Real Life vs Reel Life

A new generation of cinematic voices is flipping the script on local film

Words: Sandiso Ngubane 

The film Necktie Youth, which went on circuit last Friday, the 25th of September, opens with a tragedy. After sending a voice message, ending with a reluctant “see ya around”, Emily commits suicide by using a skipping rope to hang herself from a tree in the garden at her mother’s house. If my words are devoid of emotion, that is because it’s an opening scene that plays out quite swiftly, and very matter-of-factly. She is not happy, so she chooses to die.

Next up, the befittingly violent Brafcharge ‘Marikana’ song blares out as the opening credits to emerging filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s debut feature plays out, before a narrator with a ‘cheeseboy’ accent delivers an omniscient account of a ‘heyday’ Johannesburg he knows nothing about.

He speaks of a beautiful, presumably clean Hillbrow, where pretty girls lined the streets outside posh clubs at night. His reference? Stories from grown folk and photographs. His reality is much bleaker and a dilapidated Jozi CBD is a metaphor for this free, but not-so-free world that he inhabits, except his is in the pristine suburbs of northern Johannesburg.

The narration hinges on the protagonist, Jabz, a Sandton rich boy, as he and his friend September drift about a sex-and-drugs filled misadventure in this somewhat gloomy portrayal of disaffected South African millennials. 

September is played by the director, Sibs, who writes in his director’s statement: “What is this generation’s identity and place in a cosmopolitan world? How does the third and first world exist within one society and how does this phenomena impact social interactions and the mentality of the youth? 
As a member of the first free generation of youths as well as a son born to a family that places it- self among the first of the western educated and globalised middle class black South African’s, I found myself positioned in a space not often synonymous with Africans. 
That of privileged, educated, young, Zulus.”

Indeed, for many young South Africans of colour, negotiating privilege can be quite a journey and has been for many of us who find ourselves in spaces previous generations of black South Africans could have never dreamed of occupying, speaking in accents that earned us names such as ‘coconut’ and the like.

I’m fascinated by Necktie because of that. It’s a story about South African youth whose story I have not yet seen depicted in film. As a cinematic voice, Sibs represents the emergence of a post-apartheid South African generation of storytellers and that’s exciting because it means, for the first time, we can look at this country from the perspective of a generation whose experience of apartheid is only second-hand – a generation whose experiences are as complex and diverse as the South Africa of today.

However, as Necktie demonstrates, apartheid still haunts the South African reality and there’s no ignoring that. Another director, Jenna Bass, whose film Love the One You Love went on limited release a week prior, explores two parallel stories of love and happiness in the ‘new’ South Africa. Set in Cape Town, Love the One You Love follows the tale of a relationship between Terry, a phone-sex operator, and her dog-handler boyfriend Sandile.

While their love seems ideal, at least from the outside, something, someone, is holding back. Intertwined into their story is that of her clients: a lonely computer technician who is holding onto a relationship that has long ended by being friends with his ex-girlfriend’s younger brother. The age gap is discomforting.

According to Jenna, the movie is more than just about love. “I think more than love, it’s about how we cling to ideals and illusion rather than face reality that is far more complicated than the cliché. Love is extremely exploited in that way, in advertising, in everything. Love is this commodity that is used to sell stuff and give people a roadmap as to how they should be managing their relationships and I think that’s what keeps us unhappy.”

I suggest that the cast is surprisingly multi-racial for a film set in Cape Town. I’m perhaps being naughty here, keen to hear what a Capetonian white girl’s response would be. “I cast the people in the film because I wanted to work with them. These characters were written for the actors in the film. South African films are very subculture-driven. It will be, like, a township film, but for a movie set in the city, it has to have all of these different kinds of people living together. That’s just reality and I just wanted to put people on-screen together who I like, but who I thought have a cool chemistry together.”

Jenna makes a very good point, and I believe this is what differentiates Necktie and Love the One You Love from other post-apartheid portrayals of South African youth in film. Most focus on the township narrative and when they don’t most have an either black or very Afrikaans slant to them and it is often, for me anyway, hard to differentiate the storytelling as any different from films made before and after the demise of apartheid, or at least what we’ve already seen in, say, Tsotsi or even on television in Yizo Yizo, Gaz’lam, any other Bomb Shelter production – or any Afrikaans drama that would make you swear blacks don’t live here.

It is often not easy to separate most South African films from the overtly race-intensive narrative that engulfs all of our media – and society – sometimes at the detriment of storytelling. It often feels like these are films made for an obviously clueless global audience that isn’t very familiar with the nuances and complexities that come with being from this part of the world; we are just a subject, the movies are not made for us to watch and enjoy.

In short, I can relate to the tsotsi-taal, the crime, racism, violence and what-have-you that we’ve often seen in a lot of local films, but do they strike a chord with me? Nope! I actually find it boring how most play up obvious South African idiosyncrasies. With Necktie and Love the One You Love, I am relating to characters and actual experiences.

The two features embrace many of South Africa’s complexities as a backstory, but are refreshing in the sense that the stories are layered and universal. They transcend the stereotypes without being ignorant. As Jenna puts it to me: “If you make something real and true to a particular experience, it will always end up being political. Young people who’ve seen Necktie, for example, say ‘it is articulating my political existential crisis’. I think it is extremely cathartic for anyone to see their reality portrayed on screen.”


Love the One You Love is screening at The Labia in Cape Town and Bioscope in Johannesburg. It is also available on Vimeo-on-Demand.

Necktie Youth is screening at selected Ster Kinekor theatres, nationwide. It is also available for purchase on iTunes and rental on DSTV On-Demand.