We Shouldn't Have To Rely Solely On Movies Like 'Kalushi' To Teach Us Our History

A good and important true story are not sufficient for an important film. It's regrettable that we don't learn more about South African history at school.

17/03/2017 03:57 SAST | Updated 17/03/2017 08:40 SAST

"Kalushi" is the directorial début of cinematographer Mandla Dube. It tracks the life of Solomon Mahlangu from his time as an ordinary resident of Mamelodi, beginning just before the protests of 16 June 1976, when he was nearly 20 years old, through his exile in Mozambique and Angola, his military training in the uMkhonto weSizwe camps, his return to South Africa to carry out MK guerilla operations, his subsequent capture and trial, ending with his death by execution in 1979.

The story of Mahlangu's life and death is an important piece in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, and, therefore, of South Africa in general. It'd be valuable for all South Africans to know it, to understand how outside conditions led to the events in it, and to appreciate the full implications of it. Every individual I've heard from has remarked on how urgent it is for us to learn and spread the stories of people like Mahlangu, that inform us of our past and our people, and that are at risk of being forgotten.

But a good and important true story are not sufficient for a good and important film. It's regrettable that we don't learn more about South African history at school, and in greater detail. I aver that schoolchildren will benefit from learning about MK martyrs, about what conditioned their lives and deaths, and how the legacy of those deaths still impact South African life.

I also aver that we should not have to rely on films to educate us in these vital matters; I myself only learned the life story of Mahlangu when, hearing about this film, I looked it up online, and I'm sure most viewers will only learn of it when they see "Kalushi". This is woefully unfortunate, and it prompts the question: If we had all learned about Mahlangu and others like him while growing up and were better educated on the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, would Dube's film still be so widely accepted?

"Kalushi" is filmed using the methods and techniques we're accustomed to seeing on television, given with a professional gloss, and subordinating personal visual expression to ostensibly serious political purposes. Dube nails blunt emotional markers to the screen and aims his entire film-making apparatus towards them. The ungainly editing and clumsy score artificially stoke emotions, and the writing and performances renders characters as nothing more than inept ciphers that only utter dialogue to move the plot along or to pronounce a thesis.

There are large gaps in Mahlangu's life story, because it was not well documented and he left no writings behind, and these gaps persist in Dube's film.

Even the stately Gcina Mhlophe, who plays Mahlangu's mother and who can carry herself with a grand pathos, bearing an aura of her grace and wisdom, is given no room to portray an actual human person. Thabo Rametsi isn't so much given to play Mahlangu as he is to pose for shots of him reading political tracts and delivering a few choice quotes in a solemn demeanour.

Dube obtains good quality photography from the American Tommy Maddox-Upshaw. Which is to say, shots are well lit, and most of them could make handsome mounts on the wall of some conscientiously decorated bourgeois home. But photography that shows its professional pedigree is not the same as artistic photography, and a better filmmaker would perhaps cast an opaque shadow across an otherwise amber-lit face, alter the lighting to evoke a few of the myriad potentially deeper dimensions in a scene, or vary camera placement and angles for more revelatory images.

There are large gaps in Mahlangu's life story, because it was not well documented and he left no writings behind, and these gaps persist in Dube's film. While South Africans are better off for having learned about important historical figures, a film-maker must create the reason for them to see them told in his film, rather than, say, to read a magazine article or look them up in an encyclopaedia. In the case of Solomon Mahlangu, the reason is simply that there aren't any magazine articles or books on the subject, or, at least, there wouldn't be if Dube hadn't made "Kalushi". A better film-maker would imagine and depict the inner life of the struggle icon to fill in those gaps, and would give a proper sense of the human life that was actually lived and cruelly cut short.

I would like to have seen the manifestation of a modernist style and aesthetic sensibility in addition to Dube's modern political attitudes. Nobody can fault him on his fervour in telling Mahlangu's story, and I can't express anything other than sympathy with his rage at an immensely evil regime that both gave rise to Mahlangu's actions and sought merciless retribution for them. It's greatly admirable of him to want to educate viewers, as well as inform them of the protraction of unjust apartheid-era laws into our own time.

But Dube gives no indication of what this story means to him personally, nor any reflection of his own presence, his own life, or his own ideas ideas as they relate to Mahlangu's. For all the merit there is to having local stories told by local artists, there is nothing in this film to suggest that it was made by a South African concerned with the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. What we see could have been filmed by anyone from any country who had read the Wikipedia entry on Mahlangu's life and had a good translator to give his or her lines in local languages.

Dube's film, which was reportedly initially meant for television, merely illustrates the known facts of the story without enlightening viewers on the apartheid regime, the fight against it, or Mahlangu himself. Dube flattens the story's possibilities, without intensifying its meanings or underpinnings, whether moral, political, or personal. He neither fleshes out the intricate personal particulars of Mahlangu's life, nor lifts him into grand legend. "Kalushi" works best as an unchallenging and uninspired enactment of a few historical scenes to take the place of a photographic textbook in a history class. In exhuming this story, Dube begins a disinterment, but there is much more here to unearth.