Can you ever be at home in this world?

AlonSkuy
HIDDEN: A foreigner peers through a gap in the fence while angry South Africans protest outside the premises in Johannesburg. Photograph by Alon Skuy. 24 February 2017.

A MAN CRADLES a baby’s head with searing gentleness as he squeezes himself and the child under a barbed wired fence. You don’t know if the child is alive or dead, but can see the wedding ring on his finger and the fear and excruciating pain on his face. And even before you know the context, if you are a human being in this world, you empathise. This could be you, running away with the life of your child in your hand. This exhibition of work by veteran photographers Alon Skuy and James Oatway will burn itself into your mind’s eye as it must: it’s a testimony to the madness of our society in an attempt to breach that ‘never again’ moment.

More than that, this body of over 60 photographs, drawing from the scene of xenophobic catastrophe from 2008 and onwards in various pockets of violent South Africa, is so potent, you can feel the heat of the images as you stand in front of them. You can hear the anger of the approaching mob, and feel the rumble of the context: there’s no place to hide. The collection of photographs on show here is  a profound tribute to the strength of gut, soul and eye of these two men, and all the other intrepid photographers before them and after them who witness horrors happening from behind their lenses and capture them for perpetuity.

And yes, indeed: a whole range of moral fingers get pointed at work of this nature, about the presence of the photographer in the scene. You look at Oatway’s  sequential images which saw Mozambican migrant Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death in 2015 and understand the 28 second time lapse between the first and the last. And that all the photographer could do was his job. But it also makes you think about how exposed these photographers are in a context which is not immediately theirs and a sense of violence which can spill without vision or reason into their lives at any moment.

Killing the Other is an essay about xenophobia. It’s a true account of what happened and continues to happen in contexts where people from elsewhere are perceived as a threat to people from here. It’s about how history repeats itself, but it’s also a tiny slice of what makes PTSD happen in the life and sensibility of a media professional. You look at these works and think of what Dean Hutton or the photographers associated with the notorious Bang Bang club in the 1980s – or people in the cut and thrust of any war – weathered by being in the important and terrible thick of things.

The images are not all explicitly violent. Some of them are about people making a life in a new place. They’re about a terror of the unanticipated. And the vulnerability of a person in the eye of a mob maddened by bloodlust. Curated with empathy and wisdom, the experience of the exhibition is focused and direct.

You need to take the time to look at each of these works individually and allow it to reverberate through your sense of self, in this exhibition. It’s not a show that you can glance through flippantly: it’s something that will touch you in your sense of community.

  • Killing the Other by James Oatway and Alon Skuy is at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Forest Town, until July 1. Call 011 640 3100.
  • The centre boasts a comfortable, well-designed and immensely pleasant coffee shop called Issy’s, which you can read about here.

Reclusive Salinger and the challenge of a good yarn

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JUST write: Nicholas Hoult is JD Salinger. Photograph courtesy comingsoon.net

AN UTTERLY COMPELLING reflection on the terrifying reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the value of an editor, Danny Strong’s film Rebel in the Rye starts off with sheer charisma, a great sense of authenticity and a tough confrontation with what it takes to be a published writer and what this means for the pocket and the craft.

Telling the life story of American writer JD Salinger, the work flows beautifully up until it tells of the unmitigated success of his first novel, Catcher in the Rye. At that point, the narrative thread becomes lost in too much slavish attention to detail. It is a well made piece which won’t lose you because of its polish, pizzazz and sheer beauty and because of the footholds the first part of the work have established in your sensibilities, but it unwinds disappointingly without the momentum with which it began.

Nicholas Hoult plays an utterly gorgeous Jerry Salinger: he’s focused yet dispassionate, is able to go into melt down as he’s able to shut off communication with the world. He’s a young man of the 1930s with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, with its jazz and booze and the stars of the era, which include Eugene O’Neill, Truman Capote and Charlie Chaplin. Lighting, set, cinematography and costume come together in reflecting the texture and nuance of the 1930s with a sense of brutal truth. And as such, Salinger is a perfect cipher for the creation of the quintessential 20th century novel, as he breathes life into Holden Caulfield, the uncompromising voice of the youth of the era and Catcher’s main character.

As you watch Salinger confront and challenge his dreams, he concatenates against rejection time and time again, and as a very well worn Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), a university teacher and mentor, offers him the emotional wherewithal to become who he must, you get to understand a little of the context of what it takes to become a creative professional. Salinger’s is a world, where no one takes your job as a writer of stories seriously and where the challenges to perform are stiffer than in any other field.

You also get to see the muscle of editorial impetus where Salinger is guided by The New Yorker to tweak his work further and make it even better. You’re explained the difference between a writer and a masturbator, and given a handle on the value of the voice in a story. And above all, you’re exposed to the idea of the Novel, as an almost sacred term and you get to see the inner workings of a writer who knows his own talent but is humbled by the industry’s trajectory of heroes, the makers of masterpieces.

And essentially, the nub of the film is captured in this first half. However, every single woman in the work, without fail, is represented as a tough and hard-edged bitch, overwhelmingly whiny and shallow in her judgey perspectives. It is the men who embrace the story’s guts and stamina, and resoundingly, the film offers deep insight into how war infiltrates Salinger so profoundly it alters how his soul is constituted; you see him fight hard against the kicks and pricks of life and memory to retain his dignity and carry on writing.

While the work is clustered with nuggets from The Catcher in the Rye, and offers insight into the complex character that Salinger developed into, it’s not an unequivocally satisfying or moving watch, but rather one which runs out of emotional steam as it goes. Yes, Salinger made some decisions about the future of his writing career which were not sexy in the Hollywood sense – by electing never to publish again and secluding himself in a house in a wood for the rest of his life, he effectively closed his personal doors to the kind of smarmy happily-ever-after tale or dirt-picking foray that Hollywood loves, and the production team behind this film try their best to honour this as earnestly as they can, but something is lost. Indeed, had the latter part of the film been cropped with a tighter editorial hand, more might have been left unstated, and the work might have retained its ability to sing.

  • Rebel in the Rye is directed by Danny Strong and features Celeste Arias, Nicolaos Argyros, David Berman, Eric Bogosian, Lucy Boynton, Nancy Braun, Roger Brenner, Anna Bullard, Adam Busch, David Cryer, Brian d’Arcy James, Hope Davis, Zoey Deutch, Tim Dougherty, Dana Drori, Chris Ecclestone, Austin Eisenberg, Ron Fassler, Kit Flanagan, Neil Fleischer, Kristine Froseth, Victor Garber, Nalan González Norvind, Alyssa May Gold, Matt Gorsky, Evan Hall, Sydney Hargrove, Devin Harjes, Kelsey Rose Healey, Nicholas Hoult, Keenan Jolliff, John Knyff, Alana Kyriak, Kevin Mambo, Jefferson Mays, Kellan McCann, Doris McCarthy, Bernie McInerney, Caitlin Mehner, Jalina Mercado, Michael Metta, Christopher Moser, Sarah Paulson, Andrew Polk, Brian Wargotz Reese, Kay Rodman, Will Rogers, Francesca Root-Dodson, Matthew Rosvanis, Karen Walsh Rullman, Amy Rutberg, Jimmy Smagula, Kevin Spacey, Janet Stanwood, Braven Strong, Jadyn Tattoli, James Urbaniak, Bernard White, Luke David Young and Frankie Zing. It is written by David Strong based on the JD Salinger biography by Kenneth Slawenski. Produced by Bruce Cohen, it features creative input by Bear McCreary (music), Kramer Morgenthau (cinematography), Joseph Krings (editing), Dina Goldman (production design), Deborah Lynn Scott (costumes) and Alexandra Mazur (set decoration). Release date: November 24 2017.

 

Death of a golden boy

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WASHING dishes: Lisa (Rolanda Marais), Dirk (Albert Pretorius), Hein (Ludwig Binge), Anya (Ilana Cillier) and Johnny (Roelof Storm) at play.

Sometimes you just know that a film will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit or its importance as a piece of research. Johnny is nie dood nie is a film of this nature. Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film.

On one level it’s a loosely historical account of the last 15 years of the life of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel – born Ralph Rabie in 1960 – bringing in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the era, not to mention the looming terror of mandatory army service for young white males, the PTSD and the sense of utter impotence in the eye of apartheid’s evils. It’s a tale of love and betrayal, of defiance and Alice in Wonderland, and there are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a socio-political nexus laced with ideals and fury.

On another level, it is an essay on the loss of a dear friend. Lise (Rolanda Marais), Anya (Ilana Cillier), Hein (Ludwig Binge) and Dirk (Albert Pretorius) get together to commiserate about the suicide of the one who was central to all of their lives. It’s 2002 and they’re young adults with responsibilities. The flashbacks to the 1980s and their late teens offer clear and troubled insight into the messed up state of South African society at the time, as they present the nub of the Voëlvry movement, a development of politically astute Afrikaans cabaret which set Afrikaans university students afire with a sense of possibility.

When first we meet the eponymous Johnny (Roelof Storm), he’s freshly fired from his job as a journalist, and cocks a snook at the country’s expectations of him with glee. With his platinum blond hairdo and his nimble wit and singing talent, Johnny is like a god. But he’s like a fallen god. He has secrets that will overpower you in their sense of choice, in the Catch-22 that embraced the lives of so many young men of that wretched, double-crossed era.

While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched and hard-hitting. With everything, from a delicious cameo of the late Barend de Wet, with hookah and existential solutions at hand, to a televised snippet which reflects Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys) chatting to Kerkorrel about life, the universe and music, as well as illustrations by John Tenniel on the walls, and Jan F E Celliers’s poem Dis Al on the window of a student dorm, the work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Of the five central characters, it is Albert Pretorius’s nuanced sense of history and sadness that grips the film in an embrace which is haunting, delicate and simply beautiful. You understand implicitly that his Dirk, ultimately is a reflection of Dirk Uys who became the manager of Kerkorrel’s band, Gereformeerde Blues Band.

You have to sit to the very last moment of the film – even after the credits have scrolled up – for the music, however. The work is more focused on the horror and wildness of the times than the poetry of Kerkorrel and his contemporaries, including James Philips (who invented the alter ego Bernoldus Niemand), Koos Kombuis and others, but you must focus carefully. Snatches of Kerkorrel’s songs tie the work together like sinews and connective tissue. There’s a game the friends play in remembering lyrics, and a completely fabulous reconstruction of the iconic and utterly bizarre image that defines his record Eet Kreef  but you can rest assured, his magnificent ballads Hillbrow and In die Tronk are not forgotten.

  • Johnny is nie dood nie (2017) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and stars Ludwig Binge, Ilana Cillier, Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Roelof Storm, based on the eponymous stage play by Malan Steyn. It is 106 minutes in length and is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor outlets nationwide on Friday May 5. Visit cinemanouveau.co.za and https://www.facebook.com/Johnnyisniedoodnie/?hc_ref=SEARCH for more details.