DIFF review – Necktie Youth: The lost kids

2015-07-18 17:39
Necktie Youth. Picture: Versfeld & Associates

Necktie Youth. Picture: Versfeld & Associates

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Necktie Youth
Directed by Sibs Shongwe-La Mer
Starring Colleen Balchin, Sibs Shongwe-La Mer, Kamogelo Moloi, Ricci-Lee Kalish, Giovanna Winetzki


There are two things that happened after the South African premiere of Necktie Youth – the highly anticipated and vaguely nihilistic debut feature from young film maker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer – that gave me pause.

The first was when, as the Q&A with the director began afterwards, music started playing, drowning him out. His producer appeared at the back of the cinema.

“Do not leave your seats! We are witnessing a revolution in South African film and here they are trying to make us leave the cinema when they f*cked up the projection, twice!” he shouted.

Shongwe-La Mer is known as a brilliant film brat who speaks his mind and creates some sort of drama whenever his film is shown on festivals around the world. At the Durban International Film Festival, the drama wasn’t of his making.

The Musgrave Cinema had begun screening Necktie Youth with no sound. By the time it had restarted and played there was no time left for the Q&A. But we stayed in our seats and the cinema stopped the music. The producer had won, but I was left wondering: is Necktie Youth really a revolution in South African cinema?

The second was in the shuttle back to the hotel afterwards. A group of international film luvvies were with us in the car, discussing the film. They ummed and aahed and said it was a difficult film. But beautifully shot and poignant. I nodded silent agreement.

“My problem, though,” said one, “is that it went round and round, over and over the same themes. In cinema every second, every line counts. It needed development.”

Here I didn’t agree. The whole point of Necktie Youth is that it goes nowhere because its characters are going nowhere, except to early graves. Its narrative is inherently anti-narrative.

“So talented this boy,” rasped a European art director type. “What he does is represent a generation. It really made me think.”

But does Necktie Youth really represent a generation?

It places itself very specifically in history. It is about a group of wealthy Sandton kids – black and white – who are in existential crisis following the suicide of one of the girls in their group who hangs herself with a skipping rope from a tree in the garden, livestreaming the event on the internet.

Like any other day they get drunk, take drugs, have sex, overdose, vomit, get drunk, take drugs, have sex … In their cars, in apartments, in suburban mansions, in clubs … They are the new generation, born in 1991. Their parents fought the struggle and built their wealth after democracy. Now their parents keep asking their kids what they are going to do with their lives and their kids don’t know. They are lost.

You never see the parents – except the mother of the hanged girl right in the beginning and two short scenes featuring the parents of Jabz, who plays opposite Shongwe La-Mer in the lead. His best friend, two sides of a coin, wasted brothers-in-arms with no weapons but money.

Interspersed with the drinking and drug-taking are scenes where a documentary maker is interviewing each member of the group about the death of their friend.

What is so telling is that none of them really knows why she did it, none of them really knew her intimately. Their social connections are broken by the need to escape their mundane realities.

There are political references dotted throughout the film, about the circus that politics has become, the greed of the new dispensation, and the corruption of the Zuma regime.

As Shongwe-La Mer confirmed during the Q&A, Necktie Youth is an intentionally political film about the hangover that came after democracy and the lost generation that must bear the burden of change. It’s beautiful, fresh and compelling.

It has some of the most considered shots of any film I’ve seen in Durban, is perfectly scored and soundscaped, and the choice of black and white cinematography gives it a sense of profoundness. The dialogue is natural, the direction of the cast extraordinary and clearly imbued with Shongwe-La Mer’s trust in his cast, and theirs in him.

But is it revolutionary?

No. We have seen this film before from young film makers around the world, from Larry Clark, from Gregg Araki, from Xavier Dolan.

To be revolutionary it would in fact need to represent a generation. Does it?

No. The film represents the privileged tip of a generation. It in no way speaks of the common lived experience of ‘normal’ 21-year-old South Africans.

It may be the perfect counterpoint to the optimistic and hopeful opening night film Ayanda, about the same generation. But it is essentially a gorgeous piece of privileged film making, self-indulgent and a hugely accomplished wank. 

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