South Africa is no stranger to the Hollywood treatment, with its tense racial history fuelling such films as Sarafina! (1992) with Whoopi Goldberg, Mrs Mandela (2010) with UK actress Sophie Okonedo, and most recently, this year’s The Bang Bang Club (2011). The latter is a gritty, fact-based, apartheid era film about a group of combat photojournalists documenting the violence of the time, starring Ryan Philippe and Canadian star Taylor Kitsch.
The country has seen its share of cinematic revisions of its history, and the majority of such films are set in the past, either in pre- or just-post-apartheid South Africa, and are often positioned as cautionary tales of what happens when xenophobia and human nature go awry. But the prevailing tone is that those were the bad old days, before Nelson Mandela and the Truth Commission set everything aright.
But Man on Ground (2011), Nigerian director Akin Omotoso’s latest offering which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2011, is an eye-opening statement of a chilling fact: racial violence is not just in the past, but in the very real present. That was then, but it is also now.
In 2008, Ernesto Nhamuavhe, a Mozambican immigrant living in South Africa, was burned to death as onlookers laughed. His death, and the subsequent violence against non-South Africans inspired the filmmakers to examine the situation on ground, to try and discover the conditions that permitted this to happen. The result is a clear-eyed look at the xenophobia still present in the new South Africa, and Omotoso’s film reveals the dark, sordid underside of the immigrant experience in the country.
Femi (Fabian Adeoye Lojede) is a young Nigerian activist forced to flee to South Africa when his support for radical causes draws the wrong kind of attention from the authorities. Once there, he tries to keep a low profile as he struggles to make a living in the immigrant work settlements. His estranged brother, Ade (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), a successful London banker comes to South Africa to deliver a package on behalf of their mother, and to attempt to resolve buried and long-held tensions with his brother. When Femi fails to appear, however, Ade is convinced by his brother’s worried fiancée Zodwa (rising South African actress Thisiwe Ziqubu) to track him down.
Over the course of one night, while Ade meets with his brother’s inscrutable employer, Timothi (Fana Mokoena), and tries to unravel the mystery of his brother’s disappearance, the viewer also becomes privy to the gradual uncovering of the complicated, fractured nature of his relationship to Femi. Outside Timothi’s office, yet another riot has erupted over the rights of native South Africans over immigrant workers in the informal settlements, and the flaming violence serves as a backdrop to the story, which circles in a deeper and deeper spiral as it gets closer to the damning truth.
Although the burning death of Ernesto Nhamuavhe acted as the catalyst for the movie, issues of violent discrimination had long held the filmmakers’ interest. In a Q+A session with the cast following the final TIFF screening of the movie on Sept 17, Fabian Adeoye Lojede, who plays Femi and also co-produced Man on Ground, explained how it all began.
“We realized, way before this, before the attacks, that there were so many issues around Africa going on, which had to do with Africans basically discriminating against themselves, not just on whether it’s against foreigners (but) based on religion, based on tribe,” he said.
By drawing attention to the very real issues at stake in South Africa today, however, this film runs the risk of castigating an entire country. But the filmmakers point out that, while set in South Africa, the film is also an allegory for discrimination all around the world.
“It’s xenophobia in South Africa, it’s tribalism somewhere else,” Lojede said. “You had tribes in Kenya killing each other over political issues, you had Hutus and Tutsis killing each other in Rwanda. So though it’s based in South Africa, the actual message goes way beyond the continent, it goes way beyond the country.”
With Man on Ground, rather than raise controversy, director Omotoso (who also wrote the film) aims to, in his own words, “create a strong appeal for healing.” This is a message that they aim to spread all across the globe, because as Lojede acknowledged, discrimination is a universal problem, with its roots in human nature.
“When we started shooting the film, we now realized it’s not even an African problem. Going to the UK and the issue of the prime minister saying things like “multiculturalism has failed”, seeing globally right now there seems to be such an issue not just around migration but people are forever looking at ways to discriminate against refugees, discriminate against minorities wherever they are.”
The film was thus borne out of a desire to do something about the endemic discrimination in societies across the continent and across the world.
With an incredibly talented cast, and with a soundtrack featuring music from all across the African continent – a deliberate decision by the producers – this film does open up a compelling conversation about the state of the world.
With Man on Ground, director Omotoso exemplifies the kind of filmmaking that makes cinema worthwhile, with a film that is thoughtful, intelligent, and heartbreaking. He also succeeds in showing that Hollywood does not hold the monopoly on tense, socio-political dramas played out across the African stage.
It tackles a notoriously difficult subject with sensitivity, yet unflinching directness, (not to mention beautifully crafted cinematography) and still manages to insert moments of gentle humour and unexpected sensuality, all on a crowdfunded budget. It proves that you don’t need a studio budget to make a memorable film. You just need courage, determination and a story worth telling.