By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
How does one ‘belong’ to a place? How many years must you live in a place for it to be home? Some things must be earned, but even if earned, one is never guaranteed a sense of belonging. Glasshouse is unplacable because the human experience should not be placed. It is shared.” –Kelsey Egan
Set in South Africa’s Victorian-era Pearson Conservatory, Kelsey Egan’s self-defined “dystopian fairytale” Glasshouse is many things at once; a family drama, a coming of age film, a science fiction movie, and a plague tale whose timing – released as it is in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic – is inescapably profound. With the very architecture of its setting drenched with the ambient ghosts of South Africa’s dark, complex colonial history, that the film itself is about the ritual nature and necessity of memory itself in the maintenance of social order, however clumsily and desperately that is cobbled together, speaks then powerfully to the way that present, past and ultimately future intertwine in intricate and often unexpected ways.
Glasshouse follows a family – a mother, her son and three daughters – who have, thanks to the airtight building of the film’s title, survived a memory-destroying airborne plague that triggers the onset of a rapidly deteriorating state of dementia. Called “The Shred”, this plague has changed life as it once was, and it is only through their isolation and fierce protection of their fortress that the family remains safe. While Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) has had some exposure to The Shred and is starting to show signs of its increasing impact, his sisters Evie (Anja Taljaard), Bee (Jess Alexander) and their much younger sister Daisy (Kitty Harris) care for him with dedication, the children flocking around their mother (Adrienne Pearce) who is both their maternal protector and the keeper of the precious knowledge of the past; the of songs and rituals that allow the family to maintain a connection to their history and identity. But with the arrival of a handsome yet mysterious stranger (Hilton Pelser), the volatility of history and memory itself begins to become unstuck as loyalties begin to shift with dramatic results.
With its recent world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas spoke to Glasshouse director Kelsey Egan with her co-writer and the film’s associate producer, Emma Lungiswa De Wet.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: I had a very profound experience watching Glasshouse; I’m a critic from Australia, this is a film from South Africa, and it’s making its world premiere in Canada. All three countries, to state the obvious, have their own unique but in many ways shared nightmare histories about colonialism; it feels like a very dark triangle or web in a way that somehow inextricably drew me into this film from the outset. While the film is not ‘about’ colonialism in any kind of obvious way, the combination of the ye olde Victorian aesthetics and the consistent drumbeat in the film about memory and its relationship to history struck me as being unambiguously political, even though Glasshouse is not what might be identified immediately as a capital-P “Political” film (one of the many things I admired about it, in fact). Can you walk me through your thoughts on this perhaps?
Kelsey Egan (KE): A dark triangle is a good way to put it – although I’d implicate the United States as well. The insidious web of colonialism stretches across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and one of the reasons that it was so important to us to keep the setting ambiguous was not to minimize its impact. Colonialism has clawed a deep mark into the socio-politics of so many countries. It’s impossible for the film not to be political, even if we didn’t want it to be. It’s very much an allegory for colonialism. The veneer of the glasshouse (and the family bond of our characters) is one of beauty and safety, but there is something rotten underneath. What is the price for this sanctuary? A lot of blood.
Emma Lungiswa De Wet (ELD): Colonialism left behind relics on all every continent – language, monuments. The Pearson’s Conservatory is a beautiful, fragile space, but it’s not neutral or innocent – it was a Victorian monolith used to grow hothouse flowers in the ‘barbaric African climate!’ So, it’s how we negotiate with those memories – physically embodied in our architecture, and held in our personal and national histories. I grew up an hour away from this monument, my school was named after a queen, my university after Cecil John Rhodes, the greatest plunderer of them all. This is the Eastern Cape’s history, but it’s shared by so much of the world, and it’s time we interrogate how we process these narratives – what we overwrite, what we leave out, how we remember.
This is a fable about nostalgia and forgetting – it’s something I’m steeped in as a white South African. It’s memory-impairment that attempts to let us off the hook for our actions and inheritance. Instead of a reckoning, the architects of Apartheid were granted amnesty. But when we ask for amnesty, we’re really asking for amnesia – let me forget what I did to you, so that I can sit more comfortably in my skin. But trauma is never really forgotten, and the truth buried in the garden will always resurface. It’s the hidden graveyards surfacing outside residential schools in Canada; it’s the continued erasure of Indigenous people in Australasia.
The airborne nature of The Shred and the way that it corrupts thinking when combined with the motif of the mask is obviously difficult to extract from our current moment as we globally contend with this COVID-19 debacle. I’m fascinated to hear more about this from a production history side in terms of when the project was conceived, shot, etc. – there is a really captivating and quite dominant sense of this being a largely anachronistic setting in a world-build building sense (neither here nor then – almost liminal or in between), and I’d love to hear how the more practical details of the film tie into these more tonal atmospherics…
KE: We wrote this script over South Africa’s first lockdown. I was in lockdown alone, so Emma (my writing partner) was essentially my lifeline. We spent about four months on Zoom together, writing Glasshouse and working on the other two feature scripts in this slate. Ironically, I have another sci-fi project that contains toxic air and mask wearing as a central plot point – a script that I wrote the first draft for about eight years ago – and at the time I was honestly more concerned about using the same plot device twice (lazy writing, the horror!) than the obvious parallels that would be drawn to Covid-19. In the end, we decided that Glasshouse and my other project were different enough creatively – and the impact of the respective toxins sufficiently distinct – that I didn’t have to lose sleep over it. But of course everyone will think the masks and toxic air were inspired by Covid-19. Dystopian sci-fi generally preempts reality. But now reality has caught up, so the film may hit uncomfortably close to home.
I think the eeriest parallel in the film for me at this point is how our characters have their own distinct narratives, much like there are distinct “camps” societally at the moment, in terms of embracing or fearing vaccination. Like memory in Glasshouse, what is a necessary survival tool and lifeline to one individual is perceived as a threat or risk by another. Such dramatic differences in perspective can be quite unsettling, and I hope very much that the film can provoke thought and conversation in this light.
I can say that the bonnet-masks were an absolute nightmare to shoot with, and my actors are absolute saints. The bonnets made wearing a mask to protect against Covid-19 feel like a walk in the park. I think if there’s any major message here, it’s that things can always get worse.
I hope that Covid-19 might serve as a warning we can’t ignore, and that as a global community we are able to effectively take this warning to heart… Although if history is anything to go by, I do fear that our track record isn’t looking so good. Humanity has a disturbingly short-term memory.
ELD: Isolation shouldn’t necessarily make us insular – I think this story shows how turning inward can trap the fear inside with you, rather than keeping it out. When you protect yourself by dehumanising others – in this case treating them like animals/ forgetters – you effectively dehumanise yourself too, losing the ability to really connect.
What is the role and function of ritual when it comes to the intersection of history and memory more broadly, both within the world of the film, but also how you would ideally like that to be understood in the broader context of the big scary real world that we’re all living in right now?
KE: Our memories are infamously unreliable. Ritual – and repeated physical actions – is a tool to combat this. From a broader perspective, rituals (be they personal or communal) can be used to commemorate and acknowledge past traumas, both societal and individual. Active remembering has a huge impact on both the perception of one’s own identity but also choices made in the present. We learn from past experiences. If we allow ourselves to forget, we are that much more likely to repeat previous mistakes. In this regard, it becomes a responsibility to remember, even if it means carrying pain forward into the future. Of course, the danger of carrying pain is how that can impact relationships. It is no easy feat to remember past hurts and not have that impact one’s behaviour to the detriment of one’s relationships and / or perception of others. Glasshouse explores the burden of remembering – memories can be heavy things.
ELD: Ritual plays a very real and necessary function in daily life in South Africa. As a culture of ancestor veneration, ritual is a means to stay in contact with family and heritage, to seek the guidance and blessing of one’s forebears. In this way, the memories of kinsfolk who have passed on are kept alive. Memory and identity are considered, to a degree, to be collective (Ubuntu: I am because we are) and ancestral. Praise songs are sung listing clan and family names, traditional beer is brewed and shared, and animal slaughter seals the ritual connection to the ancestors.
Ritual in the film is so often linked to the physical, be it through gesture, song or other actions – what roles do our bodies play in this tension between forgetting and remembering?
KE: We are such physical creatures. Repetitive movements or phrases act as memory aids, as do sensory cues. Often a scent or tactile experience evokes a memory the most powerfully. Our bodies also learn and remember in ways that we are not necessarily consciously aware of, such as riding a bike or throwing a punch in self-defence. In the space of 1-2 seconds a year of Muay Thai class can pay off in a major way, and that’s the body taking over in a moment when you don’t have time to consciously think about your reaction. I think in many ways we carry our history in our bodies and in our physical reactions to various stimuli.
Does ritual and its embodied nature ultimately usurp individual identity? What are the broader implications of this, or is this something the film wants us to ask ourselves, as a provocation?
KE: I think the answer to this question is inevitably influenced by one’s culture and one’s values. Certain cultures value community over the individual. Western culture, on the other hand, is infamous for celebrating the individual over the group, and I think it’s pretty apparent the price paid for that. Similarly to medicine, I see the benefit of a more holistic approach. We are all individuals and I do think honouring this uniqueness is important. Ritual has great value for acknowledging and commemorating shared history and identity, but I don’t think that should be at the expense of individual identity. But does embracing individual identity and one’s unique memories help one to lead a happier life? That’s one of the questions the film provokes.
ELD: A ritual doesn’t need to involve chanting and sacrifice. It’s whatever we repeatedly do that affirms our cultural connections – apologising too much, drinking at a sports game, buying guns… And that can be dangerous – because too much tradition can efface individuality. But then, lack of cultural grounding can result in ruthless individualism.
I’m intrigued by the gender politics of the film, and clearly The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) has been a perhaps inescapable point of reference in the film’s promotional material. Was that a conscious influence? There does seem to be a fascinating gendering of violence in particular that far transcends how such ideas manifest in more simplistic renderings of life-or-death dystopias…
KE: We were aware that The Beguiled would be an inescapable point of reference, simply due to the plot parallel of a male stranger invading a matriarchal home. While both films tackle manipulation – in both male and female form – we hope that Glasshouse’s ending speaks for itself in differentiating the two films. The gendering of violence is a sensitive topic. It was important to us that the women in our film did not shrink from violence when necessary for survival, but at the same time, the “rules” of the Glasshouse that were supposed to keep them safe in the end exposed them. Rules are broken when they no longer serve individual interests.
One of the things I liked very much about this film is how it destabilized the myth of the sanctuary, a concept that seems almost built into the very title – the fragility and volatility of the actual glasshouse representative of the broader delicacy of the whole concept of this peculiar, ritualised world being an initially idealised oasis that is, perhaps inevitably, both corrupted and corrupting.
KE: How colonial! The colonial lifestyle has been similarly idealised in both imagery and architecture, and yet is utterly corrupt. The idealized oasis is an illusion – a façade that masks the rot beneath. Our characters appear innocent, yet they are not.
Emma Lungiswa De Wet: The glasshouse is a perfect metaphor for the aesthetic goal of the Colonial project. It feels timeless and placeless because that really was the goal – make everywhere into England! It’s a rarefied atmosphere that can be contained and controlled, modelled on an idealised, white-washed projection of ‘Home’.
There is such a simultaneously playful yet experimental approach to genre in Glasshouse, falling loosely under the scifi dystopian umbrella, but also elements of historical family drama. What was it about the idea of genre – both specifically in terms of these elements and more generally – that felt like the right fit to express the ideas you wanted to with this film?
KE: I love fusing genres! They are my favourite films to watch, and my favourite films to make. We were writing grounded science fiction, but we knew we had the opportunity to create something utterly unique in look and feel, and we wanted to dispel any stereotype about what a South African film is expected to look like. One of our goals for this film was that no viewer would be able to tell where the film was shot or even guess the nationalities of our cast – and we are very proud to have achieved this. It is a testament to the talent and skill of the South African film industry, which has decades of experience servicing international productions set all over the world.
I have a minor obsession with a phrase by a scholar called Leslie Fiedler who once referred to a sort of gothic sensibility that they described as “the pastness of the past…the sense of something lapsed or outlived or irredeemably changed”. I thought of this quote almost constantly while watching Glasshouse, because this feels almost built into the very texture of the film. Can you expand on your vision of the gothic and how that fits into the broader, complex jigsaw puzzle of the film?
KE: This is an incredible quote, thank you for sharing. I love the gothic sensibility, as it captures a powerful nostalgia but also a sense of ghostly prescience – the past is always a part of us, no matter how hard we might try to escape it. From the moment we set pen to paper, it was clear that this was a timeless story – a meeting of past and future. It gradually dawned on us that we had written a fairy tale, and as such, a Gothic sensibility was innately woven through the fabric of the story.
ELD: “The sense of something lapsed or outlived or irredeemably changed” – that phrase really does capture the tragedy of dementia – to have lived past one’s place in the world. The film definitely has a dark romanticism to it, many of the stills look like moody pre-Raphaelite paintings. Nature and setting are used metaphorically – the fertile, claustrophobic glasshouse as Eden-like environment nurturing taboo desires… a flawed anti-hero, a terrible buried secret – it’s about as Gothic as they come. We’d hope it’s something the Bronte’s would enjoy if they were around to watch it.
A small technical question; I was thoroughly struck by the creative decision to use slightly ‘jolty’, staggered camera movements throughout the film – it’s such a contemporary look, and the contrast with the more historical elements of the production and art design was very effective. May I ask about the process and reasoning that led to this decision?
KE: We used shift and tilt lenses in our flashback scenes as a visual representation of the unreliability of memory. We also transition from more classical still shots and slow, subtle camera movement to frenetic handheld camerawork as the film progresses to visually capture the instability our characters experience as their individual narratives are brought into question. We wanted our characters’ narrative journey to feel like a tangible experience, so we did our best to design the shooting style to mirror their emotional arcs.
One final question: when I began here, I spoke about this strange, dark, haunted colonial triangle I couldn’t shake watching the film, between me in Australia, the film playing in Canada, and of course the film coming from South Africa. Can you share with me your thoughts on place as a general concept when it comes to Glasshouse?
KE: I’m a dual citizen of the United States and South Africa, so this is an incredibly personal question for me. I’m acutely aware of the power of geography to shape one’s history, to open doors or to close them, and the challenges associated with calling a place home simply by virtue of deciding to live there. How does one “belong” to a place? How many years must you live in a place for it to be home? Some things must be earned, but even if earned, one is never guaranteed a sense of belonging. Glasshouse is unplacable because the human experience should not be placed. It is shared.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.