Ramadan Suleman: Fools

In the last decade, anti-apartheid films with South Africa as a backdrop, have generally been English language, Hollywood productions, with white protagonists, often played by big-name Hollywood actors. The narrative of the films usually focuses on the exteriority of the struggle against apartheid. Fools, a new film by Ramadan Suleiman, based on Njabulo Ndebele’s Noma-award winning novella of the same name, thoroughly bucks this trend. Initiated by a black production company, with a black director and black characters at the center of the narrative, Fools is, as its scriptwriter, Bhekisizwe Peterson says, unashamedly about black township life.

While being South Africa’s first all-black feature film is significant in and of itself, Fools is also noteworthy on a number of other cinematic levels. Devoid of an overtly political, sloganeering-type narrative, and following Ndebele’s narrative, the film explores the private and interior nature of black life in South Africa on a more nuanced, human level. The humanistic treatment of the characters, while at times undermined by a stilted naiveté, manages to convey something of the contradictions in the apartheid-era social fabric. Fools confronts these contradictions, as well as issues of alienation particularly those that arise out of generational differences as well as the socio-political consequences of rape.

Set in Charteston township on the East Rand of Johannesburg, Fools centers on the chance meeting of the two protagonists: the middle-aged teacher and rapist Duma Zamani (Patrick Shai), fatigued and paralyzed by his own fear and insecurity, and the brother of the rape victim, Zani Vuthela (Hlomla Dandala), an idealistic political activist just graduated from high school in Swaziland. From a meeting at a train station, the two men engage in a process of individual and social re-examination of self-identity and social responsibility, and their subsequent struggle for meaning and identity in late-1980s South Africa.

Zamani’s deteriorated marriage, his solicitation of back-alley sex workers, alcoholism and nightmarish guilt all contribute to a powerful characterization of the alienated anti-hero on a journey towards self-redemption. Patrick Shai — sometimes awkward in his portrayal of Zamani’s cocksureness — capably delivers a performance that brings out the protagonist’s more vulnerable moments in a manner that does not detract from the decidedly anti-heroic demeanor of the character. Shai‘s performance is crucial because it is through Zamani’s character that the film ultimately gives a sense of proportion to the textured social fabric of black townships. The film also explores the gaps that exist in the face of urban alienation, as well as a spirited investigation of some of the paradoxes and contradictions in apartheid-era township life.

The aspect of township life captured in Fools is one of a pervading sense of paralysis and passivity, especially towards the struggle against apartheid and the social decay wrought in its wake. Rape, the silence that surrounds it, and the seemingly tacit acceptance of it by the community is but one of those powerfully debilitating social problems. This was made clear early on in the film, in a scene where Zamani is let off with a mere reprimand by the community’s elders for raping one of his pupils. The elders’ endorsement of the crime only perpetuates the process of victimization already effected by apartheid. However, the response to Zamani’s actions is driven (and to some extent justified) by the reality of a shortage of black teachers in the apartheid education system. While the narrative raises questions concerning the complicity and culpability of the elders (and, by implication, the community) in Zamani’s actions, it by no means comes anywhere close to capturing the brutality of the culture of silence surrounding rape, a reticence that has for so long gripped South Africa’s townships.

Fools opens with Forgive Me (Jeremia Ndlovu), the homeless township jester, shouting what becomes an often-repeated refrain throughout the film, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” Forgive Me’s refrain not only sets up a narrative of foreboding and redemption that unfolds in the film, but also becomes the conscience of the community, interwoven between each of the various scenes. The narrative bounces off his refrain. According to the scriptwriter, Bhekisizwe Peterson, the narrative style invokes the call and response patterns in African music and jazz. A theme is introduced, elaborated and then repeated in different ways. It’s about looking at different facets of the same thing. This non-linear style, criticized by some for its meandering quality, serves as a vehicle for capturing the textures of township life.

This style of narration sets Zamani’s personal journey against the background of a community’s continuous involvement in and response to individual action. The presentation of this contested psychological (rather than overtly political) struggle is realized through the narrative’s revisiting of the same issues, each time from the differing perspectives of the film’s various characters. This device succeeds in sketching the individual responses and collective actions of the community, thereby creating a space, not for didactic answers, but for potent questions concerning the politics of poverty and race.

One of the most powerful moments in Fools is played out in the anthem scene, where the school headmaster, Meneer Lerumo (Corney Mabaso), leads his pupils in the singing of the old South African anthem, ‘Die Stem,’ in Afrikaans. Meneer Lerumo’s character captures the response of a particular generation to apartheid, underpinned in this instance by his passionate use of the Afrikaans language. As much an image of sobriety as caricature, Meneer Lerumo epitomizes the conservative school headmaster, whose insistent use of the Afrikaans language belies the incongruity of his passion. This scene, so shrewdly controlled by Corney Mabaso, is pivotal in underlining the extent to which figures such as Meneer Lerumo are, at the end of the day, so dispensable within the apartheid system, a reality more overtly underscored in the film’s closing scenes.

The use of different language in Fools — Zulu, English, Afrikaans and slang — not only reflects the nuances of language usage in townships, but is also largely character driven. For Meneer Lerumo, the use of Afrikaans symbolises the extent of his subscription to the apartheid system. The community elders use a poetic form of the Zulu language, underlying their traditional values, while Zamani (and in particular his male drinking friends) use an urban-derived combination of Zulu, English and Afrikaans. But the dominant language in Fools is Zulu, unusual for a South African film aimed at the international market. On a political level, says Bekisizwe Peterson, the use of an African language affirms the validity of such languages. Too often, making an English-language film undermines the presence of African languages.

Fools‘ finale, probably the most effectively staged scene (in what is quite an unevenly dramatized film), has Zani attempting to effect a boycott of the local school’s Dingaan Day picnic celebrations. Dingaan’s Day, formerly the ‘Day of the Vow,’ and now (ironically) the ‘Day of Reconciliation,’ began it’s life as a religious thanksgiving for the Afrikaner’s defeat of the Zulu nation at the ‘Battle of Blood River’ in 1838. On the day of the school’s celebrations, a placard-waving Zani is confronted and chased by Meneer Lerumo. The latter throws a stone that misses Zani and instead hits a passing car. The car stops, a white man emerges, takes a whip from the boot of his car, and walks up to a visibly frightened Meneer Lerumo. He chastises and then attempts to whip the headmaster. The sight of Meneer Lerumo, clad in colonial khakis, running behind a retreating crowd, with the white man in pursuit, only underscores the headmaster’s irrelevance in a system predicated on the authority of whiteness.

Only Zamani stands his ground, a challenge the white man cannot tolerate. He insults and then whips Zamani. But Zamani’s response is laughter. The white man falls to the ground, whipping the earth in frustration at his inability to effect any kind of domination and control. As the white man is surrounded by the silent crowd, a flaggelated Zamani, his penance finally paid in a moment of self-realization, walks away. The film closes with Zamani climbing the hill overlooking the township, to the waiting figure of Forgive Me. The long shot offered by the view atop the hill, both at the beginning and end of the film, in addition to effecting a narrative circularity, hints at the suffocating physical organization of the apartheid space, something that is all too often forgotten in the film’s construction of a narrative of psychological interiority. There is simply not enough of the organization of landscape that would have been afforded by panoramic views of the space in and around Charteston township.

While Njabulo Ndebele’s original story is located in 1966, the film version of Fools is set in December 1989, just two months shy of the announcement of the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress. “The setting isn’t really crucial,” says Peterson, “because we wanted the film to provoke debate and discussion now. We didn’t want audiences to read this as a period piece.” But, the importance of Ndebele’s original post-Rivonia Trial setting is that it was a period when the apartheid system was at its most triumphant. In this sense, it offers a crucial context to understanding the social paralysis that is at the core of the novella, a context dangerously overlooked in the film.

The film’s use of a later apartheid setting, just prior to a period of enormous transition, while a catalyst and motivation for grappling with issues that still have value and meaning in contemporary South Africa, takes away something of the richness of the original. Again, the prevalence of rape in South Africa and the silence that surrounds the crime, is captured with a certain amount of indifference through the film’s rape victim, Mimi Vuthela (Nosipho Masiane). Hers is a double violation, first in her rape, and second in her silence, broken only towards the end of the film, with her plaintive screaming, the painful source of which we do not know.

With South African mindsets firmly focused on the US market, Fools is remarkable in its use of an African language, as well as its often dark, sombre narrative. It has already won the Silver Leopard Award for direction at the 50th International Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and with a number of international festival screenings under its belt, seems set for serious recognition. Though it foregrounds black agency, Fools does not sentimentalize it. Rather, the film attempts to interrogate decades of socio-political contradictions through nuances of language and predicament. In self-assuredly questioning a politics of identity in contemporary South Africa, Fools extends the parameters of the anti-apartheid film genre and plays an important role in creating a space for a genuinely complex South African cinema.