Thursday, April 07, 2011

South Africa at AFA: Mapantsula

“Panic” is hardly a revolutionary role model. He is a thief and a professional snitch, but finds himself radicalized in spite of himself in Oliver Schmitz’s Mapantsula (trailer here), which was duly banned under Apartheid, making it a fitting selection for the United We Stand: South African Cinema during Apartheid retrospective currently underway at the Anthology Film Archives.

Mapantsula had two screenplays: the shooting script co-written by Schmitz (a native white South African) and lead actor Thomas Mogotlane and the dummy version shown to the state censors. They were both stories about a small time gangster (or mapantsula), but there the similarities end. The formerly footloose Panic has been rounded-up with group of politicals. As usual, he is expected to rat out his cellmates, but this time events do not follow their regular course. In Schmitz’s split time frame, the audience also witnesses the not particularly edifying events that led Panic to that holding cell.

Frankly, the Panic of a few days prior to his arrest exhibits nearly sociopathic traits. He is cool enough to rob a white business man at knife point and then brazenly count his take in front of the man. It is never political though. Rather, it is simply an act of unrepentant self-interest. Indeed, he regularly sells out his colleagues and shamelessly sponges off his miserable girlfriend Pat. When his spiteful behavior even gets her fired from her domestic employment, it hardly registers with the hustler. However, Schmitz and Mogotlane clearly suggest Panic’s hardboiled everyman-for-himself attitude is ultimately untenable for black South African living under Apartheid.

Arguably, Mogotlane succeeds too well creating a portrait of a remorseless street tough, making it difficult to feel much during his later ordeals. It almost seems like a case of karma being what it is. Still, there is no denying the intensity of his performance. It really represents rather brave work, both in terms of the guerilla style of the production shoot and the unsympathetic nature of his on-screen character.

After extensive television work in Germany, Schmitz returned to feature filmmaking with Life, Above All, which was shortlisted for this year’s best foreign language Oscar. Still, his international reputation largely rests on Mapantsula, which is probably best appreciated within the context of a retrospective like United We Stand. Mogotlane vividly brings Panic to life as a flesh-and-blood individual (albeit a decidedly problematic one) and the funky soundtrack by the Ouens adds a considerable spark. However, certain sequences do not hold together well, particularly during Panic’s interrogations. As a grim depiction of humanity, Mapantsula is certainly representative of dissident South African cinema of the Apartheid era. It screens today (4/7) and Sunday (4/10) as the United retrospective begins at the Anthology Film Archives.