WHAT ARE YOU, effectively, if you do not fit the basic identifiers of the people all around you? This question comes under the sensitive but probing and compelling loupe of newly released Afrikaans (with English subtitles) film, Vaselinetjie.
Like British director Alan Bleasdale’s mini-series that interpreted Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1999), the work begins with a deeply distressed, heavily pregnant young woman on a clear mission of self-destruction, in a veld hostile to her, under an unsympathetic moon . By daybreak, we hear the cries of the baby, who clearly understood the urgency of the situation and snatched at life, while it could.
Thus begins a simply magnificently crafted piece of South African narrative, which places a white child in a Coloured context: the amorphous mixed race community which is historically too black to be considered white, and too white to be considered black, but has a cultural identity which is potent with its sense of self.
And it is here where you meet the skinny and frightened and somewhat fierce 11-year-old Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). It’s 1995. She’s being raised by Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels) in a district of South Africa, distinguished by its dusty streets and basic poverty. She’s also being teased within a millimetre of her sense of belonging by the other children. She’s everything they are, in terms of her accent and context. She’s also everything they’re not. And they are merciless.
Enter social welfare. And a new chapter in Vaselinetjie’s life, where she gets to experience other children. White children. It is here, in an orphanage – explained to her 11-year-old self as a boarding school – in Johannesburg, where she cuts her teeth as a person with convictions, albeit one with devils. She’s not alone. It’s an orphanage, after all, and her peers have their own demons, some more explicit than hers. It is here where she learns the rules of many games, both inside and outside of the school’s environment, whether it be in learning to slip under the radar of the avuncular house mother Tannie Snorre (Karin van der Laag), or smoking with the boys in the school’s interstices. It is also here where she grows into a young woman (Marguerite van Eeden), and discovers love and heartbreak.
This is no soppy love story though, and while it ends with a satisfying denouement, the characters are put through the proverbial wringer in terms of their need to grapple with the conflict of where they fit in. Themes dovetail and resonate in circles and cycles, and conjoined with breathtakingly fine cinematography, make you feel able to smell the atmosphere in the red brick orphanage with its peeling paintwork and high ceilings, a decaying testament to an earlier era, as you’re able to taste the dust of the Coloured township and feel the unrelenting heat of its climate.
When you think of a film of this nature, you may well consider works such as Irish film maker Peter Mullan’s Magdalene Sisters (2002), or even Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose, in which a mass of characters interface to form a social texture. This is achieved with finesse and aplomb in Vaselinetjie: the orphanage is rich with gemstones of stories within stories, character vignettes that are haunting yet tiny, and the creative team behind this film doesn’t stint on this, creating characters such as Killer (Anchen du Plessis and Elzet Nel), who carries her grief with great care; Pizzaface (Daniah de Villiers and Elani Dekker), the daughter of an ‘escort’; and Texan (Ashley Hawla and Arno Greeff), a boy with secrets, shame and fury. Not to forget Albie (Rowan-Raine Pretorius and Marise Loots), a troubled little girl who teeters between her broken plastic doll and chess mastery.
There are moments of woodenness in van Eeden’s portrayal, however, causing the older Vaselinetjie to lose some of that fierce credibility. Your eye is allowed to digress from her more often than it should. This doesn’t, however, hurt the memorable and well honed fabric of the tale.
- Vaselinetjie is written by Corné van Rooyen and René van Rooyen and directed by Corné van Rooyen. It is designed by Ben Ludik (music), Adam Joshua Bentel (cinematography), Waldemar Coetsee (production), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Wimari du Plessis, Claudia Hamman, Zeldene Simon and Gina Slingerland (make up) and Quinn Lubbe (visual effects). It is performed by Nicole Bond, Daniah De Villiers, Elani Dekker, Anchen du Plessis, Arno Greeff, Ashley Hawla, Marise Loots, David Mello, Zack Mtombeni, Elzet Nel, Rowan-Raine Pretorius, Melita Steyn, Royston Stoffels, Shaleen Surtie-Richards and Marguerite van Eeden, supported by Izel Bezuidenhout, Anton Dekker, Émil Haarhoff, Henk Hugo, Heidi Mollentze, Bradley Olivier, Jai’prakash Sewram, Dean Smith, Karin van der Laag, Wilbur Jansen van Rensburg and Drikus Volschenk. Release date: September 22, 2017.
- See a comment on the contemporary relevance of this film by Geoff Sifrin in Taking Issue.