My COUNTRY MY HAT, unlike major consumptive cinema, cannot claim a neatly identifiable place within film genres. If anything, the film represents on first sight, a combination of at least two elements - the documentary and the drama/thriller. On the one hand it can be read as a simple plea for South Africa's blacks suffering under the pass law system. On the other hand the film can be seen as a fictitious story involving elements of deceit, double identity and culpability.
In their respective evaluations of the film, critics have by and large tended to discuss it in terms either of the one category or the other. They have made no attempt to devise a critical framework which encompasses this mixture of categories. Nor have the critics identified the mixture of elements as a central and deliberate strategy behind the narrative.
Before clarifying the intentions of the group who scripted and produced MY COUNTRY MY HAT, I shall first sketch something of the two major impressions of various critics.
It has been argued that MY COUNTRY MY HAT is really nothing more than an off -centre version of dominant cinema. This perspective, interestingly enough, has emanated for the most part from certain groups outside of South Africa. A number of arguments have been made to substantiate this claim:
1. MY COUNTRY MY HAT is said to operate within a notion of ‘narrative’ that permits a chronological development of the plot, through principal figures, and the culmination of this in a classical climactic ending. This structure can be argued to foreclose any real possibilities which might arise in the course of James Fingo's life. Narrative of this nature is said to be a technique which sweeps the spectator off his feet and propels him singularly toward a final resolution of the film's internal logic.
2. The choice of actors, both James Fingo as well as his white counterparts, has been regarded with a measure of scepticism on account of their populist and hence commercial appeal. Piet, alias Regardt van den Berg, enjoys a widespread acceptance in the South African acting world, especially amongst Afrikaans speaking audiences. Similar claims, though not as strong could be made for Aletta Bezuidenhout and Peter Se-Puma. The argument goes that consumptive cinema selects popular figures on the basis of their pre-acceptance by audiences, which softens the chances of a box office flop and maximises the possibility of success.
3. Filmic aspects of My COUNTRY My HAT, it has been argued, are conservative and unchallenging. The overall style, the camera work, lighting, editing, and mise-en-scene have (so the argument goes) paid lip service to the styles prevalent in the general run of commercial films. And these for the most part respect and perpetuate the prevailing conventions that audiences are deeply steeped in; never do they attempt to challenge them.
A different look at MY COUNTRY MY HAT has revealed another and somewhat contradictory face to it. This view emerges collectively from many South African blacks who had the opportunity to see the film, as well as sympathetic South African whites. For them MY COUNTRY MY HAT is a challenging example of an anti-apartheid film. The argument goes that what is singular about the film is the extent to which it highlights the plight of the urban homeless black suffering under a system of entrenched racism. Moreover, it has been said that unlike previous anti-apartheid films, MY COUNTRY MY HAT identifies the culpability of South African whites as the dominant racial group and shows the extent of this in the physical conflicts between a black man-servant and a white madam-boss. James Fingo has been interpreted as a victim of the apartheid regime. Homeless at birth, he becomes outlawed by virtue of his exclusion from the society that he enters to seek work. James represents the plight of blacks trying to survive in the face of massive and overpowering sets of discriminations.
Questions about the filmic details of MY COUNTRY MY HAT have generally been subsumed under the category of 'political documentaries'. The political nature of the film raises as many questions as may be found in political documentaries. Therefore, though the film may be argued to fail in terms of its formal qualities, it is nevertheless resurrected on account of its message. MY COUNTRY MY HAT is said to be a political statement with a content that is unambiguously sympathetic to harassed and exploited South African blacks.
Given two such differing and incompatible readings, the question remains whether MY COUNTRY MY HAT can command a cohesive and homogenous theoretical underpinning. Is it not simply one of those films that by sheer accident is capable of being appropriated by differing theoretical views, simultaneously. I would like to take the opportunity now to reply to this and to sketch something of the context of film making in South Africa.
PRODUCTION PRACTICE IN DISSIDENT FILM-MAKING
Allow me to begin by noting some of the discernable departures of MY COUNTRY MY HAT from any prevailing notion of consumer or dominant cinema. Right from the birth of the script, MY COUNTRY MY HAT was fraught with problems. These were not the classical kind that one encounters in commercial film-making such as 'Is this what the audience really wants?' or 'Does it appeal to the lowest common denominator?'
The kind of problems that we faced (I say 'we' because a number of people were involved in discussions around these points) came to us from an awareness of the inaccessibility of local contentious subjects to regular cinema-goers. Seen retrospectively, the number of films of this kind made in the past, whether features or documentaries, have failed dismally to penetrate the local market even though many of them have gone on to win awards at major film festivals. The point could be put more strongly, namely that local films which raise issues above the level of sheer entertainment have been ostracised by both distributors as well as the public.
From the outset it became clear that a consideration of the process of film production must include the question of how audiences in South Africa are to be reached and what distribution strategies are available to assist in a non-racial audience penetration. It was precisely at this level that discussions around MY COUNTRY MY HAT were held. How could we make a film that could be seen and appreciated by local audiences of differing political and economic status? In other words, how could we breach both race and class differences, reaching whites, blacks, coloreds and Indians?
Issue-raising films (eg. THE DUMPING GROUNDS, FORWARD TO A PEOPLES REPUBLIC) of the past have been successful as export commodities. They have been absorbed by television networks, film festivals, and varied political groups abroad. Their message, however, has also been exported. Shot more or less secretively and shipped out as soon as possible, their impact on the minds and liver of people in South Africa, whether white capitalist or worker, has been negligible.
In the light of the one-way export of images and interpretations, the theoretical problem behind MY COUNTRY MY HAT emerged somewhat as a choice between theoretical purity and political effectivity. On the one hand the temptation was to treat the social issues from an unambiguously Left position and to examine the institution of the pass law system from within a post-Althusserian perspective, irrespective of the level and interest of the audience. The alternative was to taper the level of left-wing analysis to an audience/ audiences with neither a pre-theoretical understanding nor a willingness to engage in these kinds of debates. The group that comes to mind most strongly is affluent white South Africans who, having been instilled in escapist entertainment, could hardly be expected to voluntarily watch a film about their own backyard. A different perspective can now be added to the initial comments in this regard, and I would like to return to these and contrast them with the intentions of the group.
MY COUNTRY MY HAT does operate within narrative parameters. But this by no means forecloses other possibilities. In fact, by comparison with the unified narrative structures of consumptive films, MY COUNTRY MY HAT departs significantly from these. Firstly, MY COUNTRY MY HAT is not a film about the hero or the anti-hero. It persistently refuses audience identification with one character, and forces the viewer to shift allegiance from James to Piet to Sarah to James. From a filmic perspective each of these three characters share the same film time at the expense of a single narrative thread. And each of them explores the vicissitudes of their possible salvation within limitations that derive from their social standing. Sarah for one suffers under a family life that permits her nothing more than subservience to an indifferent husband. Piet, although a working class subject, exploits institutions like the labour bureau and gains information at James' expense. James furthermore exploits the other face of the legalistic pass law apparatus and gains for himself a set of false documents. In the film relative spaces open themselves up to each of these characters, and with these options go possible courses of action. Only in the last instance, and this is the theoretical flaw of any film - its ending - do these courses of action attain finality.
The ending of MY COUNTRY MY HAT, however, cannot be seen in any terms other than temporal and at most, a cinematic gesture. Although James, initially confronted in a cul-de-sac, escapes with his false documents, he is nevertheless far from free. The ending to the film more than anything highlights the never-ending web of social controls in South Africa. The ending opens up a whole new range of determinations consequent on the pass system: police harassment, urban unrest, increased bureaucratisation, conscientisation of working class people and possible political solidarity amongst them.
On the question of the popularity of the actors and the orthodox cinematic style, it is admitted that there was a real interest in capturing an audience. However, our aim was to attract a different kind of audience to that normally drawn to consumptive cinema. What was intended, however, was to capture not simply a sympathetic left wing following, but also predominantly right wing capitalist viewers.
MY COUNTRY MY HAT aims at embracing people with divergent political and class affiliations and bringing them together within a common forum to achieve a cross-fertilisation of cinematic reactions. Affluent whites who might identify with Piet (albeit a working class person) would be compelled to trace the steps of James' plight and to cope with the response of blacks to the contradictions of his situation. The structure of the film assists in this process where character identification could easily accommodate the three main actors and shift at different times between them. MY COUNTRY MY HAT aims to effect some notion of cinematic action by breaking with a unified picture of social relations and representing them from a number of diverse and often contradictory positions.
Rather than overtly rejecting political analysis (as argued by anti-apartheid groups), MY COUNTRY MY HAT aimed to reformulate the language within which political theory is couched. A number of objections to this position have been raised. The primary complaint is that accounts given of apartheid generally overlook certain material pre-considerations which underlie and foster racial discrimination.
Seen historically, the tendency of past South African films dealing with racial exploitation has been to crystalise issues out into simplistic sets of oppositions, especially the conception of the brutal white exploiter and the sympathetic black exploited. Though this contrast can be maintained in a limited sense, it nevertheless leaves unresolved an explanation of how business and other organisations either reinforce or oppose this.
Ironically, in film terms a related set of oppositions appear in the genre of the Hollywood Western: town versus country, civilised versus barbaric, peace versus war, garden versus desert and so on. It is also ironical that bourgeois capitalist organisations couch their welfare initiatives in terms which seek to abolish racial prejudice and the so-called ugly head of discrimination.
If apartheid is conceived as the system of relations which divides people along lines identifiable by colour, origin or language, then clearly there is a wide spectrum of groups who share the same views in opposing it. These include the traditional left, capitalist right, and all those institutions like the church, rally groups and so on who fall somewhere inbetween.
Another major set of oppositions which My COUNTRY MY HAT attempts to combat is the contrast between the individual and the State or Society. Frequently, the dilemma of James in the film has been expressed as that of the single solitary individual fighting a massive and unyielding system. (What is interesting about the politics of this is that the same critics neglect to comment on Piet who operates within the identical framework, though with different effect) - MY COUNTRY MY HAT tries to show that both the concepts of the Individual and the System are abstractions which derive from some off-shoot of liberal theory.
James Fingo does not exist as an individual. Rather, he exists as a political subject who is thrust between an oppressive legal apparatus and a social climate which confers on him the status of a boy'. By the same token, Piet is also defined in relation to the institutions around him: his municipal employers, amongst others.
Whatever course of action is available to both Piet and James can only be seen in terms of the relative spaces opened up by these institutions. These spaces can be thought of as ideological loopholes. For Piet this loop-hole exists when he tricks his boss into parting with information about a suspected thief. For James, another loophole exists when he exploits the possibilities of acquiring an illegal pass.
The actions and interactions of each of the actors in the film are made possible or precluded not because of an initial personal ingenuity but for the most part because of shifts in the Organisation and functioning of these institutions. The theory of political action being offered in the film dispenses with a notion of a totally opposing system in favour of a series of inter-related state functionaries: the institutions of the police, the law courts, the municipal organisation, petit bourgeois organisations, the poodle parlour, and so on. What is important about these is that even though they are generally held together within the total concept of the in-State, a closer look at each reveals internal tensions, inconsistencies, and dislocations, which in turn open up possibilities for political exploitation.
I would like to conclude by referring to a paper in CASHIERS DU CINEMA, 1969, Nos 216, 217/ written by J. L. Comolli and J. Narboni. These authors distinguish five different kinds of films. This classification is not done in terms of the division of films into genres, but in terms of the extent to which they disrupt the connection between cinema and technology. The distinctions are:
1. Films which are imbued with the dominant ideology in pure and unadulterated form;
2. Films which attack ideology through direct political action;
3. Films in which content is not explicitly political, but where criticism is practiced through its form;
4. Films with an explicit political content, but which unquestionably adopt the language and imagery of the prevailing ideology; and
5. Films which operate through internal criticism. This criticism splits the dominant ideology by showing that it is riddled with cracks.
In the present context of South African society, deeply divided on questions of race and class, it is my belief that a viable course for political cinema lies in the last of these theoretical categories. The strength of this position is that although they would seem to belong to the prevailing ideology, they nevertheless effect serious rifts with it. MY COUNTRY MY HAT attempts to achieve this at a number of different levels:
a) through the ambiguity of its genre;
b) through the open-endedness of the pass law system;
c) through its anti-liberal stance and opposition to traditional categories;
d) Historically, through its reception by both politically left and right wing audiences