There isn’t a single turkey in the bunch at this year’s Vancouver South African Film Festival, but if we had to recommend three titles? (All screenings take place at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.)
Whispering Truth to Power
A must-see not just for the insight into South Africa’s admirable post-1994 constitution but for what it tells us about ourselves. Formerly of the African National Congress, Thuli Madonsela took up her post as the country’s public protector with the incorruptible steel of Eliot Ness wedded to the beatific serenity of Bob Ross.
Her job was to root out government corruption, which she did with frequent significant success. Shameela Seedat’s film catches Madonsela as she takes on clownish grifter president Jacob Zuma in the tense final weeks of her position, embattled on all sides by the usual parade of assholes on the right, nationalist militants on the left, and even her own radicalized daughter.
A fascinating picture emerges, not least of all because the United States just squandered two years on its own dangerously clownish grifter with a fantasy probe into the one crime he didn’t commit. If Robert Mueller is an actor in a play, Madonsela, inspiringly, was the real thing. For God’s sake, make Rachel Maddow watch this! Friday, March 29 (7 p.m.)
Nommer 37 (Number 37)
The poverty- and crime-ridden Cape Flats area is the location for this sizzling, superbly crafted thriller.
Small-time hood Randal ends up disabled and in debt to psycho loan shark Emmie after a drug deal goes south. Confined to a wheelchair, and observing the even more dangerous gangsters occupying the opposite tenement through a new pair of binoculars, Randal enlists his girlfriend, Pam, and their friend Warren in a heist that might save his life.
So, yes, this is Rear Window with bad guys on all sides and an ambient vibe of peril and official corruption that would give Alfred Hitchcock the night sweats. If it takes a growing handful of contrivances to keep the plot moving, well, we’ve certainly forgiven Brian De Palma for worse, and Nommer 37 exudes the same kind of joy at such pure cinematic flight. Plus, it works.
By the end, we’re exhausted by the tension and in love with its cast of desperate but engaging losers. Saturday, March 30 (7:30 p.m.)
For young Johan, the best way to deal with national service is to put his musical talents to work for the South African Defence Force Church Choir and Concert Group, a.k.a. the Canaries. Not that this strange crucible of religious and political zealotry is necessarily the place for a sensitive teen who carries a picture of Boy George inside his Bible.
Set in 1985, Kanarie enjoys a privileged view of an era that was scary and dangerous for anyone at odds with the paralyzing conformity of extreme right-wing rule, black or white. Johan is gradually liberated with the help of people he meets on his journey, like a middle-class fashion designer who furtively wishes the obviously queer boy could “fly away from this godforsaken country”, and a woman who bravely denounces the Defence Force mission as anything but Christlike.
Outstanding performances and music make this a rousing, much-recommended effort, while the Culture Club references (some deeper than you’d expect!) poignantly remind us of a time over here when we wondered what in God’s name was happening over there. Sunday, March 31 (7 p.m.)