A Western-stye tale of female empowerment that sees two women, Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) and Poppie (Izel Bzuidenhout) ride across the South African Karoo in search of adventure and self-fulfillment, Flatland was chosen to open the Berlinale Panorama Section. We talked to director Jenna Bass all about her landmark feminist film.
When did the journey to making the film start?
I started writing the movie in 2009. At that point it was a totally different story. It’s grown a lot since then. Initially my only ambition was to make a Western set in South Africa. It grew from there into something a lot more complicated.
The movie has a lot of similarities with Thelma and Louise. Did this inspire you?
It’s an interesting question. I’m definitely aware of Thelma and Louise. I’ve watched it several times and I’ve really enjoyed it. But I think the only way it’s similar to our film is that there are two women protagonists who are morally ambiguous and go on adventures. I think it’s more testimony to the fact that that’s the only other reference point.
If I was looking for a film about men who were morally ambiguous and going on adventures, there’d be countless ones to choose from. So I wouldn’t say its a particular reference. What I find so crazy is that Thelma and Louise is considered an old movie now. There have been so few films to look for those kind of characters in.
The film has the structure of the Western? Why are you interested in this kind of story?
I’ve dedicated a lot of time to thinking about it. I find it fascinating that it’s one of the oldest genres and it’s also one of the most specific. A lot of genres are quite generic. For example horror, you know it’s gonna be scary, but other than that it can be about anyone and can be anywhere. But the Western has to have certain things and be about certain people, so it’s a very indefinable genre. When we were pitching the film we had a lot of resistance from people who were like: “You can’t call this a Western”. I was like: “Why not? What is a Western?” And people give me all sorts of definitions for what a Western was. And I was like: “Are you sure? Did you find that in the dictionary?”
So I find it really interesting that genres such as horror and romance and comedy, which are really ancient, only became “proper” genres in more modern times. The Western is actually kind of new at the same time and almost doesn’t deserve to be a genre. What I ultimately wanted to take from it was this idea of people being able to find out who they are outside of society and making space for themselves outside of all conventional rules and structures. I think that’s a very attractive thing for a lot of people.
There’s one scene where someone opens his wallet to show all of his girlfriends. And he calls it the Rainbow Nation. Is the film trying to suggest that the idea of the Rainbow Nation is as big a myth as the Western itself?
My previous films have, directly or indirectly, dealt with the idea of the Rainbow Nation, it’s narrative and mythical aspects. I think in the particular example that you mentioned, it kinda portrays how something that used to be such a sacred, important ideal — the thing that’s going to unite all of us and save us and make our country peaceful and stable — is now basically a joke.
This guy is now using it to refer to all the conquests of woman that are in his wallet and the fact they are all different races. It was taken from something I heard someone say actually at one point. We think of stories of being frivolous and just for entertainment, but at the same time we look at national stories of who we are as being real and being unquestionable. There’s a lot to be learned from comparing them.
Was there any pushback because of the film’s subject matter?
We haven’t screened it publicly yet in South Africa, so we’ve yet to assess the reaction. I don’t know how people are going to respond to it. I did expect us to have more difficultly financing the film because it’s quite critical of the current state of South Africa. I felt that might be a barrier but we received a lot of support from our national film and video foundation. We’re really grateful for that.
For me the biggest pushback is the comment: “This film cannot be a Western if there are women in it”. Just having to fight for that for so many years. Now it’s so obvious but at the time I had to properly fight with people. Especially older men saying, “Sorry little girl, your film is not a Western.” That was the biggest fight.
Can you tell me a little about the Karoo, which serves as the landscape for this story?
South Africa is made up of many different parts and it has lots of different faces — the Karoo is one of them. It’s very different to Cape Town where I live. I was attracted to this area especially for the Western because its a very undeveloped vast place. Of course there are towns but they are scattered out and there’s not a lot of development. It’s very much been passed by in terms of how the country has been developing and where the resources have been invested. It’s really hot in summer and really cold in winter. I suppose its a place where these characters can be confronted by nature and space and must find out who they are. That felt very attractive in a sense. It’s also an Afrikaans speaking community so the film was always going to be in Afrikaans for that reason.
The use of language in the film is actually very interesting. Most of the white characters speak Afrikaans, but the black cop pursuing the two girls, Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi), mostly refuses to speak it. She mostly speaks in English — was this linguistic tension deliberate on your part?
It’s interesting that you picked it up. I think for South African audiences it’s a very complex aspect of the film but I’m never really sure how much of it translates to an international audience. The film is mainly in Afrikaans but Afrikaans is a really politicised language in South Africa. The origins of it or whether it’s a “white language” or not is really up for a lot of debate.
In Beauty’s case, its a language she has a very mixed relationship with because it’s a language that her generation would have been forced to learn and forced to study. And with the abolishment of apartheid later didn’t have anything to do with. Now she’s working in a community that requires her to speak Afrikaans. With her boss, with whom she has a really good relationship, she speaks Afrikaans. So she’ll basically speak it to people she wants to respect. But if she doesn’t want to respect people she’ll speak English. It’s not something that I can apply to a lot of people I know, but speaking Afrikaans can feel like a political statement. Language in general as a political statement is pretty much a South African idea.
Can you elaborate on how you became more political during the making of the film?
The process of making the film happened over like over a really long time, from 2009 to 2019. A lot has happened to my life and a lot has happened to the country since then. As I grew as a person, I added and changed the script. How I started to see the world differently was channeled into the script. So a lot of things have impacted that. In my case specifically, my films have been very influenced by the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa, which was a nationwide shutdown of universities by students which really brought home the fact that the generation I’m a part of is not willing to accept the official narrative anymore of everything being fine and everyone getting along, and basically demanding that the country’s resources are open to everyone. So that was a huge influence on me, but much more directly in my previous film, High Fantasy.
The film directly tackles the subject of rape. It’s a massive issue in South Africa. Is this something you really wanted to tackle?
I think gender-based violence is a huge thing everywhere. It’s extremely a huge crisis in South Africa. I think its definitely important to highlight that. I find that the way we do it in the film though is not what people expect. I think people expect to see a film about gender based violence or domestic abuse to be a husband hitting his wife or a dramatic rape. But when I tell people the film’s about a woman who gets raped on her wedding night, I still get a lot of responses like: “How can that happen? How can you be raped? It’s a wedding”. Even though we’ve opened up all these conversations there’s still all these grey areas which we’ve just glossed over. We can condemn racism when its someone saying something really public and mean but we won’t condemn racism and the kind of subtle violence we face every day. It’s the same with misogyny.
You’re a co-writer in Rafiki. Do you see sub-Saharan cinema as a pan-global movement, like you can work together?
I think we face a lot of the same misconceptions. Africa is often seen as a country. Even though it isn’t a country, it often means that whether we’re from South Africa or Kenya we’re faced with the same misconception.
I interviewed her at Cannes and she mentioned she wanted to fight the myth of the single story…
Absolutely. We have that in common. Even if the stories we have to tell are very different and we are very different filmmakers. But we both understand what that fight is like; having to fight against the single story narrative. I think there is a growing sense of companionship and camaraderie between different African filmmakers. I think there’s a lot more interest in forming a pan-African cinema movement and collaborating with each other and helping each other and each other’s films. Which was one of the reasons it was so great to work with Wanuri, to work on a Kenyan production as a South African. I was originally a bit nervous because I didn’t feel like the right person to tell the story. I didn’t feel qualified to do it. But Wanuri was very supportive and willing to work with me and it was a great experience collaborating with her.