'Flatland': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Once upon a time in South Africa.

The opening film in the Berlinale Panorama section is a contemporary quasi-western with a feminist twist set in South Africa's desert badlands.

Set against the big skies and wide-open plains of South Africa's semi-desert Great Karoo region, Flatland wraps crime thriller conventions around a caustic commentary on race, gender and class politics in the post-Mandela “rainbow nation”. Writer-director Jenna Bass initially set out to write a feminist contemporary western with her third feature, but ended up with a hybrid mix of picaresque road movie and emotionally rich, female-driven character study. Opening the Berlinale's Panorama section with a splash, Flatland is a rough ride in places, staying into clumsy caricature and tonally uneven melodrama. But it is never boring, and riffs on timely themes in an entertaining, compassionate manner.

Although the global audience for films made in a mix of Afrikaans and English language will always be pretty niche, Flatland has the marketable novelty factor of a dramatic milieu rarely seen outside South African theaters. It also features a winning central performance by Faith Baloyi as a dogged detective with a selection of glossy wigs and an addiction to cheap soap operas. There are pleasing echoes of both Fargo and Thelma and Louise in the droll, darkly comic mix here. With backing from European TV networks and sales agents, this charmingly eccentric not-quite-western could be gunning for modest sales prospects beyond the festival bubble.

Flatland opens in the backwater town of Beaufort at the wedding between nervous teenage beauty Natalie Jonkers (Nicole Fortuin), a young woman of color, and her white policeman husband Bakkies Bezuidenhout (De Klerk Oelofse). Implausibly innocent and virginal for a 21st century heroine, Natalie's wedding night becomes a terrifying sexual disaster area. Fearing she has made a terrible mistake, she runs off to spend the night with her beloved pet horse instead, armed with her new groom's pistol for self-defense. Inevitably, she runs into trouble and ends up killing a church pastor who threatens both her and the animal.

Turning for support to her former childhood best friend, the thrill-starved and heavily pregnant Poppie Van Niekerk (Izel Bezuidenhout), a desperate Natalie goes on the run on horseback across the Karoo, a strikingly cinematic backdrop with a classic Wild West look. Along the way, these runaway bad girls meet up with the father of Poppie's baby, womanizing truck driver Branko (Clayton Evertson), and make plans to flee to Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the fabulously named and flamboyantly bewigged Cape Town detective Beauty Cuba (Baloyi) takes a keen interest in the Beaufort case when her ex-lover Billy Duiker (Brandon Daniels), newly released from jail after 15 years, is framed for the killing that Natalie committed.

These two main plotlines become entangled after Beauty figures out that Natalie pulled the trigger, which lends extra momentum to her poignant dream of rekindling her long-lost romance with Billy, despite his apparent indifference. At which point a fairly rambling, quirky, uneven road movie heats up into a high-stakes thriller featuring shady deals, broken promises, jailbreaks and heartbreaks and gunfights in dusty saloons. Bass is more adept at bittersweet human drama than pistol-packing action, but she uses these more violent scenes to tease out the unspoken racial and sexual tensions that lie just beneath the surface story.

In-keeping with its western-inspired roots, Flatland puts a lightly feminist spin on a very macho, patriarchal genre that Bass says she wanted to deconstruct more out of love than anger. She certainly finds some pleasing contemporary angles on the form's traditional blend of epic landscapes, amoral tough guys and even tougher frontier women. Notably, she is working here with a largely female cast and crew, diverse in age and ethnicity. Technical highlights including Sarah Cunningham's cinematography, by turns fuzzy-dreamy and jarringly vivid, and composer Bao-Tran Tran's pulsing electronic score. The unschooled younger cast members are a little stiff in places, but Baloyi's Beauty is a hugely compelling anti-heroine, a kind of South African Marge Gunderson battling against a cruel universe with infinite patience and defiant optimism.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Proper Film, Unafilm
Cast: Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin, Izel Bezuidenhout, De Klerk Oelofse, Eric Nobbs, Brendon Daniels, Clayton Evertson, Albert Pretorius
Director, screenwriter: Jenna Bass
Producers: David Horler, Desiree Nosbusch, Alexandra Hoesdorff, Roshanak Behesht Nedjad
Cinematographer: Sarah Cunningham
Editor: Jacques De Villiers
Music: Bao-Tran Tran
Sales company: The Match Factory
117 minutes