Dir: Zola Maseko. S Afr.2005. 112mins.
A little-known butimportant period in South African history is brought to vibrant life in Drum,the fact-based story of Henry Nxumalo, a black journalist who was targeted bythe Nationalist government after he wrote a series of articles exposinghorrifying prison and work farm conditions.
Still awaiting a USdistribution deal, the film - which played at both Sundance and Toronto amongothers - both benefits and suffers from a kind of Hollywood gloss that isepitomised by director Zola Maseko's decision to cast attractive actors in allthe major roles. The fact the period - 1950s Johannesburg- is largely unknownoutside South Africa may be another militating factor. That said, its profilecan only helped by this week's victory at Africa's leading film festival,Fespaco, in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
Even more than a biography, Drumis a portrait of a specific time and place: the early 1950s in Sophiatown, apredominantly black suburb of Johannesburg. Like Harlem in the 1930s,Sophiatown witnessed an explosion of music, dance, literature and politics.Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makebe and Makhaya Ntshoko got their start in jazz clubshere, where blacks and whites socialised together in defiance of racial laws.
Until the white apartheidgovernment razed it to the ground, this 'freehold' township, whereblacks were allowed to own property, was the cultural and intellectual heart ofSouth Africa.
Nxumalo (Diggs) is ahard-drinking playboy, known as much for his late night carousing as for thepuff pieces he and his fellow reporters are 'allowed' to write for the magazineDrum. Pressed by his neglected wife (Motshegwa) to address the socialinjustices that surround them, Henry gains entree to one of South Africa'sinfamous slave farms, white-owned properties where black men were forced towork without any access to the outside world.
Despite concerns about thereaction of local authorities, Drum's enlightened editor Jim Bailey (Flemyng)publishes the article. After a second piece on Johannesburg's ruthless prisonsystem, Bailey is threatened - and Nxumalo becomes a marked man.
Although well acted andemotionally involving, Drum feels Hollywoodised. Perhaps in an attemptto reach a wider audience, Maseko seems to have intentionally toned down thevisual - and visceral - ugliness of the story.
Cinematographer LisaRinzler's beautifully composed and lit images - along with Ketilsson'sproduction design and Pierre Vienning's costumes - give the film a wonderfulsense of hyper-reality that consistently holds audience attention. But it doesnot always jibe with the story's darker moments.
It is as if, in his quest tocelebrate the artistic and creative achievements of the period and the sense ofenlightened social change they seemed to portend, Maseko has put too muchemphasis on the film's visual component. While this takes away none of thestory's tragedy, it does detract from a certain grittiness that seems inherentin the subject matter.
For example, in addition toits sophisticated cultural life, Sophiatown was home to a thriving gangstersubculture. Maseko does not ignore the violence that intruded on daily life -in fact, it becomes a key plot point late in the film - but he bathes theepisode in the same mythic light that engulfs the rest of the film. Even whenit is raining and muddy in this Sophiatown, there is no sense of getting dirty.
Prod cos: Armada Pictures, VIP Medienfonds 2, Nova Films,Industrial Development Corporation Of South Africa
Int'l sales: Armada Pictures International
Exec prods: Matt Milich, JasonFilardi, Andreas Schmid, Andreas Grosch
Prods: Rudolph Wichmann, ChrisSievernich
Scr: Jason Filardi
Cine: Lisa Rinzler
Prod des: Eggert Ketilsson
Ed: Troy T Takaki
Music: Terence Blanchard
Main cast: Taye Diggs, GabrielMann, Moshidi Motshegwa, Jason Flemyng, Tumisho K Masha, Lindane Nkosi