‘Johnny is Nie Dood Nie’ is the name of a song written by Koos Kombuis as a tribute to fellow musician Johannes Kerkorrel who committed suicide in 2002. It is now also the name of a South African film by Christiaan Olwagen which releases in cinemas on 5 May 2017.
The story focuses on five friends who were involved in the Voëlvry movement of the 1980s, and shows what has become of them 20-odd years later. Johnny (Roelof Storm) commits suicide, an event which is stylised in the film, and the other four (Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius, Ilana Cilliers and Ludwig Binge) struggle to process what has happened. Voëlvry was an anti-apartheid Afrikaans-rock-music movement, fuelled, if the film is anything to go by, by drugs, alcohol and academic ideologies. Although radical for its time, the Voëlvry campaign in Johnny is Nie Dood Nie is portrayed as an insular one, characterised by frustration and hopelessness. This is emphasised by the present-day aspects of the story that show the characters still boozing and drugging, still railing against injustices, but without having achieved very much. This futility is underscored by references to the Border War of the 1980s, a war which modern-day South Africa looks upon as shameful and racist, and a faded waste of young lives.
The new South Africa the Voëlvry supporters hoped for in Johnny is Nie Dood Nie does not deliver, featuring high walls and ongoing racial prejudice. The filming in the present section of the film is dizzying to say the least. Perhaps this was done to show the characters ‘going around in hopeless circles’, I’m not sure, but I found it irritating. The story is really about the characters, not the music itself, so fans of Afrikaans rock will be disappointed from that point of view. The very last scene of the film casts a ray of hope over what has come before but is completely disjointed from the rest and so is hard to reconcile.
Johnny is Nie Dood Nie is very well acted and the local setting is realistic. But it’s a dark, sad and rather futile narrative that I think will appeal to a limited audience only.