the whole team that has put together a film of such dire weakness. Surely, they deserve better.

  • Strikdas: ‘n Familie Gedoente is directed by Stefan Nieuwoudt and performed by Susanne Beyers, Elsabe Daneel, Gys de Villiers, Leandie du Randt, Albert Maritz, Kaz McFadden and Sean-Marco Vorster. It is produced by Stefan Enslin and Philo Pieterse, and created by Etienne Fourie and Stefan Enslin (scriptwriters) Jacques Koudstaal (director of photography), Johan Kruger and Anneke Villet (supervising producers) and James Caroll (editor) Release date: April 3 2015.
  • http://www.indigenousfilm.co.za/movie-archive/strikdas/#sthash.YiaQKc3h.dpuf
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Tasting Michaela’s fierce hunger for life in her tale of dance, chance and hope

HopeIt’s not every day that you come across a life story as shattering and empowering as that of classical ballerina Michaela DePrince. It’s also not every day that you encounter a first person narrative told with such unabashed freshness that leaves you with goosebumps on every page. On several occasions the words might swim in tears as you read; ultimately you emerge with a taste of the deep hunger this fantastic young dancer has nurtured, not necessarily for dance, but for reaching for her best. It might sound like I’m about to burst into clichéd song, but this book averts corny Disneyishness in its blatant and direct embrace of the notion of hope.

Michaela DePrince, born Mabinty Bagura in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s had a one-in-a-million chance of a life; in the retelling of it, she is frank and bold and the material is readable and moving for young readers and old ones. More than anything, her tale is about the hardy stuff of which a toddler’s dreams are made.

Witness to the horror of losing her adored parents during the violent uprisings in her country of birth, DePrince was a tender three-and-a-half year old with a nascent lust for life and a passion for languages when everything that she knew and cherished was brutally broken. She was put in the care of an uncle who made his negative opinion of her cruelly blatant. She was shifted to an orphanage where she was mooted “Number Twenty Seven” which she later understood as a means of reflecting the establishment’s least favourite child.

Traumatised by loss, broken by neglect and the witnessing of horror, to add to her agony, DePrince was born with the condition of vitiligo which manifests in uneven pigmentation: this complicated the stigmas she faced in her own society. A chance encounter with a bit of rubbish in a windstorm gave voice to the child’s big dreams: when the wind blew a 1979 magazine cover bearing the image of a western classical ballerina into the tiny Mabinty’s awareness. She had never encountered anything like this and the dream was cast, prompted by mystery and fuelled by her inner engine, which kept her emotionally afloat amid real horror.

During that year, she, together with other children from the Sierra Leone orphanage, was adopted by an American family who raised them and enabled DePrince’s dreams to reach astonishing fruition. Much more than a litany of dance achievements, however, this book is a modest and clearly written one which leads you to laugh and cry and be astonished at the challenges that this young woman faced, head on. There might be a little too much in-house dance information as DePrince describes her adolescent years and her engagement with ballet schools and professional dance companies, if you’re not a dance enthusiast; but her emphasis on the problematics of what is recognised as the medium’s most unforgiving genre, ballet, is spot on. She pummels the confrontation between technique and emotion as she will open your eyes and head to the realities of racism within the genre.

You may have seen her perform with Mzansi Ballet in Johannesburg a few years ago, when she was an invited guest, and you may look at the structure and preciousness of this tale through the same kind of tears evoked in the north-east English 2000 drama Billy Elliot by Stephen Daldry, where the baby dancer with a heart on fire for something he can’t quite articulate grows into an irrepressible force of pure art. Inevitably, though, what you take away from this writing crafted with an endearing sense of directness is that dreams do come true.

This is the kind of book that should be on the shelf of any child. And any teacher. And any dancer or artist. It’s not a simple rag to riches yarn: there are lots of tears and twisty paths along the way, but it is a glowing tribute to the child herself and the people who raised her and allowed her to soar without clipping her wings.

Hope in a Ballet Shoe: Orphaned by war, saved by ballet by Michaela and Elaine DePrince (Faber and Faber, London 2014). This book is distributed by Jonathan Ball in South Africa.

Sex tourism, geography and the insufferable I: Meersman’s 80 Gays Around the World

80GaysWould you be interested in reading a blow by blow account of my sex life? How quickly would you lose interest? Writing about sexual encounters in the first person is dangerous: too much info and the words and their credibility part ways. And too much info about as touchy a subject as one’s own sex life is reached quickly. But if not for an explosively interesting foray into the notion of sex tourism the world over and if not for its achingly beautiful prose, Brent Meersman’s latest publication 80 Gays Around the World would quickly slip into the forgettably tawdry and self-aggrandising. Instead it’s an important social document, which I predict will find its way from itchy titillating contexts to serious sociological fora.

He really means it when he proffers you eighty sexual encounters during his travels all over the world, and while some are really beautifully cast, with hairpin narrative bends involving love and death and camels and cows, others are excruciating in their dirtiness and you quickly tire of how eastern men reflect on the size of Meersman’s genitals.

But as you read – and this is not the kind of book you can get through in one sitting – you forgive him for the self-indulgences that make you want to close your eyes and your brain. The book embraces a sophisticated and insightful reflection on what it means to be homosexual in the contemporary world – from Bangkok to Mexico, China to New York, in terms of the punitive and biblical nature of how the different societies tick.

Meersman’s sheer skill in immersing himself in the seductive beauty of foreign landscapes and his exploratory manipulation of his words to embrace some of the planet’s most astounding sights, be they in the majesty of landscape, the grace of architecture or the vileness of urbanisation, is palpable. Not every chapter ends in the bed of a hotel room, or the toilet cubicle of a club and you are enabled in some of these finely crafted pieces to see the complex magnificence that Meersman encountered in his travels, over and above both beautiful and revolting specimens of the male gender.

And while you get to understand the history of Meersman’s fascination for the young male pelvic floor, you also experience under his pen a stripping away of the veneer of morality from the sex act. It’s a gesture which yields meaty perspectives on issues viewed unequivocally as the way things are. He explores attitudes to homosexuality from Soweto to Los Angeles with the unflinching curiosity of the journalist and the subjectivity of the participant.

Jumping across geographies and chronologies, if you consider the peeks into contemporary political history that Meersman offers us, through the miasma of his different sexual and romantic and cultural enquiries, the text as a whole doesn’t slip into gratuitous smut; rather, it holds its own as an unashamed anthropological foray into gay culture. Topped and tailed with remarkably fine essays on gay discrimination and India, respectively, the book is more like Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari than EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. And, with all its profanities considered, it is an intelligent work and a worthwhile project, by and large achieving what it promises, though it remains caught in a kind of a Moebius strip conundrum. It must be in the first person to do and say what it does, and yet that is its greatest downfall.

  • 80 Gays Around the World by Brent Meersman is published by Missing Ink, Vlaeberg (2014).

Reznek and Muyanga celebrating Madiba from within the belly of Africa

Renee Reznek in her North London studio. Photograph supplied.

Renee Reznek in her North London studio. Photograph supplied.

Speaking of the power of music, internationally feted pianist Renée Reznek brings a brand new work to South Africa next week, which she commissioned herself. Entitled Hade Tata, the piece for solo piano is composed by Neo Muyunga and celebrates Nelson Mandela. Reznek performs at this, the seventh annual Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, before embarking on a small concert tour in South Africa.

Born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, Reznek’s love for the piano was, she believes, grown through a deep sense of loss she experienced as a toddler. “My mother was recuperating from polio treatment and my father took her on an extended European holiday. I was four. My brother was two. We were put in the care of my father’s mother, and also an ‘honorary grandmother’. Because she was a retired piano teacher, my parents hired a piano for her to play. I was spellbound by that piano: I believe that it and the music that came out of it filled the hole my parents’ absence brought. The bond between me and the instrument has never broken.”

As a child, Reznek studied under Adolf Hallis. She graduated with distinction from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree, studying with Lamar Crowson.

Today, she is celebrated as a champion of music from the so-called Second Viennese School, which forged music by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. She told My View last week: “My interest in this type of music was fuelled by two people at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, who completely changed my direction: Professor Gunther Pulvermacher was an extraordinary man. He was a German Jew with a great passion for twentieth century music and his teaching was absolutely revelatory for me. This music was not popular in South Africa at the time” – it still isn’t, really. “And James May, a senior lecturer in harmony and counterpoint whilst I was a student. He gave me the opportunity to play Schoenberg’s Opus 25 in a concert.

“Fired up with enthusiasm, I said ‘yes!’ In truth, I had no idea what this music was like, and when I dug into the musical language, I was horrified! I could not make head or tail of it.

“But then, after some guidance, and armed with a lot of hunger to do well, I became hooked. To play this kind of music, you become like an archaeologist on an excavation, and you find the familiar language of dance suites underneath the unfamiliar language,” Reznek speaks of ground-breaking 12-tone music for which Schoenberg was known and celebrated – and also viewed not without controversy and suspicion. “I became completely fascinated with this music.

“My mentors – including Susan Bradshaw who I studied piano with – opened doors for me.” After graduating from UCT, Reznek accepted a scholarship at the Mozarteum Summer School and then a piano scholarship to study under Gyorgy Sandor at the University of Michigan. Having completed two masters degrees in Performance and Music History, Reznek focused her PhD at Oxford University on the Second Viennese School.

“Mostly the festival organisers have given me leeway to play what I want,” she commented on the repertoire she will perform at this year’s Mozart Festival. “The festival’s artistic director, concert pianist Florian Uhlig, requested I play Claude Debussy’s 1904 work, Masques – in line with the festival’s theme of Masquerade, which I was happy to do.

“But as Peter Klatzow is also the composer-in-residence of this year’s Mozart Festival, I am playing a work by him, too. It is years since I played Klatzow’s work; his musical language has changed completely. The piece I have chosen rests on Schoenberg’s influence: my first love,” she laughs.

“But my programme includes new works by contemporary British composer Sadie Harrison, as well. I wanted to showcase what’s going on in contemporary London’s music scene,” she adds.

Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy www.uct.ac.za

Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy http://www.uct.ac.za

Arguably her programme’s draw card is a work she commissioned South African musician Neo Muyanga to compose a few years ago. Named Hade Tata, the solo piano work is a tribute to Nelson Mandela. “I am the only one who has played it so far,” the work has not yet debuted in South Africa – its performance at the Mozart Festival will be the first.

Reznek is using crowd-funding via indiegogo to record this piece. “It needs to be heard. Creative, wonderful things are happening South Africa: much that is valuable.” The CD is named From Africa.

Reznek met Muyanga when he first came to London with the Magnet Theatre production of Every Day Every Year I Am Walking – an award-winning piece about exile. (Magnet Theatre is the brainchild of Reznek’s younger sister Jennie) Muyanga was playing incidental music for the production which he had composed.

“When Nelson Mandela was nearing the end of his life, I – and millions of other people – became very emotional and also distressed that I was not in South Africa. I felt homesick and alienated. I connected with the situation, as I must, musically. I needed a piece of music to explain the feelings churning about in my head and heart.

“I was very honoured Neo agreed to compose the piece. I approached him because I wanted something to come from the belly of Africa. When I had met Neo in London, he told me that he had been present as a journalist at the Victor Verster Prison gates, when Mandela was released – he was working as a journalist to keep the habit of his music alive. Composing this piece was for him like the closing of an important circle. Neo’s piece progressively describes the moment when Mandela was walking towards the prison gates.”

Hade Tata, in Fanagalo, the pidgin language developed through SA mining culture, means ‘Sorry, Father’. The work is a poetic representation of Mandela’s feelings in coming out of jail. “It begins with a dirge-like walk. Deep anxiety is reflected. Questions are pondered: Did he wait too long? Was he too old to run the country? Were the expectations of him too big? And then the work becomes celebratory.”

Reznek speaks of the development of this work. “It has been an incredible journey. People have cried all the way through its performance. Is it because of the story? Maybe. But maybe it’s because of the music. Neo’s music so beautifully expresses this iconic story that we all relate to. It is our story too.”

  • Reznek performs work by Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Sadie Harrison, Peter Klatzow, Neo Muyanga and Hendrik Hofmeyr on January 29 at Northwards House, Parktown. Visit join.mozart-festival.org for the full programme and booking details.
  • Her brief SA concert tour includes performances in Pietermaritzburg, Stellenbosch and Cape Town. Visit reneereznek.com for more details.
  • Reznek’s indiegogo campaign: http://tinyurl.com/mma6w64

So, you think you can write?

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Writing is difficult. It’s a constant balancing act between spelling, grammar, content and structure. And then it’s about your reader, and your intentions: do you want to bamboozle them and chase them away with your assumptions of erudition, or do you want to seduce them into seeing your world through your words, making them thirst for more?  Lately, there has been a spate of self-published books reviewed on this blog: many are guilty of the errors of blind pride and sloppiness, but there have also been unequivocal gems.

As soon as you see the signs of a self-published debut, as a critic, your hackles rise. Basically anyone who can raise the cost of a printing and binding a book can do it, and with today’s facility of the internet and computer know-how, anyone is capable of producing something that on a superficial level and to all intents and purposes looks like a real book and an object that can pragmatically stand side by side with a Jane Austen, a Joseph Heller or a Chinua Achebe. It shouldn’t be so easy. It isn’t.

So you’ve had a bad day. You’ve had a bad life. You got sick and then you got better. You go into a computer store, fork out a few thousand rand and buy a generic computer and a set of word processing software, complete as it is with spell-checks and grammar checks and a thesaurus at the reach of a mouse click. And hey presto! You’re a writer! The minefield of this kind of clean technology at your fingertips no matter who you are, cannot be overlooked or leapt over. Good writing is a lot more than what money can buy and computer buttons can generate.

In this contemporary world of cheap computers, kindle, social media and click-of-a-button publishing we are hip-deep in this ghastly mire of poorly written stuff masquerading as real books because of the instantaneous nature of technology. Maybe it will take a generation – hopefully less – for the cream to rise to the surface again, and different checks and balances be put in place for the real material to be distinguished from the rest.

What a poorly written self-published book does is insult the tradition of literature before it and around it. It also disrespects its readers’ intelligence. And more: it arrogantly expects its readership to pay their hard-earned dosh for your poorly read-through autobiography. It’s like imposing an ugly selfie on the unsuspecting stranger and expecting them to pay for the honour of seeing you at your unwashed worst. Or crudely, it’s like a potty-training child telling the nearest adult, “I’m ready!”

For this reason, a book that doesn’t bear the sanction or the imprint of a recognised publishing company with a reputation for quality needs to be handled by a critic not with kid gloves, but without pulling punches as any professional book should be critically handled. A similar thing applies to amateur theatre: if you wish me – as  Joe Public – to spend my time and my money engaging with your work, you should respect me for whoever I might be. If you wish me – as a critic – to spend my time engaging with it, you should have the stomach to hear what I have to say.

A book, like an art work, like a theatre production is like a child. It is never really yours. Once it is out there in the world, you cannot protect it from the kicks and pricks that surround it and mould it. You cannot predict its life and challenges and dismiss all negative criticism it might weather as spiteful. The only thing you can legitimately and realistically do with a book or a creative work, is make it as good as you can, and in the process, to humbly look to the work of practitioners greater than yourself. Ask their advice. Pay them to cast an eye over your precious progeny. Respect what they have to offer no matter how difficult it may be to hear: it’s a tough industry and one which you don’t slip into overnight or because life’s suddenly treated you with a bad turn.

And I do not say this to punt editors or down people who think they’ve a story to tell, but a manuscript which shows a lack of understanding of something as humble and diminutive as the apostrophe for instance, is one that punches holes in the value of its own content. One spilling with sloppiness in the proofreading department loses its readers with exaggerated speed. As it should.

But then again, there are the others: those writers who have superb language skills, magnificent content, and the untrammelled courage to get their work out. But they do not meet the publishers’ criteria for whatever reason – nothing in this world is cut and dried and publishers might reject a manuscript because it doesn’t point with alacrity to commercial success, for instance.

So the challenge is confronted and a book gets written. It gets proofread many times. And polished until it shines. It is edited. It is sub-edited. And funds are raised to make this dream come true: the book is a success and the writer becomes feted and noticed. But does this mean that she can now leave her day job? Invariably not.  Like any of the creative arts there are so many elements of the unknown that make a gesture like making a drawing or producing a musical or writing a book need to be undertaken for the sheer delicious challenge of doing so.

Art school graduates may be cynical in the face of realising that they emerge from university with scant marketing skills, and condemn the word ‘money’ as an expletive, but the thrill of creating, of getting your fingers filthy with ink, or your brain fraught – or vrot – with ideas, should override the filthy lucre potentially at the end of that rainbow.  That is, until that cream is encouraged to rise to the surface.

Punishing Turner

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy www.deadline.com

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy http://www.deadline.com

Victorian painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) may have been a curmudgeonly philanderer in his personal life, but he certainly doesn’t warrant the indignity of this insufferable film, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and on the art-film circuit in South Africa, at the moment.

While a good part of this 150 minute long production reflects inconsequential snapshots of a life captured under a Venetian yellow filter, with lots of dark shadow, cobble-stone roads and period costume, sprinkled with an inappropriate sense of moment when nothing is happening, there’s a total lack of substance to the manner in which Turner, the man, is reflected. And what we get, instead, is a disrespectful  and specious foray into the life of an iconic art historical hero, who, in real life, in skirting with unpopularity, effectively established the cornerstone of modern art.

Some beautiful photographic moments conjoined with ugly  depictions of emotion, reflections of fiddly bad sex with a servant woman — played by Dorothy Atkinson — covered in a rash which progressively and inexplicably worsens, and a whole river of red herrings in the telling of the tale causes this film to have no redeeming features: the acting is unconvincing – Timothy Spall characterises his interpretation of this character with grunts and snarls that border on the cruel and comical, making Turner at times feel socially backward.

But more that, the performances are disparagingly one-dimensional, leaving no emotional wisdom in any of the characters. John Ruskin, for instance, important critic of his period, is reflected as a foolish prat — played by Joshua McGuire — who exists within his parents’ shadow and makes preposterously stupid remarks. The madam in the brothel looks so much like the mother of Turner’s daughters that more of the plot gets broken and lost because you become confused as to who is who. But all this is mere detail: the film’s narrative is sorely in need of editing and the musical score doesn’t lend anything to the work. There is no flow. You don’t emerge curious about the man, the movement, the period. It leaves you completely uninspired.

If you have a background in the material, you will recognise elements. Your heart will be gladdened to see the cameo appearance of John Constable — played by James Fleet — a contemporary of Turner’s. You will recognise the strictures of the Salon, so endemic to the 18th century’s art world and you will understand the odd novelty of the daguerreotype, an early manifestation of the camera. If you don’t know any of this context in relation to Turner’s work, life and the texture of the world in which he lived, this film will not help you. There are no markers to hold onto, no narrative handrails to make this piece legible or valuable from a knowledge yielding perspective.

It is astonishing to consider the slew of awards and accolades this production has achieved since its UK debut during 2014. Are critics and audiences in awe of the subject matter? Or do they feel that mind-numbing boredom is necessary in a work that engages with the solemnity of Art? Does the period style compromise their critical edge? Is it that Mike Leigh has created so much good work that people have become precious about him? Either way, if you want a spot of intellectually stimulating, beautiful entertainment, you’ve not going to get it here.