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Wild Women and the Great Karoo: Jenna Bass’s Flatland (Toronto International Film Festival)

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By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

South African filmmaker Jenna Bass has made somewhat of a splash with her third film, Flatland, as it makes its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival after it opened the Panorama section of the Berlinale earlier this year. Aside from previous features Love the One You Love (2014) and the iPhone-shot, body-swap comedy High Fantasy (2017), Bass also more recently co-wrote the 2018 festival hit Rafiki with its director, Wanun Kahiu.

As Bass is a filmmaker in her early thirties, there is an energy and vitality to Flatland that finds it uniquely positioned to speak across generations, both in terms of the characters whose intersecting stories she portrays, and the diverse audience demographics the film has appealed to. While “something for everyone” is a largely hollow platitude, that the film was one of ten films featured in TIFF’s Next Wave series (selected by a panel of twelve programmers all of high school age) underscores just how genuinely it speaks to younger viewers as much as older, more grizzled ones like myself.

The film begins at a wedding, where everyone seems excited about the nuptials except the bride herself. Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) is a woman of color her friends and family judge to have made a good choice in marrying white policeman Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse), but only moments into their honeymoon night she discovers she has made a grievous misjudgment of his character. Before the evening is through, her life changes forever as she finds herself on the run after a man is killed. She seeks the assistance of best friend, a pregnant teen called Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout) with the rough plan of escaping to assumed safety in Johannesburg, riding across the semi-desert Great Karoo on Natalie’s beloved horse, Oumie.

That is, until Detective Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi) becomes involved in the case after her one-time fiancé, who has recently released from prison, is dragged into the murder investigation. With her wardrobe of bedazzled velour sweat suits in a range of jewel-colored hues and an insatiable passion for soap operas, Beauty is one of 2019’s great but perhaps most unexpected neo-noir protagonists. While fearlessly embracing her femininity in many ways, she is also at her core the classic hardboiled investigator. In seeing a broken spirit and a cold, almost clinical dependence on her job, we discover a character whose choices and loyalties we couldn’t even begin to second guess.

The film is shot in often intimate close-up with a frequently kinetic camera that – like its central characters – feels always on the move. As lazy a critical go-to it risks becoming for films made by women directors, it is also hard to talk about Flatland and not acknowledge Bass’s conscious attention to the gendered gaze: especially in its introduction of both Natalie and Beauty, when their intense stare is explicitly privileged and both are presented in fourth-wall breaking shots that speak of issues of power and agency in subtle and overt ways respectively.

Flatland_02Of the three women at the heart of the film, Afrikaner Poppie stands apart from Natalie and Beauty in her broader view of life; while for Natalie and Beauty there’s a sense of an unending set of challenges that lie both before and behind them, for Poppie it’s all one big party. Her youth implies a certain disconnection with the reality of her impending role as a mother, but it is also impossible to not align her sense of privilege as relating to race, particularly when placed in contrast with Natalie and Beauty’s experiences. And while it is the women characters that lie at the heart of the film, Bass is no less masterful with the crafting of her cast of largely male supporting characters; equally fallible and complex, there is to them – like Poppie, Natalie and Beauty themselves – an intrinsic humanness to them that makes even the most morally reprehensible of the group somehow understandable.

But commendably, Bass has enough confidence as both a screenwriter and director to trust her enormously talented cast to understand the nuances of both their own characters, and the ways their myriad encounters speak of race, gender and class in contemporary South Africa. Part road movie, part Western and governed by an all-encompassing noir sensibility, Flatland is both literally and metaphorically a wild ride, but an unrelentingly sincere one that speaks with intelligence and kindness of its three central women characters, warts and all.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

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