Best in the World: South Africa

If your knowledge of South African cinema extends only as far as that guy in Lethal Weapon 2 who says ‘diplomatic immunity’ then read on, because Lord Ian O’Itall has returned to reveal his Top 5 South African Films…

5. Animals Are Beautiful People (1974)

South Africa is ripe for nature documentaries and this bizarre, way ahead of its time film takes the then fresh idea of portraying the animals of the region as anthropomorphised creatures with human qualities – like a creature candid camera. The soundtrack of bumps, squeaks and tumbles can be annoying to modern audiences overfed on shows like ‘World’s Funniest Pets’ or ‘Ireland’s Funniest Chaffinches’ and so on, but to 1974 audiences this would have been unlike anything they’d seen before and the narration by venerable broadcaster Paddy O’Byrne is so hip you half expect him to say ‘Daddy-O’ at the end of every sentence. The most famous scene depicts baboons, giraffes, elephants, warthogs and a host of other animals gorging themselves on rotting fruit which as it ferments in their stomachs, makes them shitfaced. There is a distinct whiff of ‘set-up’ to it, but it is still pretty funny to see a baboon wake up the morning after the night before, beside a warthog, and like a leaf-eating Lothario, sheepishly get up (you can almost picture him looking for his pants) and do a runner before what probably seemed quite good looking the night before wakes up. If its spawning of a thousand Saturday evening funny animal clip shows makes you want to hunt down and skin director Jamie Uys, hold that thought, because his salvation lies in the fact he went on to direct another film higher up on this list.

4. District 9 (2009)

All brains and no prawn

 Having the heavyweight kudos of Peter Jackson on production no doubt helped this fleshing out of director Neill Blonkamp’s Life In Jo’Burg mini-documentary reach a worldwide audience, and thankfully so. It’s a hugely imaginative parable of apartheid and xenophobia set in a desolate ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg, littered throughout with touches of genius and genre-bending ideas. The ship full of alien refugees, or ‘prawns’ as the humans call them, comes not as an all-powerful alien race but as the suffering remnants of a crew so helpless they can’t even get off their ship until helped. The mockumentary style is done brilliantly, with fake interview and news footage giving the backdrop and characterisation before we are landed in the middle of a controversial rezoning operation caught on camera, where the horrendous task at hand is strewn with a black humour that gets bleaker as the film goes on. It’s a pity that towards the end this is lost in a more straightforward kerplosion-filled action sequence but that can be forgiven because the bold sci-fi ideas keep on coming. Granted, it’s not perfect – Nigerians are portrayed horribly – and though the alien characters grow on us as the film progresses some of this can be a bit twee – you don’t have to be Ellen Ripley to find baby aliens somewhat annoying. Sharlto Copley excels as government underling Wikus Van De Merwe in his first major role, his similarity to Murray from Flight Of The Conchords only adding to his appeal as he finds himself, clipboard and all, deeper and deeper in a world of extraterrestrial shit. Original, thoughtful, funny and carrying a real message, this is modern sci-fi at its near best.

3. e’Lollipop (1976)

The boys decided to just make do with one Ugg boot

This story of the friendship between two boys – one black, one white – in Apartheid-era South Africa is both heartwarming and tear-inducing and its proved popular with audiences young and old since it was made. The greatness of this film lies in the way it is so overwhelmingly anti-apartheid, not by saying ‘this is wrong’ but by showing the power of humanity and kindness when it is shown to others, regardless of their colour or creed. The pranks of the two boys Tsepo (Muntu Ndebele) and orphaned Jannie (Norman Knox) reel us into the delightful story of boyhod friendship until we are jolted out of a carefree haze by a tragic accident when a game goes wrong and Jannie is seriously hurt. The story makes a dramatic leap as we move from the South African countryside to New York City where our hearts are all but torn from our chests with anguish, but if the ending is sad, it is gloriously encouraging too. If the film itself doesn’t make you blubber like a child who’s seen Santa’s tombstone, the real story behind it might.
The film was hugely successful in South Africa upon its release, with both child stars becoming household names, swamped in a media frenzy. But two years later Ndebele disappeared. For 22 years, aided by fans, the cast – particularly Knox – the media and a huge internet campaign, he was found, having fallen into a life of drugs and crime. He has been rehabilitated and fought his way back thanks to fans and friends, and is now a motivational speaker, underlining the very message of the film that made him so well known, and proves this is a film that literally keeps on giving.

2. Tsotsi (2005)

How do I take the batteries out of this thing?

There’s a reason why this is one of the best-known films to come out of South Africa. It is a little like City Of God and there’s as much social commentary amidst the violence but where the Brazilian Boyz N The Hood takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the favelas of Rio, Tsotsi zooms in one one figure, the volatile eponymous anti-hero gangleader, and watches him change into something resembling a human being after he shoots a woman to steal her car, only to find a baby in the back seat. Being the slums, nothing is easy or straightforward and Tsotsi never becomes an angel – he stays as crazy as a bipolar shithouse rat but with only half the humanity – and this ambiguity continues right through to the end when an out-of-options Tsotsi hands over the baby and is arrested, or so we assume, in a sad and bittersweet yet strangely affirming ending that leaves you speechless but, perhaps, for a solitary ‘yup’. The special edition DVD has two alternative endings, so it looks like the makers didn’t know where this story would go. But true to the storyline itself, this fits, because nobody here can rightly say what the future holds. The film won the Best Foreign Language film at the 2006 Oscars, the same year Crash won Best Film, and it shares a certain weary compassion with that film. It is a character study, but one full of pace and action, a six-day examination of a borderline psychopath’s first inklings of what is right and wrong, and while it is full of terrible actions, it does at least show that even the very worst of us can be reached.

1. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981)

sniffing coke wasnt as easy as it sounded

The second film by Uys to make this list is the sort that makes you love discovering movies from other countries because you know that such stories just couldn’t be found anywhere else. A simple premise expanded through absolutely batshit mental and imaginative ideas full of slapstick humour gives us a film so full of joy it makes you want to sings its praises from the rooftops of the world. A bushman in the Kalahari desert, Xi, comes across something he has never seen before – an empty glass Coke bottle – and brings it back to his village to the wonder of all. Believing it a gift from God, the villagers put it to many uses until it starts to create rivalries and jealousy, like a modern version of the apple in the Garden of Eden, so the bushman decides to go on an adventure and return it to God by throwing it off the edge of the world. ALong the way he meets up with a number of weird and wonderful people who give perfect cameo performances, opening the bushman’s eyes to the world he didn’t know anything about, and revealing the ‘gods’ or white men, whom he has never seen before, as unfathomable, odd creatures who complicate the world with their pursuit of property and power. Xi does reach what he thinks is the edge of the world and throws the bottle away, but we get the impression it is not the last time we will see that damn coke bottle and all it brings with it. The real thing? Absolutely.


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