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African Cinema

How to Steal 2 Million (South Africa 2011)

Jack (Menzi Ngubane) and Olive (Terry Pheto) in the gallery. Partly, he wants to show her what he gained from going to the 'third best school in the city'.

Jack (Menzi Ngubane) and Olive (Terry Pheto) in the gallery. Partly, he wants to show her what he gained from going to the ‘third best school in the city’.

It’s difficult to see any African films in the UK so I was pleased to be sent a copy of this ‘neo-noir crime thriller’ by its North American distributor Traverse Media. The film is available for download on iTunes and other streaming services in North America. There are fairly regular US and UK productions shot in South Africa and released internationally. Usually, however, the lead roles are given to black actors from the US or UK. I often avoid such films because I suspect that they are inauthentic in their representations of South Africa. I accept that this may be unreasonable, but there it is. How to Steal 2 Million has a star cast drawn directly from film, TV and stage actors in the country. Its writer-director Charlie Vundla was born in the US and trained in film school there but grew up mostly in Johannesburg where he now lives.

This is a classy production with an experienced crew and some heavyweight contributions including an effective musical score from the internationally-renowned Trevor Jones (born in Cape Town but mostly working in the UK and Hollywood). The technical achievements and the performances are very good and whatever it cost the money was well spent. Charlie Vundla in the EPK/Press Pack (see the official website) tells us that there were two initial ideas that were merged – a hostage drama in a house that goes wrong and a noirish tale set in an unnamed South African city. What eventually emerged as a script is a familiar and conventional neo-noir. The central character is Jack, newly released from prison and attempting to go straight. He’s a man of honour, the classic ‘criminal with a code to live by’. Of course, things don’t work out and he falls back into a deal with his ex-partner, Julius, the man who stole Jack’s woman. He also becomes involved with a new woman, a streetwise hustler played with verve by Terry Pheto the young star of Tsotsi. The plot has the number of twists and turns to be expected in a noir and the loyalties of the characters are called into question because the central narrative involves various family and marital relationships with the prospect of betrayals.  The version of the film I saw, from the US, was only some 85 mins. The South African version appears to have been more like 109 mins. That perhaps explains why the ending seems rushed. I’m intrigued as to what has been cut as 20 plus minutes is quite a chunk of screen time. Still, I can only comment on what I’ve seen.

A striking image of Jack during the film's finale.

A striking image of Jack during the film’s finale – the two images in this posting demonstrate the film’s use of a restricted colour palette.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the subdued colour palette with its predominance of greens, blue-greys, browns and purples. As in all the best noirs the action is often staged at night in dimly-lit bars or in daytime in desolate locations. I found both the cinematography and editing to be very effective. The film’s use of locations is purely ‘generic’ in that there is no attempt to represent the city in any way which would identify it as a ‘real’ place in South Africa. Instead we get the bars, gambling dens, back alleys and car parks of the generic city and the suburban road of big houses for the wealthy with gates and armed guards. The meetings of the criminals take place in anonymous places such as a zoo and an art gallery – although these might have some kind of symbolic meaning. The finale offers us what appears to be a windblown slagheap of sand or dust – again, quite effective as a backdrop for a lone figure in long shot. Jack lives in a run-down room, Julius in a swish apartment. The only other ‘personal’ feature is the aged car that Jack drives (which reminds me of the car Bob Hoskins drives in Mona Lisa (UK 1986)  after his release from prison). The one distinctive setting that I think I remember from Tsotsi is a view over the city from a hilltop where the Terry Pheto character meets her mother. The impact of this sequence was rather lost for me because of the use of very shallow focus, quite dramatic here with the effect that the city virtually disappeared in the blur.

The strength of the film for me is in the performances with nearly all of the cast very experienced actors from South African television. Menzi Ngubane as Jack is terrific and Rapulana Seiphemo as Julius is a worthy opponent. These are the kinds of actors who could appear in international films in lead roles, not just secondary roles. The one established actor on film and in the theatre is the veteran John Kani who I’m fairly sure I saw on stage in London in the 1970s. Kani, along with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona was one of the main sources of our understanding of apartheid South Africa in that period. How to Steal 2 Million is an interesting and well-made crime film. I just wish that it gave us slightly more of the distinctive flavour of the society in which it is set. The dialogue is a mixture of English and at least one local language. As in most global films I see these days from Africa or Asia, characters easily slide from one language into another, often in mid-sentence. I had no difficulty following either the accented English or the subtitles. I can’t find any references to which local languages are being spoken – can anyone help? I’d certainly watch something else by this director and cast and I’d like to see this film get a wider release. It won four awards at the 2012 ‘African Movie Academy Awards’ for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Terry Pheto) and Best Editing. The AMMAS are held in Nigeria and mostly feature films from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and other parts of anglophone Africa, offering a contrast to the screenings at FESPACO in Ougadougou. I hope a UK distributor will think about bringing some of the winners to the UK.

South African cinema is briefly discussed in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.

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