One, The White Masai, was less an African film than a European feature set in Africa. Directed German director Hermine Huntgeburth, who made her first movie back in 1978, it’s the story of the romance between a Swiss woman, Carola (Nina Hoss), who comes to Kenya as a tourist and stays as the wife of a Masai warrior.
The White Masai’s credits report that it’s “based on a true story” which, of course, is another way of saying that it’s not, in fact, a true story. That need not be an impediment; what is an impediment, though, is Huntgeburth’s inability or reluctance to plunge beneath the postcard pictorialism of her images and make some interpretive sense of what they’re putatively recording.
If it weren’t for Hoss’s good looks and charming manner, it would be clear that far from being a good-hearted warrior on the cultural understanding front, she’s at heart a snob. And despite her sexual compatibility with her new, good-looking husband Lemalian (Jacky Ido) and her initial willingness to share some of the difficulties of nomadic life, she’s a prig.
For example, when her boyfriend, whom she’s just dumped for Lemalian, complains that Carola’s just looking for a good, er, out for good sex, Carola gets all shocked. It’s as if A) of course she’s struck up an intellectual relationship with someone she’s shared a few glances and a couple of dances with and B) there’s something terribly demeaning about wanting…you know. This is a peculiarly modern variety of priggishness, but it’s priggishness just the same. Yet, as the scene plays out, with the actor playing the boyfriend all slouchy and pouting and Carola sitting up straight and smiling, it’s clear we’re supposed to be shocked at the boyfriend’s crudity.
Things get worse after Carola makes the arduous journey to Lemalian’s village, which is just a collection of easily dismantled huts set among sparse vegetation where the local Masai can graze their precious goats and cattle. She makes some adjustments to tribal life bathing by herself, following taboos about food preparation and then, well, that’s enough then. It’s time, the film indicates, for Lemalian to make his share of adjustments.
But whereas Carola is mostly just roughing it, the adjustments Lemalian are supposed to make affect the very basis of his worldview. It’s as if Carola has brought bourgeois European civilization in her backpack. This comes very nearly literally true when Carola, despite the almost complete lack of cash in the Masai economy, decides to open a shop in Lemalian’s village. No one, of course, makes any jokes about Swiss tribal impulses towards mercantilism; the cash register as totem, so to speak.
Nor does the film seem to find anything wrong with Carola’s introduction of easy access to beer. Indeed, the local missionary priest, heretofore hostile to Carola, looks around her store admiringly and admits that he got her all wrong, that now he can see she’s clearly someone who can make a difference. But when Lemalian’s new tendency towards drunkenness exacerbates his sexual jealousy and leads to violence, the entire blame is laid at his crude, backwards door. Certainly he deserves some share, but all of it?
Huntgeburth is blazingly indifferent to all these contradictions, following the middle-class line the multiculturalism is simply a way of allowing “backwards” people to retain some of their more colorful and tantalizing habits along with them as they make larger adjustments to more “enlightened” Western ways. In the meantime, filmmakers such as Huntgeburth can record the beautiful landscapes in which these noble ach! not always so noble savages live.
Tsotsi is a United Kingdom/South African production, in that there was U.K. money involved, and perhaps some production assistance as well. But writer-director Gavin Hood, though a product of the UCLA film school, is a native South African himself and his screenplay is an adaptation of a novel by renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard.
Yet somehow the movie feels artificial, an unconvincing morality tale stretched over a clinically sociological depiction of township poverty. A charismatically stoic Presley Chweneagae stars as the title character, a young man so tough that his street name is simply the word for thug, Tsotsi. After an opening vignette demonstrating his capacity for ruthlessness, we watch him shoot a middle-class black woman and steal her car, not knowing her baby is in the backseat.
The rest of the movie consists of Tsotsi’s attempts to take care of the unwanted infant, which he can’t bring himself to jettison, and flashbacks of his own unhappy childhood and early criminal career. The present-time and past sequences dovetail thematically, of course, and are intended to explain how a sweet kid could grow up to be a terrifying thug who still carries the echo of goodness within him.
There’s nothing terribly complex here. On the contrary, the film is so neat that at times it doesn’t amount to anything more than a mechanism that congratulates its audience for its sympathy for the “difficult” Tsotsi. Hood, though, can stage a scene with more than simplistic film-school efficiency, and what Tsotsi the movie lacks in overall accomplishment, it sometimes attains in individual scenes.