What would it feel like to be invincible? To be able to rush through the landscape with a stolen bleating sheep on your shoulders, as the world shouts and chases you, as you remain safe in the knowledge that you’ll get away. Again. Much of the narrative premises of Jahmil XT Qubeka’s film Sew the Winter to My Skin features this level of potency.
Featuring Ezra Mabengeza as John Kepe, the sheep thief who his people are willing to die for, the film is interwoven with some of the values of Samson’s biblical tale and snippets and snatches of Nazi or Ossewa Brandwage ideology. Curiously sewn together, the yarn is magnificently filmed and poetically honed, but without a clean spine of narrative, it is a difficult-to-watch work that feels hampered by red herrings and undeveloped characters. And as you watch and attempt to piece together associations so that there’s something to hold on to, you find yourself failing and soporific.
It’s a tale of sheep theft and retribution, cast in South Africa in 1952, but feeling, given much of the chases featuring men on horses and improvised villages, like it’s in the nineteenth century and rich with colonialist cruelty. With hardly any spoken dialogue, the work shimmies and shifts from one scenario to another, tossing folk songs and bedraggled children into your line of sight, as it often leaves you stumbling behind in the filmic dust, trying to remember who fitted where and what the unmentioned references may mean.
And when you’ve reached the end of this over two-hours-long enactment, a little shell-shocked from the violence and crudity in the work, you realise that the narrative is very basic and many of the little bits and pieces are incidental and just lend colour. Or do they? There’s the business of the incident report being typed and a letter written and delivered which become like a refrain in the work but remain secreted from your ken, as the viewer.
While the texture of the work is mostly breathtaking in its bravery and audacity, the absence of courtesies of basic storytelling render it, as a whole, teetering on self-indulgence.
Similar in many respects to the problems of Nthikeng Mohlele’s novel, Michael K, the work begs for the tough hand of a strong text editor. Without this, after all the surreal nuances, which see white against black, a man hiding in a full latrine, a granny murdered in cold blood and a young man with his face whipped into smithereens, to say nothing of a black Wyatt Earp character, played by Zolisa Xaluva and some bizarre cameos by the likes of cartoonist Zapiro and Robert Whitehead, the work leaves you shaken, but none the wiser.
- Sew the Winter to my Skin is written and directed by Jahmil XT Qubeka and features a cast headed by Gabriel Fredericks, David James, Peter Kurth, Antoinette Louw, Ezra Mabengeza, Bongile Mantsai, Kandyse McClure, Mandisa Nduna, Brenda Ngxoli, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Bok van Blerk, Dave Walpole and Zolisa Xaluva. Produced by Layla Swart, it is written by Jahmil XT Qubeka and features creative input by Jonathan Kovel (cinematography), Layla Swart (editing), Jahmil XT Qubeka and Layla Swart (casting), Emilia Roux (production design) and Zureta Schulz and Pierre Vienings (costumes). Release date in South Africa: February 9, 2019.