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South African landscapes provide us with the lush greens of the jungle, the dry grass of the savanna, the majesty of the mountains, the eroded clay of the desert and the high-rise mortar of the city. A filmmaker can find there any background desired as the scenery for his motion picture, but variety is not the only true value of the African landscape. Here we find the lush, well tended greens that represent the wealth and control of the Europeans who have invaded the country; the dry savannas where the animals roam freely, but the native peoples are restricted; the eroded clay that somehow manages to sustain life and reminds us of the outlying township slums that somehow sustain oppressed lives; and the stifling city where a restrictive government and looming skyscrapers bear down to oppress the human spirit. According to Hugo Munsterberg, "the photoplay tells us the human story by overcoming the forms of the outer world, namely, space, time and causality, and by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination, and emotion" (104). The South African landscape reflects its country’s history and the struggle of its people, and when a director chooses it carefully for background in his film, it can add emotional and symbolic depth to his message.
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company came from Europe to South African soil to set up a fort for the purpose of replenishing their ships with supplies. The Europeans, in their high and mighty way, saw South Africa as land for the taking complete with savages and rugged landscapes to be tamed and civilized, and so begin the colonization of the country. When Cy Enfield’s Zulu (1964) opens, Lieutenant John Chard is attempting to tame a piece of that landscape as he is trying to build a bridge across the river at Rourke’s Drift. Ironically, the mountains surrounding Rourke’s Drift present an untamable foe to the one hundred forty British soldiers camped there. The soldiers have been informed that the Zulu are coming, and the audience is drawn into the soldiers’ world while together they watch for the destined attack along the elevated landscape.
The soldiers find themselves facing thousands of skillful and determined native warriors who seem to appear from nowhere with the help of the natural mountain formations and the dry grass that hides them.
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One of the eventual effects of colonization on South African soil was the emergence of cities. Jamie Uys, in his comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), offers a reflection on the value of progress. His comparison of the Kalahari bushman in his natural surrounding and the fast-paced, buffoon looking city will rekindle the audience’s desire for natural space and a less complicated life. As Xi, the bushman, finally throws the "evil thing" away at the "end of the earth," we understand how simple it was for him to deal with the evil that harmed his children, and we realize what a complicated world filled with complicated evils we have spent centuries building for ourselves. When we choose to hate and mistreat our fellow man, we create our own enemies, and the product of hatred is an evil that will harm our children.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the issue of equal education became a motivator for the South African youth in speaking out for their rights. Here, in the United States, we tell our children to reach for the skies, and we try to give them every opportunity to amass as much education as they are willing to take in. But the black children of South Africa were intentionally held back. Their lessons were taught only in Afrikaans so that their world would be a narrow one that could easily be manipulated and controlled. Peter Davis, in his book In Darkest Hollywood, writes, "The educational system of South Africa had been deliberately structured to deprive Africans of a sense of continuity, of a past in which they could take pride . . ." (159). In Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989) demonstrators, mostly children, wanting a better education, a "white education," converge on a crossroad from different directions and march toward the camera. Behind the action, the scenery shows a single tree, symbolic of the tree of knowledge, and African land as far as the eye can see. Some would argue that this is simply a natural South African background, but the open land and sky behind the multitude of African children seems to add emphasis to the march as it says ‘this is our land, and we have a right to the best of what is offered here.’ The subtle message adds power and emotion to this representative scene of Soweto in June of 1976 when young demonstrators were dealt a violent blow by the white government of South Africa. When the struggle ended, the death toll was at 600 lives, and the rest of the world began to take notice of the situation in South Africa.
Ralph Nelson, director of The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), offers another example of the African land as symbolism for its ownership. Afrikaner Detective Horne is searching for Shack Twala, a black man who escapes an arrest contrived to return him to the prison from where he has just been released, and the white man, Jim Keogh, who is helping him in the escape. Detective Horne visits a native village where the two runners have recently been hidden. When the detective turns up nothing, he tells the native African chief, "I fear for my country." During this dialogue, we view the detective, and the screen is filled with his image contrasted against one of the thatch huts from the village, but when the camera turns to the silent native chief and the scene behind him, African land that stretches so far along the horizon it appears to meet the sky, we are reminded that his people owned this land first, and that the white Afrikaner detective is an imposition upon this, their land.
The imposition and control of South Africa began in the high mindedness of the white minority that lived there and viewed their mission as a humane one of taming and civilizing the inhabitants of that country. As the population grew, the white minority grew desperate and fearful of losing their control in the country. Through the centuries, many Afrikaners were born and raised in Africa and were then able to call Africa their home. They viewed the control they maintained as a natural way of life. Ben Du Toit, of Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season (1989) is an Afrikaner who lives in a nice house in the suburb of the city who in the beginning seems oblivious to certain truths about his community. Du Toit’s naiveté comes from the fact that he has been raised under the assumption that the white control of South Africa is perfectly natural and for the good of the people, just as his father believed. He is essentially sheltered from the violent truth by these beliefs until the death of his gardener and the gardener’s son. Lush green plants and a wall of trees surround his world and represent this shelter from truth as well as the neat and tidy control of nature and black South Africa that the white minority maintains. As we see him in his daily life we find his home, the school where he teaches, even the soccer field where his son plays surrounded by the safe shelter of green that is ironically tended by his black gardener. When white authorities torture and kill the gardener, the shelter begins to break down, and Du Toit wakes up to realize that the treatment his community is imposing on the native black South Africans is atrocious. When Ben Du Toit visits the funeral home in the black township, there is no green to provide shelter for the natives. There he finds a desolate area with no trees, wrecked cars with children playing on them, and tiny shacks to house the people who live there. The crowded township and the dry, dusty landscape reflect the desolate emotional landscape inside the native people who are suffering at the hand of the white system.
As we watch the opening scenes of Zoltan Korda’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), the narrator speaks and the camera shows both the beautiful and the desolate landscapes of Africa. We hear of the beauty and the sustaining quality of the high ground and how it continues to exist and provide for man. Then the narrator moves to the low ground and explains how the grass has been over grazed, and not enough rain at times and torrential rain at others have caused the erosion of the land until it is no longer sustaining. These few seconds of opening dialogue seem on the surface to be irrelevant to the story that finally unfolds, but the representation of the land in the beginning actually parallels the story metaphorically. The reference to the grazing of the cattle reminds us of the history of the native South African people as they are essentially herded to designated areas of the country to live in compact communes while the white minority who maintains control is allowed land ownership and has the freedom to live where he chooses. As the camera visits the compounds where Stephen Kumalo finds his sister, we see the evidence of over grazing as the land holds no green but only dust, shacks and people. The rain that comes when it is too late represents the social services that do not exist to help a struggling black citizen, but appears only after that citizen has met with the type of trouble that can convict him and not his oppression.
The call of the factory is drawing the young people from Kumalo’s peaceful countryside into the cities. There under great oppression, they lose touch with their cultural upbringing, and all of them seem to find trouble in the fight to survive. The director magnifies the feeling of impending doom as Stephen Kumalo rides the train to Johannesburg passed the rolling peaceful hills, by the mines and the factories and into the dark city scenes. The oppression of blacks in the city is expressed by the dark, ominous apartment buildings "where the white people live" (Korda) that appear to be pressing down on them. In the crowded township slums outside the city we see the evidence of erosion of native culture. Just as the green eroded from the land in the early description, we find the desolate lives of young black people who under the heavy hand of oppression have experienced the erosion of their cultural values to the point that they are willing to go to any lengths, including breaking the law, both municipal and moral in the fight for survival. Though the native black Africans are not treated as equal to whites in Kumalo’s country home, there still seems to be some hope for a better life in the country. This is clearly evident as we watch Kumalo climb to the high ground during a sunrise, the symbol of hope.
In comparison, Schmitz and Mogotlane’s Mapantsula (1988) is a very urban movie, but carries the idea of highs and lows to further extremes. The movie opens with the camera focused on the white clouds and blue sky with a tower to the left of our view. The scene seems to whisper freedom as we consider the inhabitants of the sky, the birds, and the seemingly ultimate freedom they enjoy. Then the camera slowly moves down along the line of the tower to show us the high-rise apartment building of the white community and continues to pan down to the street, the playing field of both the mapantsula and the freedom protestors. Here again we see the high ground contrasted against the low ground, and the white man stands between the inhabitants of the low ground and the freedom of the skies. But the concept of the low ground is carried even further in Mapantsula when Panic and the protestors are arrested. We watch the police wagons drive into a tunnel before unloading their cargo and realize that the prison is underground. The cells of the prisoners have very tall, blank walls with no reachable windows and no hope of reaching the outside. The metaphorical image of the oppression of Panic and the other prisoners is clearly evident as we think about the city literally sitting on top of them.
In another scene in the movie, our protagonist Panic is being led up an open staircase that seems to have no end. In this image of height, the stairs represent the sacrifice that Panic must make to achieve any form of freedom. In one of the upper rooms, we view a scene where Panic is being questioned and the viewer realizes that he is focused on the open window in the office of the captain. The open window shows a clear view of a beautiful sky and the city that exists under it. Panic longs for freedom even though freedom through that window would certainly mean death for it is high above the ground. The longing look on Panic’s face reveals his desire to escape not only to the viewer, but also to the captain who is in charge of questioning him. The captain turns that longing into fear as he threatens to eject Panic through the window. With this threat, the white captain destroys Panic’s last hope for freedom.
Many directors skillfully choose natural backgrounds to add depth to the images of their projects. The images may be deepened physically and visually, but are certainly deepened emotionally. Here we have discussed some settings that are easily recognized for their emotional value such as the mountains surrounding Rourke’s Drift in Zulu and the comparison of the quiet countryside and the fast paced city in The Gods Must Be Crazy. However, most of the films discussed use settings that are so subtle that the emotional value is often overlooked in an analysis of the film. This occurs for two reasons: the background is so natural, as in the demonstration scene in A Dry White Season, that the viewer only realizes that the scene is powerful, without realizing the contribution of the background; or the background touches an emotion in the viewer that is so recognizable that the viewer senses the emotion to come from within himself and not from the subtle message offered. Hugo Munsterberg in "The Means of Photoplay" expressed this idea well: "every shade of feeling and emotion which fills the spectator’s mind can mold the scenes in the photoplay until they appear the embodiment of our feelings" (104). Once this transition of feeling occurs, it is difficult for the viewer to discern where the emotional impact of the film ends and the viewer’s own ideas and emotions begin.
With the demise of apartheid in 1996, we anxiously watch as the South African natives struggle with learning how to be free. Already the emergence of art that describes their struggle is helping people of the world understand what their plight has been. In discussing third world cinema, Gerald M. Macdonald writes, "Just as political leaders struggled with the questions of constructing a nation-state that would represent the indigenous peoples of a territory defined by European conquest and domination, so, too, filmmakers struggled with the questions of defining an aesthetic practice that would give voice to the creative aspirations of the indigenous peoples"(35).
The African landscape is unique and represents historically and symbolically the struggle of its people, and it will continue to support the people and share in their struggles. As we know in America, to achieve an environment that is free of racism will require a span of time if it is achievable at all. We understand that both black and white residents of South Africa must suffer some growing pains to achieve the greatness their country deserves, and we look forward to listening as South Africans continue to tell their story.
Aitken, Stuart C., and Leo E. Zonn, eds. Place, Power, Situation and Spectacle. London: Rowman, 1994.
Cry, the Beloved Country. Screenplay by Alan Paton. Dir. Zoltan Korda. Perf. Sidney Poitier, Canada Lee, Charles Carson. British Lion Film Corporation, 1951.
Davis, Peter. In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of Cinema’s South Africa. Athens: Ohio UP, 1996.
A Dry White Season. Dir. Euzhan Palcy. Perf. Donald Sutherland, Janet Suzman, Zakes Mokae, Marlon Brando. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1989.
The Gods Must Be Crazy. Dir. Jamie Uys. Perf. Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo, N!xau. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1980.
Macdonald, Gerald M. "Third Cinema and the Third World." Aitken and Zonn 27-45.
Mapantsula. Dir. Oliver Schmitz and Thomas Mogotlane. Perf. Thomas Mogotlane, Marcel van Heerden, Thembi Mtshali, Dolly Rathebe. Haverbeam and Hannay, 1988.
Munsterberg, Hugo, "The Means of Photoplay." The Film: A Psychological Study: The Silent Photoplay in 1916. Rpt. In Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader. Timothy Corrigan, ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1999. 103-11.
The Wilby Conspiracy. Dir. Ralph Nelson. Perf. Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Nicol Williamson. United Artists, 1975.
Zulu. Dir. Cy Endfield. Perf. Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael
Caine. Embassy Pictures Corporation, 1964.