IT WAS TOO easy: Just one quick glance at the poster and title of this movie got you booking your tickets: The Whale Caller? A South African director? Ah, it must be a celebration of the surreal poetry of Hermanus, you declared to yourself, a grin on your lips as you handed your money over. Hermanus, a 90-minute drive from Cape Town is one of those quaintly beautiful places in South Africa that is resplendent with landscapes and burgeoning tourist culture; in its suburbs, it is very rich and very poor, simultaneously. And it has old colonial churches who baptise their congregants on the beach. And it also boasts whales who visit the shore seasonally.
But the truth is, this film should have been called something like “Saluni: the woman with a penchant for the bottle”, but that wouldn’t have made you buy tickets, would it? The character in question, portrayed by Amrain Ismail-Essop is jarringly and crudely over-acted. She’s a mess: she drinks too much, she loses herself too easily, and she embarrasses herself in public all the time. She’s also a paper cut out in terms of her character development, but she is made to dominate the whole story in such a way that her presence destroys any potential for poetry.
Amongst other things, she chases and catches the Whale Caller, played by Sello Maake ka Ncube. He’s a quiet bloke who lives in a rustic little blue wooden cabin with a startling orange deckchair on the outside, an image which is easily the film’s visual pinnacle. And this Whale Caller, while he does have a tendency to stare into the blue yonder often, enjoys a passionate obsession with the whales of the district. He even has a very special horn that he blows and a uniform to go with it.
In a sense, this yarn gives you to understand why quiet men shrink from shrill loud women – or why they should. The relationship, utterly devoid of electricity is forced and doomed before it begins and it unfolds, characterised by lice and wine, fear of darkness, and blindness, and above all, manipulation. In short, it’s grubby all the way through. And empathy is never developed on the side of Saluni.
While the original idea of Zakes Mda’s which sees a man’s love tossed between that of a woman and that of a whale, is rather majestic and beautiful in the values of magic realism it offers, it really doesn’t work here. The tale is wound around the Coloured community of the district and it is punctured with a whole rash of red herrings that go nowhere – an issue of homophobia is mentioned but dropped. Saluni goes blind and then is healed miraculously and we don’t understand why. They’re characters with pasts that are never alluded to. There’s a graphic section intimating a dream of the Whale Caller’s which is embarrassingly amateur and oh, the list goes on…
And then there’s the children. In a whole development of this tale, twin girls of about 11-years-old are discovered by Saluni. They live in a disused building with their parents. And they can sing. There follows a very uncomfortable friendship between these children and Saluni which rapidly finds the girls in the bath and Saluni being offered red wine by way of payment if she looks after them. Weirder things can happen, in this day and age. Or can they?
The main reason you should see this film, however, transpires toward the end of a very turgid series of horrid events, and brings the whale itself into the frame. She – the Whale Caller calls her Sharisha – is simply magnificent and the struggle she faces in getting back into deeper waters is epic. As you sit there watching this unfold, the tears running down your face, you almost forgive the shrillness of Saluni; you can almost look away from her moth-eaten fur coat and her foolish dreams of ‘becoming a star’.
There’s a moment of victory when you might cast your mind back to 1990 and a magnificent moment of abstract play of choreography and photography in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but alas, it is another opportunity lost and ka-Ncube’s whoops of gladness are embarrassing and juvenile and do not do his apparent life long love for this grand mammal dignified justice.
There’s an ingot of possibility in this story, fuelled as it is with a lovely soundtrack composed by Pops Mohamed, but this possibility is whipped away from you, before you have a chance to grasp it. And yes, there’s the landscapes, but the cinematography too is stripped of nuance and is so harsh and bright, sometimes you can’t bear to look.
- The Whale Caller is directed by Zola Maseko and features a cast headed by Amrain Ismail-Essop and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube. It is written by Zola Maseko and Zakes Mda based on the eponymous book by Zakes Mda. Produced by Zola Maseka and Dylan Voogt, it features creative input by Pops Mohamed (music), Miles Goodall (cinematography), Nic Goodwin (editing), Charlotte Buys (sound), and Dominique Pellissier, Monique Ray and George Webster (visual effects). Release date: October 13 2017.