Arts Festival

Ode to the defenceless wet-nosed gods



CATTLE herder in wolf’s clothing. Photograph courtesy

IF YOU OFFER a man the right price, you can get him to give you his land to rape and pillage. It is this horrible reflection that is implicit in Teboho Edkins’s astonishing documentary on the Chinese migrants of Lesotho. Entitled Days of Cannibalism, the film features on this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, which, because of the ongoing pandemic, is online and free of charge.

Like works of the ilk of Influence and The Kingmaker, also on this festival, Days of Cannibalism is about how morals are dashed to shards in the face of money. But the theme is not allowed to slip into cliché or an obvious spin in this film, which also celebrates the beauty of cows – the wet-nosed gods of the Basotho people. Without a voice-over that would give the work journalistic sway, the piece is filmed so that you can see the inadequacy, immorality and amorality of what is happening, for yourself.

The work takes you from the buzz and thrust of China to the bare hills of Lesotho, and casts an eye at everything from cheaply made sunglasses to the stealing of cattle. Punctuated with the sound of packaging tape wrapping parcels, flies buzzing and shepherd’s pipes playing to herds of cows, this work actually puts you there, in the presence of the characters, the Basotho horsemen, the smog and the subterfuge, a difficult filmic device and an editorial feat which held the devastatingly fine Lebanese work Capernaum together.

In Days of Cannibalism, however, there are many central threads and the story is like a viewfinder on the crux of several grand narratives coming together simultaneously. There are denouements in each vignette, filmed with intimacy and magnificently segued together to form a comprehensive and goosebump-raising whole. In one of these instances, a pool table and songs sung by Basotho men and Chinese men in different contexts are brought to echo one another. One sings of love, the other of hate.

With the continuity announcer of locally streamed radio station Mojodi FM tacking the narrative provocatively together, the currency of cattle is explained. Also, the prospect of Chinese cow herders is given a face that is at once hilarious and sinisterly offensive.

But the moment of two young Chinese men standing and looking at the virgin hills of Lesotho and discussing how they can manipulate it to their own nefarious ends, is perhaps the evil heart of the film. As you read the subtitles that enable you to intrude on the meaning of their banter, you realise with some horror that these are firm plans, not castles in the sky. The land is theirs to flatten because they do have the wherewithal to do it. The fact that it is home to many and the livelihoods of thousands is irrelevant from where they sit.

There is another heart to the piece which features a court case and two very eloquent cattle thieves. While the justification for theft that they offer the judge is grimy from age and overuse, it is delivered with the sense of earnest truth that makes you love these two men for their vulnerability.

And this, too, is a peg that gives Days of Cannibalism heart. The Chinese shop attendant: the tyrant earmarked by the Sesotho lyrics sung in the poolroom, is also reflected in this film as one who has a life away from all of this. He’s a young husband and father, glued to facetime on his cell phone, waiting for the moment he can speak to his small children. He is far away from home, making the money to keep it all together.

This film is not an easy watch, but is the kind of work that gives the documentary genre its reason to exist.

  • Days of Cannibalism is written by Teboho Edkins and Geoffroy Grison and directed by Teboho Edkins. Produced by Janja Krali, it is edited by Laurence Manheimer and Cédric Le Floc’h and features creative input by Samuel Lahu (photographic direction), Jaim Sahuleka (sound) and Joel Sahuleka (colour). It features on the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festivalwhich runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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