Reviewers, don’t be like Commodus

Before the days where cyber-click-buttons ruled our lives, when information was scarce and valuable, people first found out that the world is round decades after Copernicus died (some still believe this), when snowflakes really meant ice crystals and when the only orange man people referred to was the one who appeared on the outside of a cordial bottle, there were moving pictures to draw people’s attention, but not exactly like today. 

People were stunned by the miracle of these flickering images, of how their senses could be enchanted for a few hours and about the tales that left them in amazement. (This amazement still causes kernels to burst out of their seams with pride)

But how does this opening statement link to the encouragement of a ‘healthy’ review of South African films?

It is easy to make the link if you focus on the word ‘amazement’ and the lack thereof when local reviewers especially refer to Afrikaans films.

Before the era of big money making and cashing in through the audience, before for-the-love-of-it became a whisper in cyberspace, the plain existence of the South African silver screen was astounding and exciting.

It still should be.

As a part-time reviewer for human behaviour, my biggest critique is that the amazement of what is presented on the screen is lost for those who have to judge whether a film is good or bad.

People in positions of power, struggle to maintain a balance and as a reviewer one finds oneself (in your thoughts, granted) in the position of emperor, sometimes as the vengeful Commodus, ruler during the ‘Really Rough Time in Rome’, who’s laurel wreath frequently hung askew on his head at the Circus Maximus while he readied himself to lift his thumb or (mostly) lower it.

Is it a far-fetched concept to compare a reviewer to someone as inconvenient as the bloodthirsty Commodus? And the films with the bloody victims of a human circus? And the audience, a crowd that eagerly awaits the emperor’s decision?

Just like Commodus, local reviewers regularly leave the most popular cinema productions in the dust (predictable) and allow the smaller contenders (usually) to fight another day in the blood, guts and mud (a proper description of the challenges of the local industry).

Why should exaggerated criticism be discouraged by local reviewers?

Worldwide, indie (independent) films receive a lot of praise and these directors, producers and actors are seen as heroes for their sacrifice to represent the local cinematic voice. This form of filmmaking isn’t easily described as excessive, superfluous or insignificant.

Top 100 films of 2016 in South Africa

In contrast, when it comes to the big money making hits in a country like America, where opening weekend averages at about $370 000 000, indie films struggle to keep up with the special effects, the extra-fast fast cars, deafening sound effects, staggering action sequences and CrossFit stunt doubles that leave the audience wanting more.

In South Africa, people wrestle to see Vin Diesel in his bald-headed glory first, while Local Luke sweatily loses the fight against the box-office hits.

A lot of people ask: Why aren’t our explosions bigger? Why can’t we write off 59 luxury cars (or even one okay car) in the first 10 minutes of a movie? Why aren’t there any exotic settings with nail-biting action sequences and special effects?

Because every film that is made in South Africa is an indie film.

Every film that is made with blood and sweat in South Africa, the short films, the feature films, the English films, the Afrikaans films, the indigenous films, the funny films, the sad films, the romantic dramas and the epic films are remarkably put together with little infrastructure, but with the hope that a big (relatively speaking) audience will enjoy their stories and understand it. That there is comprehension of more than what is playing out on the screen, that behind every story there are people holding thumbs that the viewers are still mesmerised, that the flashing images will always keep them intrigued.

Although the local film industry doesn’t have enough funding to actually tell more than just stories, the experience which is shared with the audience is of a high standard (or high enough standard).

Therefore, it means that this experience on the screen is almost holier as those who rely on the sound and the fury, the screeching tires, the heroes in tight outfits that fight against big green giants in torn purple pants (there is space for them too).

It’s not, for reviewers, and should never be, about the biggest muscles, the mightiest war-cry or note, the most likes or fans. It isn’t supposed to be about the agendas of the job opportunities or to rub shoulders with some of the institutions. (But if there is a Commodus hiding within you, reviewer, then at least be consistent with the damnation of al the participating gladiators according to your strict standards.)

This poisonous pen is taken out too easily when local productions dare to appear on the big screen and often the silver screen and the surrounding area (read media) degenerates into something which can be described as an age restricted wild dog hunting extract.

Reviewers, please be more careful when it comes to South African films. Especially with Afrikaans films that are often torn apart before they even hit the big screen.

By Martie Bester: a writer and translator who doesn’t like a laurel wreath.