Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Son of Man (Mark Dornford-May, 2006) & La Vie de Jésus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

Here I’m going to look at two films that take as their starting point the life of Jesus. One, Mark Dornford-May’s Son of Man, is directly based on his life story while the other, Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus, is a reflection on the latent qualities of divinity in man. First, Son of Man.

Son of Man comes from the same production team that brought us U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, which transposed Bizet’s opera to a Cape Town township. Here, it is the life of Jesus that is transposed to a contemporary, reimagined southern Africa. Filmed in the eastern Cape and the township of Khayelitsha the film mixes the physical – the details and textures of everyday life such as Mary’s cheap print dress, a tin shack that is a birthplace, a command to register male children shouted through a megaphone from the back of a Land Cruiser, with the metaphysical – this is a place where the devil with his twisted goat’s foot cane, and angels, quite literally range abroad in the land.

The film opens with Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness. “Get thee behind me, Satan” says Jesus, pushing his tormentor down a sand dune, “this is my world.” “No, this is my world,” Satan replies, and immediately we cut to the crunch of glass, fighting in the streets and the thud and ricochet of gunfire. A news channel reports: “Chaotic scenes in Judea this morning as forces of the democratic coalition invaded settlements. Control of the country has been split between Herod’s militia and the insurgents for several years. The coalition says its aim is to bring peace to the troubled region”.

And then we are in a school compound. Mary is hiding from a rampaging child army in yellow t-shirts. To escape she must lie down with slaughtered schoolchildren. It is then she is told she will bear the son of God.

After an angel’s warning, Joseph and Mary leave the compound with their child. The group they travel with a meet a roadblock on the way and hide in the trees when they see the leaders of the group being herded to the sides of the road. Male children are covered with blankets and beaten to death. Mary removes her hands from her son’s eyes. ‘Come’ says the child angel Gabriel to him afterwards. ‘This is my world’ responds Jesus, and turns to follow his parents.

By setting the story in southern Africa, the film reclaims Christ as a universal figure of hope and resistance, deliberately moving him away from the limited form into which he has mutated in the popular iconography of the western imagination. In his teachings here, Jesus’s words are updated to contemporary relevance. Although ‘unrest is due to poverty, overcrowding and lack of education’ are words that any politician might agree with, his central speech may have them twitching their feet. He says, ‘When those with imperial histories pretend to forget them, and blame Africa’s problems on tribalism and corruption, while building themselves new economic empires, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When I hear someone was beaten and tortured in the middle East, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When I hear that in Asia, child labour has been legislated for, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When politicians in Europe and the USA defend trade subsidies and help to restrict the use of medicine through patents, I say we have been lied to. Evil did not fall. When we are told, and you will be, that people just ‘disappear’, you must say we have been lied to, and evil will fall.’

Pertinently, there is also evil here in the name of democracy, which has become a flag of convenience for craven abuse of power. After Herod has died, the ‘Governor for the Democratic Coalition’ stands up to talk to the TV cameras about the threat to the country’s stability. ‘We have watched the situation once again deteriorate. We have tried to reason. We have tried threats to no avail, so reluctantly I have no alternative but to impose martial law ... In order to protect democracy in the world, we sometimes have to make difficult decisions. To restore order we must be strong. To establish peace, we must use force.’ We have heard this before.

Against this, Jesus and his followers discuss in crowded shacks how to fight poverty, epidemics and thuggery with non-violent means; how to do this without letting hatred destroy their future, while believing in the inherent goodness of men. Hearsay of his teachings spreads throughout the township. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and cures the epileptic child, his deeds are painted as brightly-coloured murals on walls throughout the town.

As with the murals, the film excels in moments that are almost offhand, such as when the devil is a grasshopper on a grass stalk by the roadside, or when Jesus washes the mud from his face after his initiation ceremony, and as he does so leaves a faint trace in the towel with which he wipes himself, or when Mary is shown briefly with the outline of an electric fan for a halo after she has given birth, or when we see that soldiers’ temporary beneficence at a roadblock, allowing the three Magi to pass, is due to a child angel watching from their Land Cruiser. The Magi continue on their journey from the mountains of Lesotho to see the infant Jesus, who is shown wearing a yellow paper crown from a cracker.

The use of traditional south African songs lends great power to scenes. The exultation at Jesus’s birth is thrilling, while his followers confrontation with the soldiers at the end, with Jesus on the cross behind them, is powerful indeed.

This is stirring, highly relevant filmmaking that has the capacity to inspire resistance to forces of injustice. It ends with a quote from Genesis. And God said let us make man in our own image after our likeness. And so we make the world in our own image too: with townships and razor wire, traumatised children bearing guns, the suppression of people’s voices, oppression in the name of peace and democracy. Every child born has the potential to become one who creates life or one who destroys it.

Geographically, socially, stylistically and in its treatment of the nominal subject it’s hard to imagine a film further away from Son of Man than the next film I want to look at, which is Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus, set in and around the commune of Bailleul in Flanders.

Dumont took as one of his source texts Ernest Renan’s 1863 work, Life of Jesus. In that, Renan talks of “the manifestations of God hidden in the depths of the human conscience”, and that is Dumont’s subject here. As he says, “evil is a part of life. It is necessary to confront it. Perhaps in that confrontation man can raise himself.”

In this regard, the film’s main subject is Freddy. His mother runs one of those bars that is oppressive in both its emptiness or its fullness – it has no states in between, no hum of conversation. It’s fed instead by the tv, talking all the time in spite of its poor reception. What else should we know about Freddy? He rides around on his bike with his friends, takes solace from his sexual relationship with Marie, he teaches his caged chaffinch to sing, he plays a drum, as do his friends, in a marching band, he has epileptic seizures.

There is little of direct biblical reference. Indeed the couple of times that we are presented with such scenes, as in the hospital early on where Michou’s brother is dying of AIDS and we see a reproduction of Giotto’s painting of ‘The Resurrection of Lazarus’ on the wall, they serve to point up the difference between the film’s approach and any expectations of a miracle. There is no miracle this time round. Freddy aproaches the bed but leaves with the gang. Michou’s brother dies. There is no resurrection.

The film has its genesis in the land. It is set mainly in a rural landscape of scattered hamlets, furrowed fields and rich pastures, haze and low horizons, muddy roads and farmyards where boys customise cars. The film’s palette is predominantly green grass and dark earth. The boundaries between the town and the surrounding countryside are not fixed. Fittingly, the film takes place through four seasons, from autumn to the following summer.

The young people who populate the film are in the main, disaffected, practised at coping with boredom. Neither are they articulate, “It’s not easy to talk about death and all that” says Michou, but no matter how halting the attempts at intimacy between the boys, there is a companionship present that too many words sometimes obscures. I think of it as a companion piece to another film that deals with the question of spiritual salvation among outcasts, the damaged and the scarred, Artur Aristakisyan's Palms. The country is different but the tone is similar. Both films are, quite deliberately, also an affront to conventional viewing habits and perceptions that assume that articulacy is a precondition for salvation.

“The film is not important” says Dumont. “What is important is the person who watches it. He continues to live … it’s not for me to say anything, it is for people to do something.” And at the end, just as Dumont wanted, the onus is on us, the viewers. After venting his rage in a stupid, murderous act, Freddy lies in the grass, staring up at the sky after he has banged his fit into the earth, and he cries. Who are we to sit in judgement on him? By what right? His rehabilitation, if that is what it shall be, will require setting his newly-found inner promptings to work within the limitations of his environment. His predicament makes me think of another young man from a recent film, from Haneke’s Code Unknown. There, Jean, a young man living on a farm with his father in northern France and longing for escape, is the person who sets in train the motion of the film by throwing a food wrapper into a beggar’s lap. Just less than half way through the film, he disappears, leaving a short note for his father which says, “Dear Papa, I’m leaving. Please do not try to find me.” He goes out of the film and into our world, and we have no way of telling where he will turn up and what his motivations will be, whether he will be a victim, a prophet, or a seed of illness. We just know that, in the same way that the Arab men who appeared in one brief scene on the metro in Code Unknown returned to play out their story in Hidden, he will return. Like Freddy, he is one of the people who, as Dumont says, “must invent a new world, but for the time being they’re bored as hell”.

I return to the thought that accompanied me at the end of Son of Man: every child born has the potential to become one who creates life or one who destroys it.

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