2003 Dir: Ntsuaveeni Wa Lurili. UK-Fr-South Africa. 90mins.
Brazil has enjoyed five Oscar nominations thanks to City Of God, a tale of a camera-toting good guy caught in the crossfire of gang-warfare in Rio's favelas. The Wooden Camera, the story of a video-toting South African boy with choices to make, has similar appeal stemming from its humanity and its fresh eye. The Berlinale and the forthcoming Cannes festival may include stronger pictures that bear witness to a South African film-making renaissance. But The Wooden Camera could carve a niche as an intelligent film that crosses over between adult and child audiences. The film, which played in the Tiger Awards Competition at Rotterdam, appears in Berlin's new 14plus sidebar.
The story starts with a piece of commonplace violence in the townships of Cape Town. A body is pushed from a passing train and the man's worldly possessions fall into the hands of two street kids. The divergent paths of their fates are settled at that moment. Streetwise Sipho (Innocent Msimango) chooses the gun he finds, while more timid pal Mandiba (Singo) picks up a video-camera. Sipho brandishes his weapon to dominate his small posse, frighten off other street gangs and spark a spiral of increasing violence. Mandiba disguises his video-camera in a wooden housing and secretly becomes a proficient video artist.
The film takes up the Apartheid theme with the two boys both befriending Estelle (De Agrella), a rebellious white girl whose parents fear her hanging out with blacks. Estelle and Mandiba share a mentor in Shawn (Cassel), an aging do-gooder who is her music teacher and the only person Madiba cares to show his tapes to. Inevitably Estelle and Madiba become closer, sparking conflict with her parents and rivalry between Madiba and Sipho, whose motives for liking her are far more base.
Suggesting that Madiba's sublime handheld tapes are the unedited work of such a young boy is stretching credibility, but they are much the best thing in the film. Surely they are an indication of what director Ntashavheni, a former assistant to Spike Lee, could achieve if he were allowed to cut loose. The clips paint new angles, tell wordless stories and find fresh hope in the crumbling faces and careworn architecture of the sub-bleached township.
Problematic is the quality, not of the physical acting, but the dialogue and its expression. Speech is as wooden and stilted as Mandiba's camera case. Some of the blame for this must be attached to those who forced Ntashavheni to make the film entirely in English, though the director's control of the natural English speakers, notably the girl's parents, is also weak. None of this will matter to distributors in non-Anglophone territories and the film's prospects on the festival circuit should be good.
Although not intended as a children's film, discerning parents may find that Camera, like Rabbit Proof Fence, is a film they can enjoy alongside their kids. What it lacks in raw power and energy compared with City Of God, makes it more charming and accessible. Many of its themes have universal qualities way beyond South Africa's ghettos: the colour-blind ubiquity of good and evil; haves and have-nots; prejudices which work both ways and the difficult choices we all have to make as we emerge from the innocence of childhood.
Prod cos: Odelion, RG And Associates, Tall Stories
Prod: Olivier Delahaye
Int'l sales: Odelion (France, UK, South Africa), Fortissimo Film Sales (rest of the world)
Scr: Yves Buclet, Peter Speyer
Cinematography: Gordon Spooner
Ed: Kako Kelber
Prod des: Jean-Vincent Puzos
Main cast: Junior Singo, Innocent Msimango, Dana De Agrella, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Fats Bookholane, Andre Jacobs, Bo Petersen, Lisa Petersen, Lynita Crofford, Nicholas Jara, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Thembi Mtshali