Rap Rap Rap Cool

The style and substance of Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s nihilistic, post-apartheid Necktie Youth

The South African Tom Cruise is in full effect. Joking with one of his mates, Sibs Shongwe-La Mer strides along 23rd Street outside the Chelsea multiplex where his debut feature, Necktie Youth, is enjoying its North American premiere run at the Tribeca Film Festival. There’s a spring-loaded grace to his gait, and something to the way he cocks his head when he laughs, a live-wire agility that catches the light. Before you know that the 23-year-old South African filmmaker is “Someone to Watch,” he’s already someone to watch. Even on one of Manhattan’s most colorful blocks—home to the fabled Chelsea Hotel and the adjacent Spanish chophouse, the Man of La Mancha-themed kitsch palace, El Quijote—the kind of stretch where, on this festive week anyway, the random stranger you spy sitting on a bench looking a lot like James Franco is, in fact, James Franco—Mer stands out from the crowd. He cuts a figure, slipping down onto the front patio of a small, convivial gay bar that has been virtually commandeered by the boisterous, huggy casts and crews of various indie flicks indulging in post-screening drink-fests.

“That’s September,” a publicist tells me, using the name Mer adopts for the insistently self-possessed young man he plays in the film, a “rap rap rap cool contemporary culture Pitchfork guy” who is one voice among many in a cast of unknown new talents. The film is a brash and ballsy generational cri du coeur of the sort that only ever gets made the first time, by maverick imaginations charging out of the gate, before they know any better or have anything to lose, when mistakes can still look like inspiration and the world knows nothing of them. No money, and style to burn.

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The name September is not insignificant. The film is dedicated: “In loving memory of 1991.” That’s the year Mer was born, on September 11, no less. “I wanted to give a memorial to that space,” he says about 9/11, but in a more specific sense intended to evoke a more hopeful time in South African history, before the regression into cynicism and corruption that the film captures. By 1994, the country was under the guidance of Nelson Mandela, and the new millennial generation would be the first to come of age after what an unseen narrator in Necktie calls “that apartheid shit.” It’s a structuring absence in the film. The black and white kids of the title, raised in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg, might seem to fulfill the promise of new South Africa. They are sharp, well-educated and beautiful, seeming to lack for nothing. Yet, they’re completely adrift—not merely cut off from history, but haunted by its ghostly weight.

Necktie Youth introduces a cross-section of them in short, slice-of-life sequences that follow the arc of a day in the long aftermath of a tragedy, interwoven with sober confessionals at the behest of a fictional documentary crew. Among them there’s September, “the dark-skinned Tom Cruise” in his own half-serious assessment; his best friend Jabz (Bonko Cosmo Khoza), who pops eight Ativans before hopping behind the wheel of a Jaguar he doesn’t own, spinning through a day of shit-talk, existential angst, and Super-8 dreams; Tali (Giovanna Winetzki) and Rafi (Ricci-Lee Kalish), the “hip-hop Jewish girls who hang out with black guys,” whose analysis of sex with other girls and the virtues of “uncircumcised cock” is hilariously indulgent; and Tanya (Colleen Balchin), who, like Jabz, is profoundly vulnerable and struggling. “They’re making irrational decisions that are rational for their circumstances,” Mer says. “If I was going through this pain I would be doing the same shit. They would be villainous if they didn’t have a sense of being lost.”

As much as the film displays a jittery flash, it’s grounded by broken-hearted idealism.

“Our parents were fighters,” Mer says. A week has passed since we first crossed paths, and he’s back in his native Johannesburg, Skyping from his father’s home in Sandton as he decelerates from a globe-hopping festival run. Though the director now calls Cape Town home, he grew up in the same McMansion-ish suburb that supplies the film’s backdrop and the same house where Necktie Youth’s final, jarring scene takes place. “My dad had a really hard life, had been persecuted, and now [his generation] is looking at us saying, ‘You guys have it so easy, why aren’t you just brilliant?’ There’s a feeling of, ‘Man, I’m after the fight, and now I’ll never be worthy.’”

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In the film’s establishing sequence, a girl of 19 or 20 leaves a troubled, diffident voice message for a friend as the camera roams an upscale estate, pausing to take in framed family photographs and the bustle of servants in what feels like a clean, well-ordered vacuum. As the girl, Emily, walks into the yard, her mother steps out of a sedan, cell phone glued to her ear. A little girl tugs at the distracted and irritable woman for attention but gets shooed away. Outside, Emily walks across the lawn. She steps up on a chair and loops a noose around her neck. Soon she’s dangling from a tree limb as the panicky groundskeepers race to pull her down. Inside the house, a small video camera records the scene, live-streaming the suicide to the internet. The chill of alienation, of emotional detachment, aches in the movie’s bones. Lights on. Nobody’s home.

“They were traveling the world reaping the spoils of a new democracy,” Mer says, alluding to the absent parents in his film and in the real lives of those he based the story on—including himself. With the lifting of economic sanctions and a global flood of capital to buoy black enterprise, a new upper class was established. “My father is providing. I’m privileged. But I don’t know these people at the end of the day. I don’t know who my parents are. There were those who felt a real communion with their parents, but it was always with hippie parents. So that also wasn’t cool, because the parents were at the parties smoking weed with their children. That’s a prison in itself: Who’s the adult here?”

The kids, who really aren’t such kids anymore, fill that void with the same things kids always defer to: sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (or, in this case, the rap music of Big Baby Gandhi). And the addiction of the 21st century: viral media. “There’s too much face value and too much pretense and too much desire to be desirable,” Mer says. “It’s like you have a best friend who’s basically MTV, who’s basically Facebook—not someone you can confide in. People come up to me, a bunch of kids so excited, saying, ‘This is like the kids we grew up with.’” Mer half-laughs, “At the premiere party, one of the kids who was friends with the kids from Kids told me, ‘Wow, your movie is pretty much the same experience as what was happening then.” Larry Clark’s mid-’90s provocation, written by cinematic savant Harmony Korine, was about New York teenagers in a skateboards-and-ketamine freefall, wilding out in the shadow of AIDS. That movie turns 20 this year, roughly the same age as the characters in Necktie Youth.


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The more things change, and so on, but Mer has his own culturally specific story to tell.

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Necktie Youth doesn’t look like anything that’s come out of South Africa before—unless you consider the visual extremes in the videos of that other pop-culture phenomenon, Die Antwoord. The striking monochrome cinematography, by Chuanne Blofield, immediately sets the film apart as much as its manic-depressive dramatic content, hopscotching narrative structure and idiomatic bursts of dialogue. “Most of the films that have appeared from South Africa the last 15 years are films about the ghetto and apartheid, like Tsotsi, or made by filmmakers who are not South Africans, like Cry Freedom,” says Frederic Boyer, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival. Boyer also mentions Kids, which is a fair comparison, in the way that the “wasted youth” template serves any generation that needs it, and in the sense of frontline social reportage imported into the dialogue—not so much the stuff of “hard-R” MPAA ratings or streaming tits-and-ass jollies—which maps a messed-up anthropology.

“When you globalize a reality, it can almost seem like your own reality is a fiction,” Mer says. “This is a small movie we made in Johannesburg about us being us.”

When he was 14, Mer’s girlfriend committed suicide. Her name was Amy. “She was extremely intellectual,” Mer says, recalling her acute sensitivity. “Which really must have been alienating to her. To have been hyper-aware but surrounded by 15-year-olds. On phone calls we had she would say stuff that was really profound that I didn’t understand then, but I did in retrospect. There was a real inherent wisdom there, and a real sweetness, and a terrible kindness.”

Up to that point, Mer’s creative activities mostly had to do with music. Though he cites Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix as major obsessions, the home recordings he made with friends more closely echoed Blink 182. “Just terrible,” he recalls. “I’m happy those archives are dead, otherwise people would give me a lot less street cred. Us with high-pitched voices. It’s not a good time.”

Before Amy’s suicide, Mer’s father had caught him huffing marijuana, and made him take a summer job working for a friend. As it turns out, that was the best thing that could’ve happened. The friend was a filmmaker named Angus Gibson, one of South Africa’s leading documentarians and an Academy Award nominee for the 1996 Mandela, produced by Jonathan Demme and co-directed by Jo Menell. Mer got on-the-job training at a production company, but Gibson also encouraged his interest in movies, and in the short narratives he wrote, which would become a way to process his girlfriend’s death. “I’m sure they were terrible,” he says of the vignettes he scribbled. “This tragedy had just happened and he was trying to keep me distracted with films.”

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The new association did nothing to discourage Mer’s enjoyment of weed, though. At 15, he was arrested for possession, and began an on-again, off-again relationship with the courts. His time in a youth diversion program made nary a dint. Once he was done, Mer remembers with a laugh, “I smoked weed and made a video about it. My dad called the cops and I went back to trial.” Mer spent five months in a youth rehabilitation center, and got stuck with the threat of a five- to seven-year jail sentence if he got busted again before turning 21. His career choices, he jokes now, were “hobo, criminal, or director.”

But as the budding filmmaker developed his skills, he absorbed everything in his path. “The mentality of the people around me felt so alien to what I wanted to experience,” he continues. “I was interested in anything that was somewhat subversive but intelligent. I’d get into stuff like the Sex Pistols, but also Kafka. There was this time of being young and bored where I wanted to read everything and see everything, this kind of devouring stage. I got a projector and fell into severe cinephilia. I’d consume any piece of cinema from Man Ray to Fritz Lang’s films, Pasolini, Fellini, De Sica—anything I could get my hands on.”

But Mer had no interest in a formal film education. He left high school at 18 without meeting one final requirement, and went to Cape Town to work as an editor at a production company. “I had this whole Pasolini-intellectual-rebel approach that I thought the film school system would completely repress,” Mer says. A year later, he quit that job and started shooting music videos. Then he made a short film called “Death of Tropics,” and followed it up with a 45-minute piece called Territorial Pissings—adapted from the material he’d been writing in the years since Amy’s death, with a nod to Nirvana. It got into a sidebar at the Venice Film Festival, and won a Special Jury mention in another sidebar at the Locarno Film Festival. “It was very self-indulgent,” Mer says. “A pretentious arthouse film that would cut to long voice-overs on a distorted microphone and visions in Super-8.”

But Mer rode the buzz. He talked to producers, and spent time in Berlin working on his photography career. When he returned to South Africa, he met a producer who could enable him to finish the feature the way he wanted to do it. “Venice said I just had to add 15 minutes. Everyone said, ‘Oh, great. We’re going to go to set for two days. Quickest production ever.’”

Instead, he decided to rip Territorial Pissings up and start again. A 10-day writing binge, stoked by copious amounts of pot-smoking, took Mer deep into the zone that became Necktie Youth. “I went to the producer and said, ‘You’re not going to like it.’ And I dropped it on his desk. He said, ‘Dude, this is a new screenplay!’ I was like, ‘Just read it.’ And then he read it and called me at night. ‘Oh, you motherfucker. Let’s go!’”

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A review of Necktie Youth published in The Hollywood Reporter likens the film’s black-and-white camerawork to the visual style of Chris Marker’s classic science-fiction film La Jetee, which famously used almost nothing but still images to compose a story about a man who travels back in time from a post-apocalyptic future to 1961 Paris—where he falls in love with a woman he remembers from a cryptic photograph. Necktie Youth, indeed, plays like an anti-travelogue of Johannesburg, which looks like another planet in Mer’s perspective. The often stark, contrast-y look, achieved with a 5D and an array of lenses, also reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

“I watched lots of Godard, and Fellini, Jules and Jim, Down by Law,” says Mer, who pays irreverent homage to the irreverent JLG by throwing some giant captions up on the screen in the middle of scenes. The Zebra-stripe palette of Breathless is a kind of credo, as is Fellini’s 8 ½.

“When you’re a kid in Johannesburg and you’re watching the opening sequence of 8 ½, it’s such a bizarre weird world because it’s not in Technicolor, it’s not perceived the way you ever perceived your own world. So it seems even more romantic. I had this idea that since this is a new place, since I’m taking you to a space in the world that you’ve never been, with a bunch of kids that you’ve never met, in a city that you’ve never experienced, in a part of Africa that you haven’t seen—why don’t I strip it? Why don’t I make it something else? Why don’t I make it look romantic and feel romantic? Like a jungle, like a dream?”

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That visual aesthetic will grab a lot of attention. Mer and his crew cooked up a few snazzy set-pieces. A climactic party sequence, in which Tanya takes way too much of the wrong drug, captures psychic disorientation through the use of a body rig that represents the character’s lurching incapacitation. It’s a bit of a shout-out to Spike Lee and his famous “double-dolly” shot, which creates the illusion that the camera’s subject is gliding across the screen.

“I remember watching Hearts of Darkness for the 10 millionth time,” Mer recalls. “[Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola] is battling the budget. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to do this bombing sequence and the Vietnamese guys I hired are going to fight the Viet Cong.’ What the hell? Like, these are his problems. He needs more machine guns. It’s a lot harder to do something with a big vision.” Necktie Youth, obviously, was not an effort to recreate the Vietnam War, but the practical dilemmas are not that different. “Can we track this? Well, actually, no. OK, can we just put it on a skateboard with tape around the camera and push it? Having fewer resources is the tougher fight. It’s the fight of the first feature. The first feature is always gritty. It has to be something to show. It’s the struggle to make something stylistic and important that someone turns around and says, ‘Ah, that guy should make more movies.’”

 

Photos by Chuanne Blofield