By Gary M. Kramer.
Necktie Youth is a gorgeous black and white drama writing and directed by Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, the film opens with Emily (Kelly Bates) live streaming her suicide. The effect this action has on a handful of characters plays out throughout the film. These include Jabz (Bonko Khoza) and his best friend, September (Shongwe-La Mer), and Tanya (Colleen Balschin). The writer/director and his two cast members spoke about their film, which had its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Sibs, what decisions did you make about how you told the story and introduced the characters and their actions? The film is a kind of prismatic experience.
Sibs: I wanted to make this a disjointed, vignette style of cinema, very non-traditional. It seems to constantly break to reintroduce different spaces and mentalities and characters. When I wrote the script, everything was very feeling-based. This block represents angst, another block is the journey of Jabz and September in the pharmacy. Then existentialists, lovers, etc. laid out the film in a wave of feelings. I did not want to directly relate them to each other in a traditional 3-act structural, cinematic way where everything is pre-justified or preordained. I wanted to have the reverse beat; I find the traditional linear structure of cinema that we are used to it has it’s place but earlier cinema from Man Ray was more deconstructionalist and more versatile, and had more of an edge. We lost this, and I thought about this language [of cinema] that the act must justify the cause. I originally thought this is Tanya and she feels like this, and we go into her home, and this is her mother… But I wanted to make it almost visceral. In the sense of ultra-realism: that you are watching the kids as people watch people. I was very careful of [asking] Are they making bad or uninformed choices in their wayward sexuality or drug use? They are not making [poor] choices but rational, logical choices based on their circumstances.
What can you say about the scrappy quality of the film?
Sibs: I was heavy into the New York No Wave, cinema that didn’t explain itself much. Even the text choices I made were remnants of Godard and this energy of youth movies that doesn’t have to explain itself. I didn’t want to act, justify, pause. This is why I interrupted and segmented the stories. It’s very much [in the style of] Jarmusch. Here is a portrait of these people. They are only joined by their psychological space, practical space, their desires, their world, their generation. They are intertwined without meeting each other.
Bonko and Colleen, how much did you relate to what the characters you played were going through?
Bonko: The story is about our generation, it’s mostly my friends, so finding things to reference from was easy. Approaching Jabz as a character—he really is more of an existential thinker than I am. Those differences helped me out more to find the character, and those edges. I think it’s exciting to be so scared. You find yourself lost in the reality of it. That’s the soothing part about it. I am actually [being] me. The drinking, going out, stealing my dad’s car—Jabz that day is like a day I’ve had many times, looking for sex and drugs…
Colleen: It’s more based on truth, though it is a work of fiction. But it was drawn from our lives, or a version of them. But the parts that are not true are what liberate you, so playing up having more money than I do, liberates [me]. The characters do things that I wouldn’t want to be seen doing.
What can you say about the use of language and slang in the film, such as the word “kaffirize”? This may be authentic, but how does it read for viewers unfamiliar with the culture?
Sibs: My intention was to bleed language variations for two purposes: The fact that South Africa is my environment, that texture is how some people, are. My cinematographer is Afrikaans. But I also wanted to use it as an audio motif for reflecting on apartheid. They are different cultures, alien, in a way. With Tanya and Bogosi (Kamogelo Moloi), it’s non-racial; there is a sexual energy. That’s why I made that disturb—not racial or cultural—but by its own parameters. In the structure of the film, this generation is fighting a new kind of struggle. They are all on the same plane joined on an existential quest for the same thing. The freedom for a new generation.
What claims can you make that your film is a comedy?
Sibs: I think it’s a comedy in the way that life is a satire. It’s satirical in the sense that it exposes the fallacy of growing up expectations and it’s almost like Beckett and Waiting for Godot. I wanted to create this purgatory that’s almost ironic in the sense that if it is a big joke, it’s the joke of the pinnacle of our lives where we are most youthful, where we should quest more, should love more. It becomes such an expectation of the future that the present becomes irrelevant. And that becomes a compete fallacy. If the joke is anything it’s the joke of life.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.