REPLETE WITH ITS jazz dives, camaraderie and poetry, its dinginess, brothels and gangs Sophiatown aka Kofifi was a suburb in Johannesburg that was an apartheid loophole until 1955. It was the one place in which black people could live in relative harmony with people of all colours, free to gamble and make art, write literature and chill. Deemed a melting pot of culture by many historians, the area was rife with life. But the late 1950s saw all of this destroyed when under the Group Areas Act, the police forcibly moved all Sophiatown’s black citizens into a barren plot of ground called Meadowlands, in Soweto. Angus Gibson’s new film Back of the Moon takes a slice of this world and with a sprinkling of King Kong narrative and a peppering of fact, magicks a keyhole insight to the era by way of a love story.
And with a gorgeous leading lady opposite a tough gangster with a soft heart, it’s a work which on a level ticks all the boxes for an easy, pretty love story cast against a gritty historical framework. But this isn’t what you get. This love story is filled with so much brutal humiliation, internecine gangster warfare and gratuitous acts of violence that you may well forget to hear the music. The gritty texture is alluded to in ways that may leave a film-viewer who doesn’t know their Sophiatown history rather bewildered.
This is a great pity: the music – indeed the whole soundscape cast around the time and the place, the geography and the blues standards of the context is absolutely magnificent. It’s smooth and sexy, gentle and catchy as it winds through the work and embraces the songs of the period, which features the tunes of jazz bands such as the Manhattan Brothers, which famously blended American styles of jazz, doowop and crooning with a local twist and lyrics that made them superstars.
The songs are woven around this tale of two night clubs in the suburb – Casablanca and Back of the Moon, and it’s where you get to meet the film’s leads – Bra Max (Richard Lukunku) and Eve Msomi (Moneoa Moshesh). She’s a club singer, poised on the cusp of an international career, something unheard of for a black woman of the time and the place. He’s a bloke of Congolese origin, the head of the Vipers, a local gang of heavies, for whom death is cheap and nothing is sacred.
And while the camera and mic simply adore the presence of Moshesh, and there is a great deal of authentic texture which moulds the piece, overall, it’s a film so full of unrelenting violence, you find yourself pondering its value to an overseas audience. Replete with explicit rape, lots of beating, shooting and stabbing, as well as the odd xenophobic slur tossed into the mix, it paints a portrait of the context that feels very one-sided.
If you know nothing about South Africa and see this film, you may well want to know nothing more. It seems as if it is a society where violence is the only option. And in the tiny pockets of this film where you can breathe and gather yourself, beauty does appear, but isn’t allowed to ignite with its own momentum.
- Back of the Moon is directed by Angus Gibson and features a cast headed by Thomas Gumede, Richard Lukunku, Moneoa Moshesh, S’Dumo Mtshali and Lemogang Tsipa. It is written by Libby Dougherty and Angus Gibson. Produced by Teboho Mahlatsi and Desireé Markgraaff, it features creative input by Philip Miller (music), Zeno Petersen (cinematography), Dylan Lloyd (production design) and Megan Gill and Sibongeleni Mabuyakhulu (editing). Release date, Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau: September 6 2019.