Jambo Africa Online’s Publisher, SAUL MOLOBI, uses third cinema theoretical framework to critique Mandla Dube’s latrst film, ”Silverton Siege”
Every subjectivity is a multiplicity of identities. I’ve decided to open this contribution by paraphrasing Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), a German philosopher, cultural critic and philologist as it speaks to complexity of human nature. This, I should think, sought to respond to the one dimensionality of human nature as presented by prejudice-ridden ethnographers who developed three streams of cultural studies – divergence (presenting how different cultures were from each other); convergence (identifying some elements of commonality between cultures); crossvergence (studying the extent of crossover from one culture into another).
But all these failed to understand the dialectics of culture that it was dynamic and never frozen in time, an osmotic process was bound to happen as one culture engaged with another and during such intimacy they would cross pollinate and birth a synthetic culture, which Vipin Gupta, a scholar at the California State University, referred to as a “transvergent” culture. The Jamaican-British cultural scholar, Stuart Hall, simplified this as a “culture dialectic” that instructs us not only to appreciate what we used to be, but most significantly, what we have become.
This is the essence of social cohesion. This, in our South African context, is at the core of a definition of a coinage the in 1956 that the Freedom Charter (and subsequently became amplified in the preamble of the Constitution of the post-apartheid South Africa) presented as the concept of: “the people”. This transcends narrow cultural barriers; tribal and racial compartmentalisations; gender biases; and any other elements defocusing us from uniting our people into a nation. The synthesis isn’t an outcome of cultural degradation, liquidation or assimilation. This saw the dissolution of race-based anti-apartheid formations such as the South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD); South African Coloured People’s Congress (SACPC); and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) to join the ranks of the African National Congress as a national liberation movement.
To deconstruct the apparent rise of reactionary race rhetorics in the current political space in South Africa, let me seek wisdom from Bissau-Guinean Amilcar Cabral by adapting him to the contemporary times. The rhetoric of “return(ing) to one’s origins is not, nor can it be, in itself an act of struggle against (capitalist) domination… nor does it necessarily mean a return to traditions. It is … the negation of the dogma of the supremacy of the culture of the ruling power over the dominated people… in order to resolve the sociocultural conflict within which it is foundering in search of an identity. The return to one’s origins is therefore not a voluntary gesture but the only viable answer to the imperious challenge of concrete, historical necessity, determined by the irresolvable contradiction that opposes the (ruled) society to the (ruling) power, the exploited popular masses to the exploiting (capitalist) class; every indigenous social layer or class is obliged to define its position in terms of this contradiction.”
Now how does this multiplicity of identities arising from the complexity of human nature be reflected in our knowledge productión? To be specific to the subject of this narrative, how do filmmakers’ representation of multiple identities in each subjectivity speak to the complexity of human nature? How does cinema becomes a weapon of struggle? How does it become a tool for reconstruction and development?
Two Argentine filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino – who were members of the Grupo Cine Liberación – in 1969 published in the cinema journal “Tricontinental” of the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL), a manifesto “Hacia un tercer cine” (“Toward a Third Cinema”) responding to these questions. This was a theatrical framework which sought to decry neocolonialism, the capitalist system, and the Hollywood model of cinema as mere entertainment to make money.
Solanas and Getino’s manifesto considers “First Cinema” to be the Hollywood filmmaking model that “idealizes bourgeois values to a passive audience through escapist spectacle and individual characters”. “Second Cinema” is the European art film, which rejects Hollywood conventions but “is centred on the individual expression of the auteur director”. Based on the Freudian psychoanalytic concept of a third space, the director is perceived as part of a collective to inspire the masses into revolutionary activism. “Third cinema is, in our opinion, the cinema that recognizes in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point – in a word, the decolonization of culture,” explained Solanas and Getino.
Despite their geographical and historical specificity as it covers developing economies globally, Third Cinema films do not conform to any one aesthetic strategy but instead employ whatever formal techniques – mainstream or avant-garde – that suit the subject at hand.
Now back to my earlier questions: how do we critique Mandla Dube’s latest offering, “Silverton Siege”, using third cinema as a theoretical tool of analysis? Let me indicate upfront I used this framework to critique “Ulibambe Lingashoni/Hold Up the Sun: The ANC and Popular Power in the Making” – a five part documentary series giving a moving account of the ANC’s decades long struggle against apartheid. This was a historical account of the struggle as it was based on interviews with such leaders as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo, the series provided “a rare opportunity to witness the moving, multi-hued fabric of history.” So it was all factual and it was easy to situate it within the third cinema framework. This held true for the documentary films of the then Video News Agency (VNS) and other members of the Film and Allied Workers Organisation (FAWO). These were then showed in various areas by the Film Resource Unit as the SABC then was an apartheid state broadcaster.
Allow me to take a detour to say that these institutions and what we call “alternative” media – such as Learn & Teach, that I worked for; Work in Progress; SA Labour Bulletin; New Nation; Weekly Mail; Saamstaan; SPEAK; and Upbeat – had succeeded in building an anti-apartheid media hegemony that challenged apartheid. In the book publishing sector, we had Skotaville, Ravan Press and David Phillips Publishers. It’s an indictment against all of us as part of the national liberation movement that we have failed to maintain that hegemony of progressive ideas and transposing them into the mainstream space post-1994.
Now back to the business of my narrative, let me have my popcorns and lemon and continue indulging in how do we locate Dube’s work of art, “Silverton Siege”, within the third cinema ambit as it is inspired by a true historical incident and yet gives it a fictional adaptation to to achieve third cinema objectives? Just in a nutshell, the movie is about ANC’s three cadres, then referred to as “the Silverton Three”, who after aborting a mission are forced to take refuge in a bank while escaping arrest. As it was a normal working day, the bank staff and customers are kept hostage. Inside the bank, the two discover one of them was a spy (Motive? Perhaps he was forced to capitulate to the pressure as his wife was pregnant, as the movie mentions this). The film is star-studded: Thabo Rametsi, Arnold Vosloo, Noxolo Dlamini, Stefan Erasmus, Elani Dekker, Shane Wellington, Michelle Mosalakae, Deon Coetzee and Justin Strydom.
The best revenge against the breaking of the sport and cultural boycott by the African-American boxing heavyweight John Tate and his team was to caricature the character of his African-American manager. Then perhaps I may ask: how do you present the misguided arrogance and superiority complexes of Americans (they’re always the first to shout the loudest: “I’m an American citizen!”? It’s significant to indicate this African-American demographic because it was deliberate on the part of the apartheid regime to allow John Tate and his crew entry into a highly racially polarised country to help propagate the lie that apartheid – positioned as “separate development” – wasn’t perpetuating racist atrocitities.
Personally, I am impressed with the film as the plot (including characterisations) deals with a multiplicity of complex issues through as a FICTIONAL adaptation of a historical FACT – thus this feature film (not a documentary film) is the most appropriate and accessible way to give us a narrative that explores/delivers the historicity of such issues as identity; sacrifice; trust & betrayal; gender; and leadership that our country (and countries that got liberated with armed struggle being one of the tactics used) still battles with even today.
The paradoxical issue of “inside-out” and “outside-in” perspectives play themselves out as the scriptwriter/ director articulates a black perspective giving an inside-out interpretation but then the question to the viewer is does he succeed in giving an outside-in perspective in the portrayal of the white/Afrikaner jigsaw pieces in this puzzle of the siege. My conclusion is that despite the imperfections, he has aced it. Then the stubbornly arrogant weasel hidden within me raises their head and screams: there’s no perfection in art! By the way, the critical contribution by actors in the development of characterisation helps to counterbalance the scriptwriter/director perspective with their “inside-out” interpretation of the role they play.
The dialogues are richly South African with multiple language use to preserve the meaningful essence of what is being communicated – obviously with excellent sub-titles to accommodate all viewers. Yes, some characters are a bit melodramatic but don’t we have such in the normal world? So there’s authenticity in that. Come to my family gatherings for a first hand experience if you’re deprived.
The music is quite matured and I’m glad that it isn’t a loose collection of our struggle songs thrown willy nilly to intersperse the dialogues – yes, there’s an inappropriate usage of a song or two that listened to. Although I may do injustice to evaluating the sound and video effects of this movie as I watched it on my less sophisticated home theatre, I have still found them to of a world class standard. All these help to deliver this narrative in a linear plot (though with flashbacks here and there) in a highly fast paced moving tempo that gives us a truly entertaining treat.
This is a love story without intimate scenes. It brought the poetic essence of Keorapetse “Bra Willy” Kgositsile to life: “armed struggle is an act of love.”
The Siege qualifies as such as it is part of the aesthetic and political cinematic movement of films – such as Mandla Dube’s earlier offering, “Kalushi”, “Mr Drum”, Mbongeni Ngema’s “Sarafina”, “Cry the Beloved Country”, “Cry Freedom”, “A Dry White Season” and many others – that aspire to be socially realistic portrayals of life from our people’s perspective and emphasise topics and issues such as poverty, national and personal identity, tyranny and revolution, colonialism, class, and cultural practices. Internationally, one may even make reference to the revolutionary films of Constantin Costa-Gavras – who I had the privilege of attending his masterclasses in 1993 in Johannesburg courtesy of the then Weekly Mail Film Festival. His films include “Z”, “State of Siege” and “Missing”, indeed familiar subjects in our anti-apartheid struggle. He emphasised to us that movies succeed not as propaganda but as tools of empowerment if we do believe knowledge is power. We should be mindful of the fact that third cinema insists on a critical and intuitive, rather than a propagandist, cinema in order to produce a new emancipatory mass culture. The Siege succeeds in achieving such.
The movie, as a third cinema piece, succeeds in canonising the “Silverton Three” incident. This is critical especially for us in South Afriva who after almost 30 years into democracy, we’re still in the interregnum, to borrow from Antonio Gramsci, in which the old refuse to die as the new are struggling to be born. We have to raise our heroes from their graves.
Ethiopian-born American cinema scholar Teshome Gabriel identified a three-phase path along which films have emerged from the developing countries. In the first phase, are assimilationist films which follow Hollywood in focusing on entertainment and technical virtuosity and de-emphasize local subject matter. In the second phase, films feature local control of production and are about local culture and history, but they tend to romanticize the past while neglecting social transformation. In the third phase, combative films place production in the hands of the people and use film as an ideological tool. The Siege succeeds as a subtle ideological tool to forge social cohesion. The reality of human relations in the crucible of our struggle was more than just nuanced, it was highly complex. Yes, there were extreme cases such as the killing machines of apartheid as the CCB and Vlakplaas operatives, but there were human beings in the apartheid security establishment – the police, the defence, the judiciary and the prison systems – who were conflicted as humans could be. This speaks to Nietsche’s multiplicity of identities inherent in each subjectivity.
The standard of cinematography is exceptionally high and contains all on-screen visual elements – including but not limited to lighting, framing to accentuate particular messages, composition, camera motion, camera angles, film selection, lens choices, depth of field, zoom, focus, color, exposure, and filtration.
For me, the movie isn’t what Blondie Makhene was to our struggle songs, but what Jonas Gwangwa or Hugh Masekela was. The former was about regurgitating our struggle songs in a copious rendition, while the latter was about artistic interpretation of our struggle aesthetics then packaging and delivering such as a symphonic repertoire in a philharmonic soulful manner that soothes one’s soul and provokes one’s mind in deconstructing the contemporary socio-political existential reality we live under.
The movie, for me, seeks neither to expose the antagonistic binaries between pro and anti-apartheid sections – that their divergences; nor their convergencies, or even affirm elements of crossvergences; I believe its main intention is to endorse the transvergent personality traits to emerge out of our national democratic revolution so that we could begin to all see ourselves as our forebears referred to as “the people”.
Having watched Dube’s earlier film, “Kalushi”, I believe with the Siege’s depth (ideologically and in terms of cinematic artistry), the filmmaker has advanced a few steps and successfully overcame what I call the Achebe “Things fall apart” syndrome or Ngugi’s “The river between” – or even in music, Winston Mankunku Ngozi’s “Yakhal’ inkomo” syndrome. What do I mean by this? An artist producing a masterpiece against which each and every subsequent work will be judged and thus this breeding some element of creative inadequacy or self doubt in them. Like Ngugi who has experienced both creative snd ideological maturity post-“The-River-Between”, Dube has also evolved from his first delivery, “Kalushi”.
Catch “Silverton Siege” (and “Kalushi”) on Netflix.
SAUL MOLOBI is the former Arts & Culture Editor and Editor-in-Chief of the now-defunct, Learn & Teach, an anti-apartheid magazine that folded in 1994. He has an MA in Dramatic Art (specialising in film and theatre studies) from the University of the Witwatersrand.