Introducing outsiders to a creative scene seemingly far more vibrant than most of us realized, Petter Ringbom‘s Shield and Spear finds post-Apartheid South Africa brimming with art, music and activism despite widespread disappointment with those leading its government. Eye-opening and sometimes ebullient, its focus is ultimately more political than aesthetic, but not so much as to negate its appeal on the fest circuit for trendspotters in music and fashion.
Though he winds up introducing more characters than can be listed here, Ringbom opens with one embodying the disorienting racial and cultural mashups at play: Xander Ferreira, the eye-catching frontman of multiracial, multi-genre pop band Gazelle. His leopard-print fez and boldly patterned suit promise an unwillingness to blend in that is common to the film’s subjects, especially the impossibly cool fashion collective The Smarteez: Male designers who make women’s clothes to pay the rent but are happier putting men in dresses and pith helmets, they appropriate ingredients in ways that provoke on many levels. While the Smarteez are playful in their gender-bending, photographer Zanele Muholi has little choice but to be serious: A lesbian whose gay subjects are frequent targets of violence, she spends as much time trying to keep members of her community safe as promoting her art.
Muholi winds up getting a bigger slice of Ringbom’s attention than the doc’s more party-minded interviewees, but even more goes to Brett Murray, the white artist who found himself in a controversy with racial overtones after he painted the nation’s black president, Jacob Zuma, with his genitals exposed. While Zuma’s incensed supporters were quick to call him a racist, Murray got his start making art that loudly supported the ANC and the abolishment of Apartheid; his lampooning of Zuma reflected a disillusionment with a leader who has been widely accused of corruption and whose polygamy and extramarital activities have been tabloid fodder for years.
Viewers might hope for more concert footage of groups like Gazelle, BLK JKS and The Brother Moves On, but it’s hard to fault Ringbom for latching onto the Murray story, which offers not only dramatic news footage — on the same day, two different vandals defaced his painting in the art gallery that was showing it — but death threats: Mobs demonstrated at the artist’s studio, he was sued, and the spokesman for a Baptist church made the maybe-not-very-Christian suggestion that Murray be stoned to death.
The open menace in this story feeds the film’s closing scenes, in which many interviewees worry for the future of a revolution that inspired the world but, like so many before and since, threatens not to live up to its promise. But from Muholi to Brother singer Siya Mthembu comes the retort to that concern: No matter how important the ANC’s work was two decades ago, they suggest, this revolution no longer belongs to those who started it. Social change, they all seem to agree, will now be driven by provocative cultural output as much as by laws and elections.
Production companies: Openbox, Le Castle Film Works, Shield & Spear
Director-Screenwriter-Director of photography-Editor: Petter Ringbom
Producers: Alysa Nahmias, Petter Ringbom
Executive producers: Christophe Charlier, Marquise Stillwell
Sales: Petter Ringbom
No rating, 89 minutes