Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.

German Films Undo Stereotypes at DIFF 2017

There was a ‘German Focus’ at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. Ten German films were screened as part of this focus. Lien Heidenreich-Seleme of the Goethe-Institut explained that the institute’s goal was to ‘undo stereotypes through visual storytelling’. There remained a general impression, said Heidenreich-Seleme, that German cinema was highly political and serious. The new filmmakers wanted to break that stereotype.

Well, I think they did a good job. I saw three of the ten and can recommend all of them. Humour, sensitivity, quirkiness, captivating cinematography and unique storytelling featured in various degrees in the films I watched.

Goodbye Berlin is the story of two fourteen-year-old boys (Tshick and Maik) who form an unlikely friendship one summer. Both social outsiders, the boys have absent/no parents and look for belonging and to be special to someone. They take matters into their own hands when they fail to be invited to a popular girl’s party, steal a car and set off across Germany in search of some mythical place. Along the way they forge a friendship that will ostensibly last a lifetime, discuss deep life issues, and develop a confidence that (Maik certainly) didn’t have before.

Another film that centred on friendship was The Most Beautiful Day. In this story two men in their thirties dying from incurable diseases meet at a hospice. Throwing caution out of the window the two go on a stealing spree, trade in the goods for cash and then set off on an African adventure. Apart from death the story touches on other sensitive issues like love, courage, commitment and treasuring what is important. But it never gets sentimental. A little silly in places The Most Beautiful Day is nevertheless very funny and – of interest to South African viewers – features a strong South African element.

Paula is an altogether different film to the two above and tells the story of German painter Paula Becker. Paula was a free-spirited young woman in the early 1900s, determined to do the unacceptable for women, which was to: paint for a living and paint in her own unique style. She did this, eventually. The story of Paula’s art is told in parallel to her personal love life. The sexual tension throughout the film is evident and forms an integral part of why (according to the storytellers in this film) Paula painted what she did. Carla Juri who played Paula was absolutely brilliant and the cinematography throughout its German countryside and Paris setting flowed beautifully.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the German Focus at the 2017 DIFF. I only hope these features make it to the mainstream cinema circuit in South Africa.

Source: IMDB

Chess Prodigy is Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is a Disney film directed by Mira Nair and based on a true story. The “Disney” logo at the beginning of the film conjured up for me images of a sentimental, happy-ending movie that might potentially slant the “truth” to satisfy its western audience. Well, I certainly did shed some tears. And I felt happy afterwards. And, yes, I am a western audience. But I also think Mira Nair did well to bring to the screen this small, true story about, of all things, the pleasures of chess.

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Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi in the unusual Disney film. Image source: https://en.chessbase.com/post/chess-movie-queen-of-katwe-is-announced

Queen of Katwe revolves around a struggling family in Uganda, a man who works as mentor to underprivileged children, and the surprising rise of one young girl to chess prodigy. Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her siblings struggle to survive in the Ugandan city of Katwe. Their mother (Lupita Nyong’o) is a hard-working, no-nonsense, principled woman who teaches her children responsibility and self-pride in the face of great hardship. While selling corn on the chaotic streets of Katwe one day, Phiona follows some other children to a room where “coach” Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) is teaching chess. Poorer than even the poor children in the room, Phiona has no education and yet takes to the game with a natural talent.

The strategies and thought processes that go into the game of chess become a picture in the film for how the players should deal with life. And vice versa; coach Katende actually uses his pupils’ difficult lives to spur them on at play. Coach himself sacrifices his own career as an engineer to mentor the children. This aspect of the story certainly seems credible if the notes and appearance of the real characters at the end of the film are anything to go by.

Lupita Nyong’o is particularly good in her role as mother and some of the children’s parts are delightful to watch. A drawback to the film is its use of the English language with “Ugandan” accents. If it had been filmed in a local language with English subtitles I think it would have seemed more authentic and reached the right audience. Despite this, I enjoyed the unique chess aspect of Queen of Katwe, and how it became an unusual highlight in the lives of struggling people.

Queen of Katwe, which was filmed in South Africa, opens in SA at Ster Kinekor theatres on 14 October 2016.

My Father’s War

I have often found South African films difficult to watch. Perhaps because of a shameful predisposition to think they are second rate. Probably because of a strongly felt desire not to watch more of what I live and see every day around me. My Father’s War is difficult to watch. And it is deeply South African. But it is certainly not second rate. And it tells a unique, brave story. One I could strongly identify with.

The tale revolves around one family’s struggle to deal with the after-effects of the 1980s South African-Angolan bush war. David Smit (Stian Bam), the main character, was a soldier in the war but now, 20 years later, is married, has a grown-up son and works for a security/guarding company. He still suffers from post-traumatic syndrome and has a terrible relationship with his son Dap (Edwin van der Walt). Dap resents David’s absence over the years and is critical of his father’s participation in an “apartheid-fuelled” war. But something strange begins to happen to Dap: he starts having dreams about David’s role in the war and even appears in the scenes alongside his father. It is through these dreams that Dap learns to understand how much his father loves him, and how much the man went through in combat.

So many aspects of the war’s portrayal and its resultant effects rang true for me. David worked in Iraq after the bush war before becoming a bodyguard in South Africa, not unusual for a former soldier in this country. The war scenes accurately depict assault-rifle gunfire, “black-is-beautiful” face cover up, Afrikaans and English speaking soldiers, Black and White men, Portuguese soldiers who had defected to the South African side, helicopter drops and the African bush. David’s PTS manifests as hypersensitivity to gunfire-type noises, anxiety, insomnia, anger and confusion, again not uncommon in former soldiers. I quizzed my husband, a bush war soldier himself, after the movie. His answer: “It sounds like my life.”

Although the war was obviously firmly grounded in politics My Father’s War manages to remain unpolitical. It is a film about people and one viewers from different sides of the political spectrum will watch and appreciate. One negative: I found the home scenes just a little too angst ridden. Other than that, My Father’s War is a touching, extremely well-made, sensitive and brave movie.

My Father’s War releases at cinemas in South Africa on Friday 5 August 2016. It is rated 10PG.

All-female Ghostbusters doesn’t quite work

The new Ghostbusters is virtually a mirror image of the 1984 movie of the same name, minus the great soundtrack. Which is a pity. Perhaps due to licencing agreements only instrumental snatches of the original song form a backdrop to the new version. Without the song the new Ghostbusters isn’t spectacular. It seems a trifle silly. And perhaps because of more sophisticated special effects it may even be scary for very small children.

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Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy and Leslie Jones in the 2016 rendition of Ghostbusters. Image source: http://tinyurl.com/z7cv3nf

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Positively Beautiful

Durban International Film Festival 2016: Short, sharp reviews by Brenda Daniels

I had the pleasure today of seeing the last DIFF screening of this South African documentary. The film details the stories of five adults who become friends through their shared journey as HIV positive people. Societal prejudice against the disease forms the backdrop for each participant’s experience, from animosity towards homosexuality to the risk of being killed for admitting one’s HIV status. The “positive” word in the title is a play, of course, on HIV and on how the participants bravely live out their lives. The strength of this film is the very personal depiction of each person’s story. I hope it gets future screenings in South Africa and abroad.

Visit www.durbanfilmfest.co.za for more information.

Review of The Unravelling of Ingrid Steele

Ingrid Steele book picThis firmly South African novel is set in the fictional rural area of Dirkersfield, SA, and follows the adventures of main character, Ingrid Steele. Ingrid’s husband, Warren, has a mental breakdown and is admitted to hospital for psychiatric treatment. It is while he is there that Ingrid discovers a long-held family secret, one that has grave consequences for herself, her family and her community. As Ingrid “unravels” in the face of emerging truths she questions her Christian faith, the strength of her relationships, the taboo of mixed race romances in South Africa’s vulnerable new democracy, and the difference between infatuation and love. Author, Leanne Hunt, does well to weave these themes into a plot that delivers a number of surprises, thereby keeping the reader’s attention and providing food for thought. I loved the South African flavour of this novel and its thoughtful highlighting of difficult issues like racial prejudices and the AIDS pandemic. Visit www.leannehunt.co.za for further information.

Feldman journeys with the reader to finally unpack his heavy bags

Carry-On Baggage by Howard Feldman

A review by Brenda Daniels

The blurb of Carry-On Baggage describes the author, Howard Feldman, as “a high-flying commodity trader, living a seemingly perfect life, with a perfect wife and perfect children, in an unbelievably perfect world.”

It then goes on in a more sinister tone to say that Howard “gets attacked. And attacked again. Then he gets sick. His business folds. And his carry-on baggage simply gets too heavy to hold.”

Concerned that this “sort-of autobiography” might be just another moralistic misery memoir, I nevertheless was attracted by the travel theme, and decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did. Carry-On Baggage is neither miserable nor moralistic. Nor is it self-indulgent.

It is an entertaining, descriptive, easy-to-read book, written with humour by an author with an obvious interest in other people.

In this story Howard describes his family and business life in South Africa, Israel and the USA. He speaks candidly of family and business difficulties, of personal faults, and how crime in South Africa deeply affected him and his loved ones. Although the crime experienced was devastating and, for Howard, ultimately life-changing, the incidents aren’t belaboured or inappropriately revealing.

Feldman writes with obvious affection about his extended Jewish family, and manages to portray his natural people skills without pride or affectation.

The blurb preps the reader for a change in the author’s life and therefore psyche. The revelation, however, occurs only at the end of the book where Feldman describes psychologically “unpacking his bags” and “lowering his banners”. Although I found this arrangement a little puzzling I really enjoyed the journey.

I was left with a hope that I might one day meet Howard Feldman face to face.

Carry-On Baggage by Howard Feldman is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers. An e.Book is also available.

Visit www.thewriteoutlook.com for more info on Howard.

Photo: Brenda Daniels

Photo: Brenda Daniels

Explore time and space with Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

A review by Brenda Daniels

In a near-future scenario the earth is subject to failing crops and no rain. Massive dust storms cover everything in layers of dirt endangering people’s health and leaving an empty, hopeless pall over mankind’s survival. Enter Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an incorrigible scientist. Cooper is also a farmer, former astronaut and widower with two children.

One of those children, Murph (Mackenzie Foy as young Murph and Jessica Chastain as adult Murph), encounters what appears to be supernatural phenomena in her bedroom. Someone or something from “beyond” is trying to communicate with her. This scene involving books that fall in a seemingly random manner, and dust that settles in unnervingly systematic lines, is a very important part of the plot, an element that is resolved for viewers only at the end of Interstellar.

In a bizarre mix of science and what appears to be the supernatural Cooper is “called” to embark on a space mission that will save mankind. Joined by Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and others, the astronauts leave earth in search of previously earmarked destinations in order to evaluate their viability as a replacement home for mankind.

They will either return for the humans on earth or start a new “colony” with specially prepared human embryos.

What makes the story fascinating, however, is not the future setting or its intergalactic nature, but its intriguing exploration of the space-time-gravity continuum. Explaining too much here would spoil the adventure for viewers.

Suffice to say that Interstellar is a multi-layered space adventure that also examines the human heart and its capacity (or not) for altruism. Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain give particularly good performances. Michael Caine and Matt Damon also star.

Interstellar opens at all cinemas in South Africa on Friday 7 November. It runs for a lengthy, but absorbing, two hours and 50 minutes.

Matthew McConaughey stars in the gripping new film, Interstellar. Photo: Creative Commons.

Matthew McConaughey stars in the gripping new film, Interstellar. Photo: Creative Commons.

Jessica Chastain stars alongside McConaughey in Interstellar. Photo: Creative Commons.

Jessica Chastain stars alongside McConaughey in Interstellar. Photo: Creative Commons.

Random Kak2 promises fun reminiscence of South African childhood

Living, loving, learning and laughing in South Africa

Random Kak2 has been recently released in South Africa, following the best selling book, Random Kak. Photo supplied by Penguin.

Random Kak2 has been recently released in South Africa, following the best selling book, Random Kak. Photo supplied by Penguin.

A review by Brenda Daniels

Random Kak² by Trevor Romain is a funny, happy, heart-warming account of the author’s life in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Written and illustrated in comic-book style the book is visually appealing and easy to read.

Romain translates a host of typical South African sayings like poep scared, boney, and dwaal, and then uses them at length when retelling childhood incidents.

He reminisces on food favourites like Marmite and Jungle Oats, television programmes like Flinkdink and Pop Shop, and bioscope flicks such as Kramer vs Kramer and Grease.

His stories of failed romances and school escapades are amusing. And I particularly enjoyed the tale of how the biggest rugby star in his school, Shane Carty, came to Trevor’s rescue.

Mentions of the author’s “fearless”, rugby-watching, caring dad are especially touching. All in all Random Kak² is a delightful, amusing and enjoyable read. Go Trevor Romain – thank you for reminding me about my own Joburg 1970s, 1980s childhood!

Random Kak² is published by Penguin.