DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Darwin’s Nightmare, Yesterday , Tsotsi

, Duma, Wah-Wah, In My Country


Title: Darwin’s Nightmare

Release Date:  2004

Nationality and Language: Austria, English and various African with subtitles

Running time: 107 min

MPAA Rating: sug PG-13

Distributor and Production Company: Celluloid/Saga/1001/Coop99

Director; Writer: Hubert Sauper



Technical: video converted, dolby digital

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: exploitation, AIDS

This shocking documentary brings together a lot of political threads. It all started a half century ago when someone through some perch into Lake Victoria in East Africa. The Nile Perch took over the food chain, consuming competitors, and proliferated, building a huge fishing industry for Tanzania, filets which would be exported to Europe. In the meantime, arms and weapons are smuggled in from Europe and other places for warlords or, worse, for possible shipment to places like Kabul. Imagine the possibility of covert smuggling of weapons of mass destruction through such a poorly secured place.


The black natives, naturally, are horribly exploited. True, some of them work for minimum wage (pennies) in the fish filleting factory, pretty much as slaves. The live on scraps, in shantytowns that are shown throughout the film, which is entirely on location. Kids, some with missing run, scurry on the dirt streets like wild animals. Curiously, the scenery reminds one of “The Constant Gardener.” They are struggling with AIDS, while a local minister decries “sin” (which he mentions as homosexuality and heterosexual prostitution) and refuses to give out condoms. Gospel sermons are delivered in native languages.  European businessmen come to town for steering committee meetings and live as well as one could in that part of the world.


And it will come to and end. The perch will cannibalize themselves out of existence eventually, and there will be nothing. Meanwhile, the Lake is otherwise dead. The film will provide a lot of material for schools, in biology and social studies; but there is really not much on evolution itself.


In late 2004, I saw a presentation at Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA by two young men who had spent a few months on a mission in Kenya, dealing in large part with AIDS. They showed a huge collection of sharp-looking on-location slides of the towns and countryside, and presented political and social problems similar to those shown in the film. I have suggested that if they returned, they could make a similar independent film about the region.


Yesterday (2004, HBO/PBS, dir. Darrell Roodt, 96 min, R, South Africa, in native tongue with subtitles) is a soft-spoken film about an impoverished woman in South Africa who slowly falls ill with pneumonias and finds she is HIV positive. Her husband works in Johannesburg and may very well be promiscuous. She struggles to stay alive long enough to see her daughter go to school. The interviews with her white female doctor stress some of the mechanics of heterosexual AIDS in Africa, which may be explained by men going to cities for jobs and having multiple female partners with various other STDs providing extra blood exposure for HIV transmission in both directions. There have been relatively few important films about AIDS in Africa yet, despite twenty years of reporting on it. When this movie is shown on PBS, it is followed by a panel discussion with Laurie Garrett and others, and the idea that AIDS is a threat to national security is presented.


Tsotsi (2005, Miramax, dir. Gavin Hood, novel by Athol Fugard, UK/South Africa, 94 min, R). Movies develop dramatic tension with flawed characters and motives, and sometimes with very bad people. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) (the word means "thug") is a violent gang leader in Soweto outside Johannesburg on continual crime sprees. One day he carjacks a black mother living in a gated community, paralyzing her with a gunshot wound. He finds her baby in the back seat. He becomes attached to the baby and starts to care for it. He uses newspapers for diapers and even plucks off roaches as the baby screams. Something about pseudo-fatherhood and attachment to new life seems to start to reform him. Conservatives would love this. But he stays with his violent ways, forcing another woman to breast feed the infant at gunpoint. Finally the police "negotiate" his return of the baby. The movie uses a shocking story with difficult people to make enormous social statements about the differences still present in South Africa, something that Ted Koppel, who used to report on apartheid so much in the 1970s, would want to cover today. Actually, the original novel is set in the 1950s during apartheid. The visual impact of this wide screen film, with the brownish filters, showing the squalor of Soweto and the decaying edges of the moderately wealthy Johannesburg with its office and condo towers, a city that disintegrates quickly in the bush, is stunning. There is even a makeshift pontoon bridge across a creek in one scene. This film won best foreign language film for the 2005 Oscars.


Duma (2005, Warner Independent Pictures/Gaylord, dir. Carroll Ballard, book by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and Xan Hopcraft, 100 min, PG, South Africa/USA) Do we have equal time for cats? Remember the 1993 Time issue, "Do Animals Think?" This warm film gives us a tender story of a cheetah, found as a baby by a boy Xan (Alex Michaeletos) and raised, and then eventually released back into the wild under the wishes of the late father (Campbell Scott). The real story here, though, is of the cat himself.  Of course, he is imprinted with a bond to the twelve-year-old boy. He seems to be a member of the family, even more aware of things than most dogs, even if his devotion is similar. He seems to perceive people as hairless cats. He makes different sounds as if he was trying to talk; he just can't put sounds together as nouns and verbs in a sentence. In one scene, he plays with a remote television control with his mouth, figuring out that it changes the television channels and seems to understand that a tv is not real. The father passes away, but has told the boy that the cat must go back to the wild in a mountain-and-desert area of South Africa. The boy goes on an odyssey, and meets a native who assists him after first trying to steal his motorcycle. In time, the cheetah begins to understand that he is really different from people. He has an epiphany when he stumbles upon a lion's kill and snarls away at his companions to protect his food. Then, he runs into a female in estrus and he really realizes what he is. It would be interesting in a movie like this to show the world in some scenes as a cat sees it, in black and white, but with an awareness of smells (you can't show those), sounds and motion beyond what humans experience. Cats view real estate like we do, as private property that is finite. They just don't have mortgages based on fiat money. A large cat needs something like a ranch to live on. Were it not for us, cats might be the dominant land creatures. The film, though shot in regular aspect ratio, has spectacular South African wilderness scenery with large groups of wild animals (rhinoceros, hippopotamus), and pinpoint digital sound. 


Wah-Wah (2005, Samuel Goldwyn/Roadside Attractions, dir. Richard E. Grant, 97 min, R, UK/Swaziland) is an autobiographical family drama about the young adolescence of the director himself in the period 1969-1971 when Swaziland (near South Africa) was gaining independence from Britain, as the British empire withered. Richard's character is renamed Ralph Compton, and is played for about 20 minutes at age 11 by Zac Fox, and then at 14 by the lanky, geeky and articulate Nicholas Hoult, who, after Daniel Radcliffe, may be one of the UK's most important teen actors. Then name of the film fits the tagline, "Every family has its own language," and refers to an open-mouth vocal gesture. In the beginning, Ralph's diplomat dad Harry (Gabriel Byrne) faces his future in an independent Swaziland with economic dread, and begins seeing another woman as his wife Lauren (Miranda Richardson) leaves. Ralph goes away to boarding school and comes back a teenager, to find his father married to Ruby (Emily Watson) and becoming an alcoholic. Ralph continues his artistic pursuits, operating puppet shows with his friend -- the toy stage is filmed full screen in Cinemascope quite effectively, to form a counterweight to the opulent on location California-like African scenery. (The country is not made to look poor in this film.); he also tries out for a lead singing role in a musical rendition of Camelot. He and his friend experience mild adolescent adventures, going to the X-rated "Clockwork Orange." But his stepmother acts like she has a dangerous erotic interest in him (it never really goes anywhere), while he has to deal with both his dad's alcoholism and his biological mother's visits and her own trysts. Finally independence occurs, and his dad will perish of a brain tumor. The theaters are showing the 97-minute version, but there is a 120-minute director's cut, and I am not sure what the additional material is. There are the necessary swimming pool scenes and some mild intimacies, but nothing really unusual in the theater version; it could almost have made PG-13.  The film has appeal, like many of the current WB shows, from being seem through the eyes of a likeable young male "hero" or protagonist.


In My Country (aka "Country of My Skull", 2004, Sony Pictures Classics, book by Antjie Krog, dir. John Boorman, 104 min, R) reminds one of the Ted Koppel "Nightline" broadcasts about South Africa. Here Samuel L. Jackson plays Langston Whitfield, a Washington Post reporter who travels to South Africa to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings when apartheid has supposedly ended. There is a possibility of amnesty for those who testify and show remorse and contrition. Langston follows Col. De Jager (Brendan Gleeson) and falls in love with Afrikaans poet Anna (Juliet Binoche). The testimony in the film is graphic, with one victim testifying that his beard was pulled out hair by hair, and others testifying to water torture and genital mutilations. The scenery in the film is ravishing, especially the scenes near Tablerock Mountain.


Related reviews: A Clockwork Orange The Constant GardenerTwo Brothers; Born Free ,  Hotel Rwanda      Walkabaout 


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