Khalo Matabane spends a lot of time thinking about Hollywood.
“The mainstream American image of the world has a very strong hold on people,” the young South African filmmaker tells me over coffee at the University Club. “It’s so hard to oppose it. You see it even in the work of the most progressive filmmakers. It’s so strong.” Matabane repeats this line again and again. “It’s so strong.” Each time he says it, his voice drops to a whisper, and he winces as though recalling long, haunting tussles with a nightmarish demon.
“The audience around the world is colonized by the images put out by Hollywood. When you oppose those images, when you try to do something new, to try to say something, the resistance is huge. The resulting experience, as a filmmaker, is a double loneliness—you become, in a way, stateless and homeless.”
Matabane’s talking specifically about the response his film Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon received in South Africa. The film, which screens tonight at Cinematheque Ontario, is an intriguing fusion of fiction narrative and documentary that has inspired some international critics to call Matabane an essential voice in the South African New Wave. At home, however, Conversations didn’t fare nearly as well.
“They dismissed it,” the director exclaims. “Everyone said it was ‘undeveloped,’ that ‘this isn’t how films are made.'”
But Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon does feel very strange indeed. It begins in a Johannesburg park, where Keneiloe (Tony Kgoroge) comes every Sunday afternoon to read Nuruddin Farah’s Links. The story of the Somali writer’s return to a devastated Mogadishu makes the disaffected middle class youth (who carries a wooden bench on his back) consider what it must be like to kill or be killed. Later, he meets Fatima (Fatima Hersi), a Somalian woman who has lost her family in the same streets Farah describes. Her harrowing confessional in the middle of a idyllic urban park strikes Keneiloe to the core. When she fails to show up in the park on the following Sunday, he sets out after her, trawling through the city’s myriad ethnic enclaves hoping to record the rest of her story.
As he does so, the film suddenly (and awkwardly) transforms itself into a documentary. Keneiloe pulls out his audio recorder and asks those he encounters to talk about the circumstances around their arrival in post-apartheid South Africa. These encounters are wonderful. We meet women who fled female genital mutilation in Kenya, a former soldier in the Congo, a Serbian woman who equates Balkan unrest with racial tensions in Joburg, and a Palestinian family who found peace and stability in a city renowned for violence.
It’s easy to understand how the story’s fictional frame relates to its documentary core, but it’s more difficult to see why it’s necessary. Wouldn’t the core point about the state of modern South Africa have been more effectively communicated without Fatima, the bench or the eerie, thriller-style soundtrack?
Matabane, for his part, insists that he’s trying to do something new. “Every film I make is an act of defiance against mainstream politics and filmmaking,” he says. “I believe there’s a way of seeing the world differently. We live in an increasingly homogenous world. I remember reading an interview with Y Tu Mama Tambien director Alfonso Cuaron where he pointed out that, if you look at literature or painting, you can see where those art forms have gone through major changes. Cinema hasn’t. It’s an expensive medium and there will always be resistance to its evolution. But it needs to change and grow.”
“That’s why I get upset when people criticize me and say that I don’t understand cinema,” Matabane continues. “I do understand film. I make conscious decisions to do things differently.”
To this devotee of Costa Gavras—who hosted a workshop Matabane attended as a 17-year-old—and Michael Haneke, it’s all political. “If I went back to the rural South African town where I was born and made a film about a woman whose husband goes to the city for work and comes back with HIV, I would have a winner on my hands. People would love it. But I don’t want to make that film. I want to change things rather than reinforce them.”
It’s an admirable aim to be sure. And there’s little doubt that Matabane has a great film somewhere inside him. Maybe it’s his upcoming project, Violence. Or perhaps the doc he wants to make about western celebrities’ sudden obsession with saving Africa. Either way, Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is not it. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing though. Sometimes an admirable failure is more interesting than an easy bullseye.
Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon screens at Cinematheque Ontario on Wednesday, November 15 at 6:30 p.m.