Necktie Youth: Probing, polemic and probably best in show
by Thomas Humphrey
- BERLIN 2015: With scenes that could erroneously be described as "chaotic", this is a film for the people of tomorrow
The feature debut Necktie Youth [+see also:
film profile], a Dutch-South African co-production, was brought to the Berlinale for its world premiere by the strikingly charismatic, formally untrained Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. There it screened as part of Panorama, and was warmly received.
Mer's movie is yet another film to have bolted out in black and white from a fertile new cinematic territory (alongside films like The Project of the Century [+see also:
film profile]). And Mer eloquently described his monochromatic decision as a romantic homage to the beginning of cinema, from a new wave that is just beginning. The decision is also an interesting one in a country that has previously seen itself as black or white; but this film effaces that, depicting instead a mood pervasive to both cultures.
The movie discusses black-and-white films' ability to hypnotically convey "lines and shapes", too. Except Necktie Youth does that complexly. Shots blur when emotions run high, slow-motion conveys codeine-induced lethargies, and time-lapse captures the cocaine highs throughout. In fact, there are lots of techniques for lots of drugged emotions, because Necktie Youth follows the misadventures of a gaggle of teens from Sandton, in Johannesburg's northern suburbs (and the right side of the tracks).
So this is one of those scintillating stories that excise the nightmares in suburbia. These highly dysfunctional kids therefore (legally and illegally) medicate their way through their own winter of discontent (following one of their friends' suicide, sadly based on a true story). But the youths are also extremely erudite, making it a real pleasure to hear the ad-libbed, ironised, anger-filled half-truths drifting from their mouths in an elevated, American-influenced Afrikaans.
Thus Necktie Youth drags South African film furiously into the present, wide-eyed and restlessly searching for its next smart fix. Twitchingly contemporary, the film responds directly to post-Apartheid South Africa by drawing on the talents of the director and his friends, as they essentially play themselves. And Mer's exhilarating performance updates our vision of Johannesburg by exploring the consequences of its post-segregation flowering.
Much like The Project of the Century, dated colour footage is interspersed throughout, bringing with it an emotional weight of hope that makes the youths' present seem soured and colourless. In fact, Necktie Youth virally alludes to that libertine oblivion of freedom and extravagance that follows any period of hope, be it that of the dandy, the flapper or the hippy. And Mer borrows from them all. His characters rove stylishly, followed around by a sometimes jazzy (but always brilliant) soundtrack, declaring that this or that is "rad". So for all the drugs, the film always pensively looks back.
The movie carries the dedication, "In loving memory of 1991," the year of the director's birth, and much of Necktie Youth is about ruing having grown up to become so jaded. Simultaneously, there is a wish to return to South Africa under Mandela in 1994, when everyone was fresh-faced and optimistic. So Necktie Youth represents one of film's darkened bright futures, and Premium Films has done well to get world distribution rights.