Story of a Beautiful Country

by Sean Jacobs

“Story of a Beautiful Country” is a road trip documentary. Johannesburg-based director Khalo Matabane – accompanied by a driver and a cameraman – travels across South Africa, with the object of meeting “ordinary” South Africans and hearing about their feelings and impressions of their “new” country.

Matabane travels by minibus from his childhood home, Mpahlele, near the northern border of South Africa to Cape Town – specifically to Cape Point, at the edge of the Atlantic and Indian oceans in the Western Cape. In between, he picks up a number of subjects and interviews them, mainly in the back of the minibus. Most of the interviews are conducted in the country’s industrial capital Johannesburg, and a few in Cape Town.

The idea to shoot much of the film inside the minibus is inventive and appropriate. While most of South Africa’s poor and working class use public transport (mainly the minibus taxis), its white population and small black elite, rarely use the public systems. Matabane, it appears, wants the minibus to serve as the great equalizer and collective public space.

While the minibus taxi is a big part of South African daily life, it’s also clear that Matabane may have looked elsewhere for inspiration. The work of two older, more experienced filmmakers, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, come to mind. There is something of Kiarostami’s technique of shooting much of his films in moving cars in Matabane’s film. For example, Kiarostami’s latest film “10” (2002) is shot in its entirety from two camera positions on the car’s hood that look straight at the passengers in the front seats. In “10”, a female driver who stands in for the filmmaker quizzes passengers about their lives while driving around Iran. “Story of a Beautiful Country” is shot by cameraman Matthys Mocke in a similar style.

In turn Abu-Assad’s documentary “Ford Transit” (2002) follows a taxi-shuttle driver (the equivalent of the South African minibus taxi driver) as he ferries passengers between Jerusalem and Ramallah and dodges Israeli army checkpoints. In that film, the taxi-driver (with Abu-Assad next to him) discusses the Israeli occupation with ordinary people, politicians, and psychologists (those in the latter two categories are clearly there on pre-arranged interviews; the rest seem genuinely to be regular passengers). The conversations in “Ford Transit,” add up, through the accumulation of telling detail, to a nuanced portrait of daily life in the occupied territories. Palestinians speak about their lives, offering the viewer a passenger seat for frank and humorous discussions about the political tactics of Palestinian groups, as well as the US government and Israel, in a way that allows the characters to emerge as idiosyncratic and interesting in their own right.

“Story of a Beautiful Country” came with a lot of expectations. The film has done the rounds of the big film festivals (including the 2004 HotDocs Film Festival in Canada and the Nyon Film Festival in Switzerland). It is also produced by Don Etkins, who is behind the landmark documentary series, Steps for the Future, about the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. In addition, it has also had its fair share of controversy. On July 26, 2004, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) cancelled screening the film on one of the public broadcaster’s channels. According to an internet petition that did the rounds at the time, “a couple interviewed in the film had been unhappy about the way they had been portrayed, and were threatening legal action unless certain cuts were made.” (Watching the film, as we shall see, it is not hard to figure out who this couple might be). It is not clear whether the film has been shown in South Africa at all since then.

There are elements of a very good film here, but the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. The film is beautifully shot and accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack (the returned expatriate Carlos Mombelli’s excellent jazz compositions). From the minibus’ windows we see lingering shots of the South African landscape, including the Free State, Limpopo, Karoo, and finally Cape Peninsula, among others. The same goes for the familiar landmarks of Johannesburg, Soweto and the mountains surrounding central Cape Town. The interviewees all look like they have fascinating stories to tell, not least the couple who threatened to sue Mathabane and the SABC, as well as a woman who does not speak on the way to her son’s grave.

The most interesting interview is that with Henry and Sinta Mokaka, a “mixed” couple, who appear midway through the film as the minibus cruises through the empty nighttime streets of downtown Johannesburg. While at times they come across as (understandably) self-conscious and protective of their lives, their emotions betray much of the residue of apartheid and its effects in the present – although only a small slice of it (“mixed” race relationships are still very rare in “multi-racial” South Africa).

The Zulu-speaking Henry was brought up by a white Johannesburg family for whom his biological mother worked as a domestic servant. He went to a whites-only school and performs in a rock band. Sinta is the result of a mixed marriage (illegal under apartheid) which forced her parents to leave the country. She grew up variously in Swaziland, the US and Singapore, before returning to South Africa to live in Johannesburg.

Their responses to Mathabane’s prompting is very personal, tragic and marred by pain that lurks just below the surface. The couple is clearly divided by a decision for her to have an abortion, while Henry, crying, relates the brutal racism at the hand of whites that accompanied his seemingly privileged upbringing. When they get out of the minibus, after what seemed endless driving through Johannesburg’s empty streets, you want to hear more.

Unfortunately, however, the rest of the characters don’t come across with nearly the same depth. The rest are stock in-trade characters. The publicity material for the film suggests that Matabane is interviewing “ordinary people.” Yet anyone with knowledge of South African politics, and its small media, social and political world will recognize quite a few familiar faces and suspect that the interviews are hardly change encounters. The latter is not necessarily a problem, but the film seems to want to suggest otherwise and the result is distracting. There is the articulate Itumeleng Mahabane, a media star in his own right. Eddie Von Maltitz, while serving as foil to the apparent “rainbow” mentality of most white South Africans, has made a career out of his racist buffoonery (he is a regular as a caller to talk radio shows). Other stock characters include the “coloured” (the Cape Town artist Nina Callaghan stands in) and the black “kugel” (a South Africanism for the stereotype of the rich, Jewish princess). The latter is Yoliswa Qunta, daughter of a leading South African lawyer. Her mother is also a newspaper columnist that riles white South African liberals.

Itumeleng Mahabane, who joins Matabane for a late-night drive through Soweto township, tells the filmmaker that “you can’t wish away memory” and that South Africans have spent the last ten years “butchering the memory of this country.” But before this conversation can get interesting, the film cuts away to its next subject.

Matabane then sets off to the Free State (the main highway from Johannesburg to Cape Town, goes through this province), where he stops to interview Eddie von Maltitz.

Von Maltitz is the first interviewee not to join Matabane in the minibus. Instead, he drives his own car to on open piece of veld where Matabane interviews him. It soon becomes clear why. Despite Von Maltitz’s impeccable Sotho and his seeming new-found patriotism (“I will do anything to save my country”), he does not particularly like black people. He also distorts the truth about white farmers brutally murdering black workers (the unlucky farmworkers were “accidentally killed”).

Von Maltitz performs for the camera. He carries around an M16 assault rifle, which he insists on swinging around and aiming while threatening that “Boers” won’t hesitate to pick up arms again the “black government” to whom whites have “entrusted” the country. Apart from Matabane’s clear unease at the fact that Von Maltitz is armed, the interview does not add much and Von Maltitz comes across as pathetic — at the end of the interview, Von Maltitz looks quite ridiculous as he demonstrates karate kicks for Matabane. In the end, Von Maltitz, who displays the contradictory and paradoxical attitudes of racist whites towards blacks, comes across as a white racist stereotype. Rightwing, racist whites are, however, a small part of the white population. Perhaps more illuminating of some of the problems that remain in white attitudes toward their place in the “new” South Africa is a young white Afrikaner woman in Johannesburg, who provides a telling example of the white South African habit of talking as if the major cleavages are between the country’s whites with black South Africans as add-ons and bit-players in a country where whites are less than 10% of the population. (My favorite example of this is Gary Player’s infamous comment that South Africa’s sporting achievements are impressive indeed considering “we only have three million people”).

In turn the Callaway interview is too short — she raises questions to Matabane about African-coloured social relations (to use the unfortunate terminology that apartheid left us) – and he wastes what could have been an interesting encounter with Qunta. She is almost a too perfect stereotype of the nouveau-riche black professional class or the children of the ruling political elite.

A single, haunting moment midway through the film, while silent, says more of the interviews. A middle-aged black woman whose son has been murdered (it is not clear why and by whom) gets a ride in the taxi to her son’s grave without speaking to Matabane. However with this and a few other exceptions, one gets a feeling that rather than a ride through South Africa, the film is really a ride through Matabane’s address book. Worse, in many cases, the characters seem to be playing out a range of South African stereotypes. As a result, except for interviews with the Mokakas (and the middle-aged mother) there is little surprising in the film.

At the start, Matabane invokes a saying from his childhood, “The best way to understand the world is by going on a journey.” I am sad to say that I at least did not gain much understanding from his travels. Instead, the focus is all over the place and at the end one is none the wiser about what is going in Matabane’s beautiful country or happening to its ordinary people.

* This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Safundi: Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies, Issue 17, January 2005. Reprinted with kind permission.

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