'Sew the Winter to My Skin': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Once Upon a Time in South Africa's Wild West.

South African director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka weaves an almost wordless Western-style epic from the life of a legendary outlaw.

Dramatizing the true story of a notorious outlaw who achieved folk hero status in pre-apartheid South Africa, Sew the Winter to My Skin is an operatic mix of Western-style manhunt thriller and boldly experimental biopic. Expanding on the methods he used on his 2013 feature, Of Good Report, writer-director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka tells this unorthodox adventure yarn with great stylistic verve and minimal dialogue. Instead of spoken words, he relies heavily on visual signposting, music, sound design, on-screen text, screams, chants and prayers, all punctuated by the occasional fragment of lucid speech.

Qubeka's largely wordless, diffuse, time-scrambled narrative feels willfully confusing at first, but it rewards patient viewers with its sensory riches and hypnotic rhythms. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Terrence Malick's latterday oeuvre, where speech is often subsumed into the grand symphonic roar of history. One of the more formally daring world premieres in Toronto this week, Sew the Winter to My Skin is a visionary work that will require equally adventurous distributors to give it a home beyond the art cinema bubble, Meanwhile, a healthy festival run is assured. Next stops after TIFF will be Cape Town, South Africa, and London, both in October.

The meat of the story is a poetic retelling of the life of John Kepe (Ezra Mabengeza), self-declared "Samson of the Boschberg," a kind of Robin Hood figure in 1940s South Africa. Hiding himself away in a huge cave perched high in the mountainous Great Karoo region for 12 years, Kepe's crimes mostly involved burglary and stealing livestock for his consumption. But he sealed his fate in December 1951 by murdering Dirk Goliath, a shepherd who had recognized him. Following a huge manhunt, Kepe was finally apprehended in February 1952 and sent to trial. Found guilty and sentenced to death, he was hanged that June.

Some historical accounts contest whether this modern-day Samson really did kill Goliath. Qubeka hedges opaquely around this crime, as he does with most of the film's hard facts. He is much more interested in Kepe the myth than the man, the elusive sheep rustler whose audacious exploits made him a potent emblem of invincible resistance to white colonial rule among his fellow black South Africans. The director has great fun with this folkloric image, initially presenting Kepe as a mysterious mud creature looming out of the darkness. The reason for this transformation, both comic and disgusting, is only revealed later. Qubeka also frames the fictionalized posse on Kepe's trail, led by Nazi sympathizer Gen. Botha (Peter Kurth) and a flamboyantly mustached sidekick, Black Wyatt Earp (Zolisa Xaluva), in explicitly Wild West terms.

Sew the Winter to My Skin is a long, meandering and sometimes confounding film. It could arguably have been a half-hour shorter, with a more coherent narrative throughline. But once you surrender to its loopy style and disjointed structure, this operatically scaled epic delivers plenty of sublimely beautiful moments. Mabengeza's lead performance, which is highly physical and expressive despite his tiny handful of lines, is a work of art in itself. Jonathan Kovel's camerawork is lush and painterly while Braam du Toit's glistening, dreamy, mournful score adds to the sense of lyrical otherness, real history filtered through the golden haze of myth.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Die Gesellschaft DGS, Yellowbone Entertainment
Cast: Ezra Mabengeza, Peter Kurth, Kandyse McClure, Bok van Blerk. Zolisa Xaluva
Director-screenwriter: Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
Cinematographer: Jonathan Kovel
Editor: Layla Swart
Producers: Layla Swart, Michael Henrichs
Art director: Emelia Weavind
Costume designer: Pierre Vienings
Music: Braam du Toit
Sales company: Rushlake Media, Germany
118 minutes