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BERLIN 2019 Panorama

Review: Flatland

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- BERLIN 2019: Jenna Bass’s third film, opening the Panorama section, combines western and soap opera to satisfying effect

Review: Flatland
Izel Bezuidenhout and Nicole Fortuin in Flatland

South African filmmaker Jenna Bass, best known as the co-writer of last year’s festival favourite Rafiki [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Wanuri Kahiu
film profile
]
, has injected some much-needed oddness into the Berlinale’s Panorama (7-17 February) with her third feature, Flatland [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which is half film-school project gone wrong, half an ode to the forgotten divas of exploitation. While Flatland could certainly benefit from Spinal Tap’s approach of going all the way up to 11, with Bass never fully committing to leaving the ground, it’s still adorably weird. But not cute – God, no: there is a nastiness here that permeates the whole story, and no amount of clumsily executed shoot-outs, as entertaining as they might be, make one forget that unless you happen to be a white male, this world will bring you down, or at least die trying.

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Or so it seems for this unlikely trio consisting of petrified bride Natalie (Nicole Fortuin), her heavily pregnant friend Poppie, already expelled from school for setting a girl’s hair on fire (Izel Bezuidenhout), and finally, Captain Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi), on their trail after Natalie’s disastrous wedding night results in something more than just polite disappointment. As they make their way through places drenched in chauvinism and casual racism that people don’t even bother to hide, it would be easy to imagine Flatland playing in some dodgy theatre in the 1970s, with Beauty precisely the kind of character that Pam Grier so effortlessly used to make her own. But the sensibility is modern through and through, as Bass doesn’t really intend to punish her freckled heroines for stepping out of their roles. 

Instead, she just surrounds them with the rural region of Karoo, a forgotten world where no one uses a smartphone and where the land is “so flat you can see your future rolling in”, as a resigned Natalie puts it. It’s this background alone that already justifies that “contemporary western” label, slapped on the film probably as soon as the first day of shooting was over. But although there is plenty of horse riding, there is also more to Bass’s story, and even some preposterous soap-opera narratives eventually find a way in, with long-lost lovers and monologues about past regrets tying it all together somehow.

Still, there is a very down-to-earth approach to the whole situation, with the girls not really your everyday activists and only slowly growing into demanding a bit more from their life. “Ring or no ring, when a woman says ‘no’, it means ‘no’. Otherwise it’s rape. I saw that on TV,” explains Poppie helpfully. As things get weirder and the eyeliner gets heavier, at one point, one really does expect the late Divine to show up and orchestrate yet another drastic makeover, but what does that matter when seeing someone act out the fantasy of pointing a gun at those who have done her wrong is just so damned satisfying? And while many men have been known to ride into the sunset before, they definitely didn’t have such pretty sunglasses.

Flatland was produced by South Africa’s Proper Film, with Luxembourg’s Deal Productions and Germany’s In Good Company, in co-production with Germany’s unafilm and ZDF/Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, and in cooperation with Arte. It was made in association with the National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa as well as the Hubert Bals Fund, the Berlinale World Cinema Fund and EAVE. Its international sales are handled by The Match Factory.

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