By BRUCE DENNILL
Van Der Merwe / Directed by Bruce Lawley / PG
Jiving And Dying: The Radio Rats Story / Michael Cross / PG
Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie / Directed by Christiaan Olwagen / 16DL
The idea is unfussy and solid. Take a South African institution – the jokes about everyman simpleton Van Der Merwe – and tie enough of them together to make a script for a feature film that’s as gently, warmly amusing as they are. The reality is a tougher sell, not least because it’s tough to add layers to a character who is by definition as uncomplicated and naïve as they come, and who’s context rather reflects that. Rob Van Vuuren is a fine actor with a special flair for comedy, but as the title character, he is entirely hamstrung by a script that gives him precious little to work with – tired clichés about cultural clashes and father of the bride nerves resulting from the engagement of his daughter (Reine Swart) to an Englishman (Matthew Baldwin), which raises the intense, focused ire of his conservative father (Ian Roberts). As written, this Van Der Merwe is a caricature rather than a character, and the film relies on that pivot too much to be able to sustain interest beyond its flimsy set-up. Roberts has the most fun, but this is largely a missed opportunity.
A labour of love for filmmaker Michael Cross, this affectionate documentary about South African rock band The Radio Rats is a fine example of the power of passion – not only that of the film’s subjects, but that of its creator as well. Always a cult concern, the Rats developed a devoted following thanks to their big hit ZX Dan and a number of other well-regarded, if not as commercially successful, songs. It is the talent of songwriter Jonathan Handley that is made a major focus of the piece, with Cross revealing (for many) and giving due recognition to (for those in the know, relatively speaking) an ability that was underrated when Handley’s band were at their peak and which has been largely, and cruelly, ignored since. The film contains a good deal of footage from the Seventies and Eighties that adds authenticity and fills out for contemporary viewers the context in which the band lived and on which their songs commented. In the latter regard, the focus on the sub-cultures prevalent in the Rats’ hometown of Springs (just to the south of Johannesburg), including the unofficial side-effects of the area’s main industry, mining (Cyanide Lake) and other personal, well-observed themes, is fascinating. You don’t need to have been a fan of the band to enjoy the journey Cross takes you on here. Indeed, feeling anything other than enjoyment suggests your cynicism far exceeds your love for music in general and South African music specifically.
There is more South African music history in the spotlight in Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie, which looks at the lives of a group of friends in the wake of the suicide of Johannes Kerkorrel, arguably the leading light in the Voelvry Movement – the music-driven lobby for political, cultural and sexual freedom in a South Africa oppressed by racist right-wing conservatives willing to force youngsters to fight a pointless war to keep communism at bay (Vietnam and its ripostes, 20 years and a continent away). The inevitable hedonism that comes with throwing off such shackles means that the friends’ relationships develop in reckless, exciting circumstances that stand in stark contrast to the sobering insight displayed in Kerkorrel’s lyrics. Roelof Storm, as Kerkorrel, communicates the singer’s charisma, as well as his insecurities. A strong supporting cast includes Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Ilana Cilliers and the structure of the story, using flashbacks to patch together its various threads, plus the excellent soundtrack, makes this a winner – a compelling story of an unconventional character, thrust unwillingly into a position of leadership.