What can making THAT movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South Africa and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie by Morné du Toit, who previously directed Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their hometown, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him.
The plot and the director's competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who's been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent, and will seem that way no matter how they may be photographed. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and inspire South African artists to equivalent heights of aesthetic richness and nobility.
Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs's book Oor 'n motorfiets, 'n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word. It involves the thirteen-year-old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world while mourning his father, who died two years before the film's action begins.
Martin comes to meet the son of the neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin's lymphoma and is kept under strict supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with old zombie movies; he's projecting a print of Victor Halperin's White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first enters his bedroom, and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film's obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes with Martin's clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus's movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin's, is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus's character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.
The title is a reference to Martin's mathematical gifts, his ideas on the number zero, and the connection Drikus makes between that number and the imminence of death. Zero is nothing, Drikus moans, and, when we die, all is lost. Zero is by no means nothing, Martin counters, but the origin of two infinite, continuous number lines; death is not an end but a transition, and, therefore, another beginning.
It'd be good to know what du Toit, Vosloo, and Jacobs each thinks death may be a beginning too, but no picturesque shots of the Drakensberg or the Elands River hint at those sorts of answers. The platitude makes more sense when applied to those in mourning, such as Martin, Cindy, Trisa, and Drikus's wearied parents, as well as the jaded townspeople: one's life is not brought to an end by grief, even though it sometimes seems that way, and loss marks an end to something as well as the beginning of something else.
A conspicuous parallel is drawn between the zombies of Drikus's movie and the lethargy covering the town, as if in a haze. Things like money, food, homes, and social or political circumstances aren't quite the problem, but the emotional, psychical, artistic, communal lifelessness of the townspeople are, though there is a subplot involving a band of delinquents who have robbed a number of houses in the town.
Drikus, Martin, and Chris get caught up unwillingly in those criminal activities; they arrange to include the whole town in the climax of Drikus's zombie movie, and I won't spoil the details of that occasion (which serves both as the climax of Drikus's movie and of the actual film), but it links the reinvigoration of the town to the resolution of the crime subplot.
Should we take it that the problems set out in the story can be seen as problems facing South Africa, or are they particular to the town of Waterval Boven in the film? Considering the immense scale on which teams of slick, oily gangsters have managed to trade Constitutional imperatives and rob the country of its autonomy, not many viewers should argue with the idea of South Africans as listless citizens; but the film leaves out much else to be said about South African society. I, for one, don't believe it's really possible to make a movie about South Africa that isn't also about race, but Nul is Nie Niks Nie manages to totally dodge the matter by making no distinctions between the different ethnicities of the people onscreen.
It may well be that in Waterval Boven, where I haven't spent much time, this racial harmony and equality really is the case, but that uniqueness of the town and the particular ideas any filmmaker may have about it should merit inclusion in a film set there. It may otherwise be that the filmmakers wished to avoid all social and political issues in their film, even from the perspective of merely acknowledging them, but they'd do well to remember that movies carry the significant soft power of their images and stories -- box office figures suggest that nearly as many people went to see Keeping Up With the Kandasamys this year as read the Sunday Times. Surely someone with the background and temperament of a filmmaker has something to say about the circumstances he finds himself in, or in which he has placed his characters; to excise any of those personal insinuations from one's work can only lessen its effect and significance.
The young critics and filmmakers in France in the 1950s recognised that the way to revolutionise the country's cinematic system that they were unsatisfied with was to unite their personal lives -- their biographical details, emotional experiences, and philosophical ideas -- with their work; essentially, they moved to exhume the stories that were spoken about on the Oscar stage this year. From this, the French New Wave was born, which ignited national New Wave movements across the globe. South African writers have long taken this counsel and vaunted the culture to a global stage. When South African cinema and its practitioners are similarly sanctioned, we can look forward to comparable artistic returns.