Usually when I write about such things it is because I feel my country or continent has been sidelined. And this time it isn’t any different – it’s a case for African cinema at the Cannes International Film Festival, and perhaps a shift from what is often seen as an agenda setting at the festival. I announced with excitement when two films from Africa (or at least with African connections) namely Egypt’s Mohamed Diab’s ‘Eshtebak’ (Clash) and Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s ‘Hissein Habre, Une Tragedie Tchadienne’ (Hissein Habre, A Chadian Tragedy) were announced as part of the Cannes official selection for 2016.
The Official Selection serves to highlight the diversity of cinematic creation through its different sections, the two most important of which are the Competition and Un Certain Regard. Films that are representative of “auteur cinema with a wide audience appeal” are presented in Competition, and Un Certain Regard focuses on works that have an original aim and aesthetic. The Official Selection also includes Out of Competition films, Special Screenings and Midnight Screenings, Cannes Classics and the Cinéfondation selection targeting film schools.
Mohamed Diab’s ‘Eshtebak’ was announced as part of the Un Certain Regard selection. Un Certain Regard (a certain regard) is a section of the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection which runs at the salle Debussy, parallel to the competition for the ’. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s ‘Hissein Habre, Une Tragedie Tchadienne’ was under the list of the special screenings session.
However after after seeing Mandla W Dube’s ‘Kalushi’ which didn’t make the Official Selection, I was convinced that the selection jury committed an obvious blunder. I saw ‘Kalushi’ during my stay in Cannes when it was screened at the South African pavilion ( a networking tent set up along the beautiful waterfront around the Palais du Cannes). South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation screened a number of feature films and short films at it’s pavilion including Free State, Mrs Right Guy and the box office hit Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word.
‘Kalushi’ is a biopic based on the struggles of Solomon Mahlangu, a schoolboy-hawker who joined the military wing of the ANC to fight against the brutal oppression of the Apartheid regime, and ended up becoming an icon of South Africa’s liberation.The film which took nearly nine years to complete is based on the facts provided by history, as well as the family and friends of Solomon ‘Kalushi’ Mahlangu.
On 13 June 1977, Mahlangu and his friends were caught in a gun battle with police in the Johannesburg CBD in which two men were killed and two others wounded. The judge apparently accepted that Mondy Johannes Motloung (one of Mahlangu’s friends) was responsible for the actual killings, but he had been beaten during the course of his capture and had severe brain damage making him unfit to stand trial. Despite this, Mahlangu was found guilty on two counts of murder and three charges under the Terrorism Act because of ‘the principle of common purpose’. He was sentenced to death by hanging on 2 March 1978 and executed on 6 April 1979.
‘Kalushi’ beautifully tells the emotional story of f Solomon Mahlangu from the courtroom using well choreographed flashbacks. I struggled to hold back my tears when watching the struggles many South Africans went through to attain ‘freedom’.
From the storyline to the quality of the pictures, ‘Kalushi’ was at par and even better than some of the films I watched from the Official Selection list. This brings me to the question of the ‘Cannes agenda’. Two of the films I watched, ’Mademoiselle’ and ‘Rester Vertical’ both had themes of same sex romance, which seemed to be an agenda being pushed at Cannes this year. While the former was a bit careful of how it portrayed a twisted romance between two women, the latter was extremely graphic with nudity and sex of both heterosexual and homosexual nature.
While I cannot conclude that Cannes was pushing a gay agenda based on just the two movies I watched, I will try to find others reasons why a fine film such as ‘Kalushi’ could not make the Official Selection for at least the Special Screenings and Midnight Screenings.
To set the tone for my argument about the ‘Cannes agenda’, let us take a look at the two films from or on Africa that made the selection. ‘Eshtebak’ is a film that explores the confrontations between pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators that emerged following the removal of president Mohamed Morsi from power on 3 July 2013.
‘Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy’ is a documentary on Hissène Habré’s grim legacy. The former Chadian strongman is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Pinochet” due to the atrocities committed during his turbulent eight-year rule (1982-90). But unlike the late Chilean dictator, who died without ever going to trial, Habré is being prosecuted for crimes against humanity by a Senegalese court set up at the behest of the African Union – in a test case for African justice. The landmark proceedings, which opened amid riotous scenes in a Dakar tribunal last year, follow a 25-year campaign to bring him to court.
Yes both represent the kind of Africa that the ‘West’ likes to portray – an Africa where all leaders are power-drunk evil dictators, who must be removed from power. An Africa where all our problems are caused by us and never as a result of exploitations from the West. Therefore a story about the real struggles of black South Africans for inclusion in their own country is not worth telling to the world.
Perhaps ‘Kalushi’ would have been worth showing to the world if it had some big shot Hollywood star in lead. After all, we have seen that too many times when big studios from Hollywood take iconic African stories to tell it using their own stars, and in their own way. It happened with Steve Biko (Cry Freedom), Nelson Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Invictus), and Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland) . Who knows, maybe soon it would be Kwame Nkrumah. The beauty of ‘Kalushi’ is that they used local South Africans to tell their own story, and they did it terribly well – just as any Hollywood production would have done!
So what is the West afraid of? Why are they not letting the world see a film such as ‘Kalushi’ ? Is it too much for the world to see the atrocities committed against black South Africans by the whites? Just as the world is often allowed to see the pain inflected on Africans by Africans, the world must also see films such as ‘Kalushi’!
Starring Thabo Rametsi, Pearl Thusi and Jafta Mamabolo, ‘Kalushi’ is Mandla Dube’s directorial debut. Dube studied cinematography at the American Film Institute (AFI). He has worked with director F Gary Gray – who recently put together Straight Outta Compton. ‘Kalushi’ was originally intended to be a four-part series for the SABC, but Dube decided otherwise.
‘Kalushi’ is scheduled to have a limited release on June 16 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, and a nationwide release in South Africa from September.
See photos from the Cannes screening below: