I will be the first to admit to you that I really know next to nothing about South African cinema. I’ve made a decision to remedy that, starting with a neo-Western that would bring Sergio Leone to his feet in applause, FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLE.
At the outset of the film, we meet five kids, ranging from their early to mid-teens, who live in the makeshift shantytown of Railway, which is just over the hill from Marseille, a railroad town near Johannesburg, South Africa. The kids and most of the inhabitants are Basotho, a Bantu ethnic group whose ancestors have lived in southern Africa since around the fifth century. In the film and in reality, most of the time they are referred to as “Sotho”. As is common knowledge for most people, the indigenous peoples of South Africa have been exploited ever since the arrival of the white people, also known as Afrikaners.
In the beginning of the film, due to the financial collapse of Marseilles and the impending end of Apartheid, Afrikaner police forces are on the prowl in Railway to collect money from business owners and to otherwise cause chaos. Our group of five kids, also known as, you guessed it, the FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLE are dedicated to protecting their town from Afrikaner police interference. Our five fingers are: Zulu, “the leader”, Lerato “the heart and soul” (and also the only girl in the group), Unathi aka Pastor, “the story-teller”, Luyanda aka Cockroach “the broken one”, Bongani aka Pockets “the rich one”, and Tau aka The Lion “the meanest”.
Whenever the police come through Railway, this group of tween heroes throws rocks at them, hits them with sticks, and all manner of nuisance to get them to leave and mostly to show that they are not welcome. On one particular day of fighting, things go particularly awry, resulting in the death of two policeman, Lerato getting injured, and Tau to leave behind the Five Fingers for fifteen years.
Like any good western, Tau the Lion, the mythical hero returns to his hometown to find it changed and totally corrupted. Pockets is now the mayor, Unathi is now a REAL pastor, Luyanda is now the leader of the new police force commissioned by Bongani , who is now the mayor. Lerato and her father still own the tavern in Railway, while most other people have been brought down the hill to “New Marseilles”.
While in the past, the Afrikaners were the ones causing corruption in the town, now the town is under the thumb of an ominous figure referred to as “The Ghost” who is blind in one eye and has a low booming thunderous voice. He has a gang of thugs that try to intimidate Tau out town.
I won’t expose any more of the plot, as to avoid spoilers, but this film enthralled me from beginning to end. It’s a film with one of the most devastating endings I’ve experienced in quite a while (yes, I cried, leave me alone).
Shot in Johannesburg, South Africa by cinematographer Shaun Lee, the natural beauty of the desert makes the perfect setting for a Western. The director, Michael Matthews in his feature debut, really encompasses the feel of Westerns; perhaps not so much those of the John Ford variety, but more of the Spaghetti Western/Sam Peckinpah tradition. While playing with the themes and tropes of the thousands of Westerns preceding it, the film is fresh and unique and does not fall trap to clichés. The screenplay, written by Sean Drummond (who also wrote the script for Shaun Lee’s first short film, Sweetheart) finely twists the mythos of the conquering heros and dastardly villains with the reality of life in the deserts of South Africa.
The actors in this film are incredible. The children in the film are all local villagers who are in theater classes near where the film was shot who received direction very well, according to IMDB. Vuyo Dabula (Invictus, Avengers: Age of Ultron) is a revelation as the adult Tau. He did almost all of his own stunts and gives a great performance as the strong silent hero. Kenneth Nkosi (District 9, Tsotsi) is incredibly convincing as Bongani, the corrupt mayor who had good intentions but forgot about them once he got a taste of power. Anthony Oseyemi is incredibly foreboding and creepy as Congo, or “The Ghost”, and Zethu Dlomo (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Black Sails) gives a powerful performance as grieving widow and terrified mother, Lerato.
I implore you to check out FIVE FINGERS FOR MARSEILLES if you are attending Fantasia Film Festival. It is an official selection and it will be screening Sunday, July 29th. Look out for a US theatrical run; which I hope happens sooner rather than later so I can see it on the big screen.