Austin Film Festival
Adversity and laughter in dueling South African documentaries Manenberg andTownship to the stage
Oct 26, 2011 | 10:30 am
The forced racial segregation known as apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. But as a cultural system that had been in place since colonial times, and officially legislated poligy since 1948, 17 years is barely the blink of an eye in terms of adjusting to the newfound democracy.
Two documentaries at the Austin Film Festival this week illuminated how hard the transition has been, and the deep scars that the country will always wear. Manenberg is a chilling, cinéma vérité look into the lives of the youth in the townships that still stand as a visible reminder of forced relocation, and Township to the Stage shows the larger prejudice and resistance that a mixed race man still faces when he makes it out of the slums as an entertainer.
Directors Karen Waltorp and Christian Vium were granted startlingly intimate access to the lives of two youths from Manenberg for their hourlong exploration of the Cape Town township's way of life. Warren is a directionless crack addict, living off his mother's free meals and money bummed from his reluctantly engaged father, as his 21st birthday looms. His story is a foil for that of Fazline, a young woman pinning her hopes for leaving the township on job interviews, and writing letters to her imprisoned mother.
The residents of Manenberg clash in aimless displays of aggression at night, in a clamor that is tuned out by the residents of the detached housing still standing from the 70s. The over-taxed local police search idly for Warren the entire film, and can only offer vague promises of support to his mother when she locks her son out of her home in a last-ditch effort to set him straight. Fazline helps her sister raise her young child, and talks of her ambitions with a weathered patience and realism that belies her young age. Manenberg doesn't make a larger point about reform, but provides a fascinating glimpse into an area struggling to become more than a hastily constructed ghetto, no matter what race the country's president is now allowed to be.
Stand up comedian Trevor Noah faced a specific kind of prejudice growing up in the townships of Johannesburg—as a mixed race child of a white man and a black woman, he was eyed with suspicion by both races. Living for a time with his father (his mother had to pose as the maid, as mixed relationships were illegal) as well, his upbringing bridged several different neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and language, leaving him with a unique perspective on South African society to channel in his relatively meteoric rise in a 2-year stand up career. Director David Paul Meyer set out to make a documentary about South Africa's growing stand up scene, but quickly found himself drawn to Noah's story.
Even with his unique persepective and considerable talent, Noah still faces reluctance, suspicion and prejudice—in a jaw-dropping sequence, established white comedians (the only kind allowed to perform during apartheid) lament the seeming repetiveness of black comedians doing material about apartheid and the township way of life, as if 17 years were enough to move on entirely from a generations-long history of atrocity. Nor can Noah's success protect everything he holds dear, as midway through the documentary he's forced to deal with an unspeakable tragedy without missing any stage time.
Comedy calls Noah to continue despite his antagonistic relationship with his home country, and it helps the documentary considerably that he's possessed of plenty of raw talent—Township to the Stage follows him to corporate events, ad-hoc comedy shows at music venues due to South Africa lack of comedy clubs, and even a palate-cleansing trip to Los Angeles in preparation for "Daywalker," his unprecendented one-man show. Smartly balancing this time on the road with the compelling details of Trevor Noah's life, and his inspiring philosophy, Township to the Stage is a moving look at the power of comedy to heal the oldest of wounds, and provide voices where voices were once marginalized.
The situation presented in Manenberg isn't completely hopeless, but certainly bleak enough that everyone could use a good laugh. At 54 minutes, it seems likely to find its way to PBS or cable for broadcast, but the crowd-pleasing appeal of the feature-length Township to the Stage seems destined for a well-deserved major release after its world premiere at AFF.