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Here's Why Zola Maseko’s 'The Whale Caller' Is Dysfunctional

The tradition of performance for the screen in this country is dishearteningly flat, with undue emphasis on the literary aspects of script and psychology.

26/11/2017 16:58 SAST | Updated 26/11/2017 16:58 SAST
Ster Kinekor
Zola Maseko's "The Whale Caller" is a story based on Zakes Mda's bestselling novel.

Zola Maseko's new film is an adaptation of acclaimed writer Zakes Mda's novel set in Hermanus, the town famous for its whale watching during the winter and spring months.

Macmillan/ Macmillan Publishers

Mda's novel centres on the town's whale crier -- Hermanus' uniquely employed whale watcher, who stands on lookout on the cliffs and blows on a kelp horn to announce sightings of whales -- who is played by the South African television star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube (of "Generations"), and the woman who yokes herself to his orbit, Saluni (Amrain Ismail-Essop).

The film has been billed as a romantic comedy, which is categorically untrue -- it's a domestic melodrama -- and reviewers have described its dimensions with words like "metaphysical", when really they mean "psychological", but there is an appreciation for the admirable courage of the filmmakers to take on the risks of this production and to mould work of particular interest.

They display a significant visual consciousness, as well as an obviously earnest involvement in and consideration for the making of the film. The evident hard work and personal dedication of everyone in the local film industry make it all the more unfortunate when their production demonstrates, as The Whale Caller does, a weakness in cinematic expression.

It's a story of the deep sexual dysfunction of two people, related in some ways to their tritely drawn emotional damage. Saluni has been referred to as a particularly complex presence in the film, when really the character is tiresomely monotonous and thinly conceived.

Her alcoholism is almost certainly linked to whatever psychological trauma led to her fear of the dark, as well as to her own particular but minor sexual fetish (which has to do with mothers); she harbours delusions of grandeur and glamour, while others deride her as a loudmouth drunkard; she sings, not out of an enthusiasm or desire for artistic creation or expression, but only a fantasy of stardom; she's mystifyingly attracted to the whale crier, who initially ignores her advances and scorns her attentions (perhaps she merely wants what she thinks she can't have, then finds that she enjoys it when she's got it).

Writers write characters and actors act them so that a viewer can figure out exactly what they aim to do and the cause or motivations for doing it...

She's sexually jealous of the object of his absurd erotic fixation; she's shot through with streaks of self-destructive behaviour and a poisonous self-centredness; and she's realised on the screen with blunt psychological signifiers and little consideration for her subjective experience or for the deeper, inner, more surprising, unique parts of her being.

The whale crier is even more simplistic, with a trite background cause attached to his sexual dysfunction (read Peter Shaffer's play "Equus", or watch the 1977 film adaptation, if this is something you're interested in seeing properly expounded upon) –– and his deep humanity and being are even more obscure or neglected, both in the script and its visual realisation.

The tradition of performance for the screen in this country is dishearteningly flat, with undue emphasis on the literary aspects of script and psychology, drawing a stale sketch of motivations and easily delineated thoughts and emotions. Some academics and journalists take heart in watching, analysing, and writing about these performances, because they're devised to be instantly analysable and straightforwardly particularised in prose.

They don't embody the spontaneity, the unpredictable nuances of gesture and speech, the idiosyncratic dynamics of movement and opacity, the physical abstraction of emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual recesses through stylised expression, or the utter danger and risk that all characterise what it means to be a living person.

Writers write characters and actors act them so that a viewer can figure out exactly what they aim to do and the cause or motivations for doing it, ready for a written character analysis, rather than to represent a whole world and worldview of conflicts, ecstasies and furies encapsulated in the physical form of a person –– which is, after all, what a human is.

Maseko and Mark Goodall, his director of photography, have clearly put in an effort to render a striking series of land and seascapes, as well as sensational art-conscious shots of the actors, through their arresting photography, highly saturated in colour and sensuous natural detail. But they don't add a dimension of framing, angle, or shadow to refract an idea or emotional insight through a scene.

Their grandiose and picturesque shots are spoiled by poor editing, with trivial and abrupt transitions from one shot to another and no sense of progression, contrast, or apposition of images to enhance expression. This slipshod method of editing is directly related to the haphazard development of the narrative, from one banal vignette to another.

There's no evocation of either the characters' brief erotic fulfilment or enduring erotic frustration. As with all local films I've seen, "The Whale Caller's" filmmakers display a dismayingly unimaginative and impersonal attitude to the sexual experiences and activities of its characters.

Consider the expressive and inspired portrayals of similar matters in international films, such as Angelina Jolie's "By The Sea", or (don't smirk) Sam Taylor-Johnson's "Fifty Shades Of Grey", which distinctively evoke both the emotions and the ideas of the sexual activities they depict, as well as refreshingly express the personal sexual attitudes of the people who made them.

Note, incidentally, that both these films are the recent works of strong, singular women in Hollywood, a distinction that makes a difference. Consider other noteworthy works of art, such as Todd Haynes's "Carol" and Luca Gaudagnino's "A Bigger Splash", which capture a pervasive erotic atmosphere through their characters' very surroundings, whether natural or man-made.

But a surprising and peculiar new element in "The Whale Caller" is an unusual attention to certain aspects of the characters' inner lives, which are represented inventively and engagingly. Saluni's delusions are given a brief fulfilment, with a fantasy sequence of her performing in a chic nightclub for a glitzy audience, with the camera moving energetically across the room, imparting her own visceral thrill in imagining the scene for herself. We're shown the reveries of the whale caller as well, though in the most bizarre howler of a CGI-executed wet dream.

There is a rare and delightfully humane and innovative moment of class-conscious disparity, when Saluni and the whale caller, who can't afford to order from the upmarket restaurants in Hermanus, dress up and walk through them, practicing what Saluni calls "window-eating": watching the well-heeled customers order and eat their food, while they furnish the experience of the tastes and textures in their imaginations (though this isn't a class-centric film; the hard work and supposed meagre incomes of the characters are never considered, and their social and economic disadvantages never mentioned or shown).

It's vital that we (by which I mean all South Africans, or at least, those of us interested in movies) work to support the local film industry and foster its growth. It's equally vital that we engage with the movies on offer, both South African and foreign, to better understand and appreciate the possibilities of the cinema and detect spaces for development that artists can move into and fill.

Zola Maseko shows a keen interest in South African art by adapting the work of an important and accomplished South African artist, and he has proven his talent and the potential for the development of his own artistry. The duty that follows is for us to support him and others, in all the ways we can, and for him and other South African artists to work towards building that artistry and expanding South African art into the large open spaces that become available to it.