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BUSAN 2018

Review: Sew the Winter to My Skin

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- South African director Jahmil XT Qubeka dissects the language of representation in this largely dialogue-free thriller, co-produced by South Africa and Germany

Review: Sew the Winter to My Skin
Ezra Mabengeza in Sew the Winter to My Skin

In making Sew the Winter to My Skin [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which is playing in the World Cinema section of the Busan International Film Festival, following its recent world premiere at Toronto, South African director Jahmil XT Qubeka was inspired by the non-dialogue-based storytelling technique honed by auteur Jean-Jacques Annaud in his films Quest for Fire and The Bear. But more than that, Qubeka has positioned his retelling of the black South African legend of John Kepe as a western of epic proportions and, in doing so, has captured the zeitgeist of recent films like Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Sarmad Masud’s My Pure Land [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
in reclaiming and, more importantly, reframing this largely white-male-orientated American genre to make heroes of the subjugated minorities that cowboy movies have historically largely demonised, victimised and stereotyped. It is also an important film in representational terms, as blacks telling stories about their own history in South Africa have been largely absent from cinema, while the celebrated South African festival award winners Tsotsi [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
(2005), U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005) and The Wound [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
(2017), as well as this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard entry The Harvesters [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Etienne Kallos
film profile
]
, have all been directed by white males.  

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Nonetheless, more important than the genre mash-up, and that the film is a small step towards challenging the historical lack of representation from behind the camera in world cinema, is the fact that Qubeka has turned the lack of dialogue into a salient message about reportage and has made an enthralling edge-of-the-seat thriller while he was at it. It opens with white hunters with dogs chasing a dark, muddy figure, and then jumps forward in time to the State vs Kepe trial, where John Kepe (Ezra Mabengeza) is found guilty of 37 charges and sentenced to death. A bespectacled white journalist, Simon (Bok van Blerk), reports on the trial, and it’s his typewriter that serves as the framing device that allows the film to jump back and forth in time to tell the story of outlaw Kepe, the self-proclaimed “Samson of the Boschberg Mountains”, who stole livestock and supplies from white farmers and gave them to the impoverished indigenous population. What’s intriguing is that what is being written on the page and what plays out on screen are sometimes at odds with each other, as Qubeka alludes to history being written by the oppressor, to the detriment of the silenced minority. This criticism of the truth and politics of what we read is most clearly present in a newspaper headline about the release of The African Queen, where a trade report about the “accurate depiction” of the movie is reprinted on the front page. Throughout the film, newspaper headlines, public notices and letters, as well as the journalist’s typewriter, give context – but do they give the truth? 

The other characters making a mark include white lawman General Botha (Peter Kurth), who is struggling to pay his mortgage and is heckled by his alcoholic wife (Antoinette Louw), who berates him in one of the few scenes with dialogue. The most well-drawn, mysterious and intriguing characters in this unique, intriguing and accomplished work are Black Wyatt Earp (Zolisa Xaluva), Golden Eyes (Kandyse McClure) and Birthmark (Mandisa Nduna). 

Sew the Winter to My Skin was produced by South Africa’s Yellowbone Entertainment in association with Germany’s Die Gesellschaft DGS, in partnership with the South African Department of Trade and IndustryIndustrial Development CorporationNational Empowerment Fund and National Film and Video Foundation, and the Berlinale World Cinema Fund.

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