Middle class punk

2015-03-01 15:00

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It’s late 2014, possibly October, and Sibs Shongwe-La Mer is pacing in his self-catering hotel room near the V&A Waterfront, occasionally clutching his side. He’s in Cape Town to do the final sound for his debut feature and I’m trying to get him to show me the new version.

But Shongwe-La Mer is bored with talking about his film and wants to go to a bar, to find people “not from the film business?…?girls,” he says. “Preferably girls. I just want to have a real conversation.”

The prospects of getting to watch Necktie Youth tonight are slipping away. He’s pacing the room, complaining about producers, waxing lyrical about the skills of his sound designer. Then he winces. “Fuck!” He sits. His hiatus hernia is playing up, “not as bad as before though”, he’s quick to say. He’s had it operated on recently and it doesn’t affect him as badly as it used to. I ask him what exactly a hiatus hernia is as he starts fast-forwarding absent-mindedly through his film. “I basically have this fucking incurable thing,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. It’s your stomach going into your oesophagus.”

He’s briefly distracted by something on the screen, then chuckles. “Funnily enough, Kurt Cobain had exactly the same complaint.” He snaps his laptop closed and lies back on the couch.

On the screen, I had noticed a replacement for one of his lead actors – Shongwe-La Mer explains that when he started shooting the film again, a few of his previous collaborators felt his new, funded methods were too “establishment”, so he found himself looking for a replacement cast and crew.

“These people we’re talking about are like punks, you know. It was just the stupidity of punk,” he says dismissively.


At the beginning of 2013, Shongwe-La Mer had shown me Territorial Pissings, a 40-minute-ish black-and-white “arthouse” film he would go on to screen at the 70th Venice International Film Festival as a work in progress to try to raise funding. Watching Pissings projected on to a sheet in a cluttered apartment in Woodstock surrounded by musicians and art school dropouts, clutching a cheap bottle of red, I was struck by its sincerity – a series of fairly aimless vignettes concerning a bunch of disaffected kids moping around contemporary Johannesburg that had been captured with a wry honesty.

A substantively different film premiered at the megaprestigious Berlinale International Film Festival three weeks ago and gathered positive press.

Cineuropa called it “probing, polemic and probably best in show”.

He reshot the entire film from scratch, replacing a few actors, changing plot structure and expanding the opening vignette – about a suicide that haunts a tenuously connected group of friends – into the film’s engine. It traces two middle class boys, September (played by Shongwe-La Mer) and Jabz (Bonko Khoza) as they lurch aimlessly across Johannesburg in a borrowed Jaguar, scamming prescription drugs, visiting their punk-kid dealer, gossiping in a melange of American and South African pop-culturisms, shoplifting, avoiding their pain and eventually finding themselves at the home of Jewish twins Rafi and Tali, dragging a sadness behind them. While Jabz and September joyride, back at their school a documentary crew interviews the friends individually as they try to make sense of Emily’s suicide. The result is quietly devastating, never overbearing.

With a fragmented elegance, Necktie plays out like a rambling diary entry: adolescent, self-important, wistful, perfect. The film is propelled by September’s fidgety energy as he pontificates and philosophises in an attempt to break Jabz out of an advancing ennui. September is a narcissistic peacock, the kind of guy who practises pick-up lines in the mirror before going out, the eternal narrator of everyone’s story, the Carl Sagan of Sandton, his self-assurance about the meaning of everything obliterating any need for self-reflexivity.

At times pretentious, at others uneven, Necktie Youth is a confident debut but far from a perfect film – it more than once overplays its hand.

Arrestingly composed without colour, it operates as a series of tableaux – forced renegade poetry that eventually coalesces into a defeated nostalgia. It is very much a film of this moment.


Twenty-three-year-old Shongwe-La Mer is the newest addition to South Africa’s growing ranks of distinctive and challenging directors, such as Oliver Hermanus, Jahmil XT Qubeka and Jenna Bass, whose films explore subject matters that are a far cry from the hagiographies, rainbow nation tutorials and B-grade knockoffs we’ve come to expect over the past 20 years.

Beyond Afrikaans romcoms and Leon Schuster, it would seem an authentic South African cinema is finally emerging. However, it remains to be seen if local audiences will follow.

“It’s a fallacy, this idea that South Africans don’t watch interesting movies.

“Lots of people will go to watch a Wes Anderson film. But they’re not interested in the falsities in local films.

“I applaud our South African audiences for making it hard for us to fill a cinema. I’m like, all right, challenge accepted,” Shongwe-La Mer says.

He paces hotel rooms with a skinny, edgy, questioning energy – talking himself up like a cut-rate Kanye West then plunging himself into chasms of self-doubt.

Just having a coffee with him can prove exhausting. He has the perfect temperament for the red carpet hustle. It doesn’t always make him easy to work with though.

“Meeting Sibs was like a bolt of lightning,” says producer Elias Ribeiro.

But it took some time before he and fellow producer John Trengove would find an equilibrium with the film maker. Shongwe-La Mer had worked as an independent for some time and admits that working with a budget and a team was an adjustment.

He realised “making a film for your friends and making a film you actually hope a lot of people see are two different things”.

He credits Ribeiro for moving the film away from the original disconnected vignette structure.

“[He] made me think, like if maybe they don’t like my pages, maybe my pages could be written better. And not to just throw a tantrum but actually realising: ‘Hey dude, you can’t just make, like, stupid vignettes.’”

He pauses, then says: “It just

changed the way I make movies, because I stopped being so selfish.” Then he laughs. “I am still selfish anyway; fuck it.”


For a brief period, Shongwe-La Mer was simply Sibs La Mer. His well-known father, Isaac Shongwe, was one of the stakeholders in The Bomb Shelter, the company that produced the hugely influential TV series Yizo Yizo. When the young Shongwe-La Mer started out, he says, “a couple of production companies would give me internships, paid. Then I started wondering: do I actually deserve it or is it because of my surname?”

He decided to drop the Shongwe. But what to replace it with?

“I was dating this French girl who basically made this comment – she said that my misery was like the sea: endless. And I was just like, the sea, La Mer?...?cool.”

Did he get into film because of his father’s profession?

“No, I was in a metal band when I was 14, going on tour, and my dad found my weed and started having this crazy fit where he was just like, ‘Dude you’re not going. I’ve been too liberal, you need to get a job.’ As he was screaming this, Angus Gibson [Bomb co-owner], who has always been a family friend, walked in for a meeting with my dad, saw what was going on and took me on for a holiday job at Bomb, which I did every single holiday until I matriculated.”


Necktie Youth opens with Emily live- streaming her suicide. She sets up a camera in the house and then hangs herself in the garden. Emily’s suicide is based on real-life events. Why was it important to make a film about something so raw?

“Because that was, and still is, the most critical thing that has happened to me.” Shongwe-La Mer takes a moment to curse. “Okay, I’ll tell you?…?Amy was the shock of intimacy we all experience the first time we ever fall in love; you know what I mean: when you’re not jaded, where you’re actually floating on the most beautiful wave.”

He pauses. “Anyway, we were playing at some house party and I saw her there, then I saw her two weeks later in Rosebank and she was just so straightforward in all the things that I couldn’t be. And she was my first girlfriend and my first real affection – and, yeah, then it just ended.”

How did it end? “I got a phone call, at the same time of the day she would normally call, but it was her friend Emma [Tollman, who also stars in the film] and she was just screaming and I just heard girls going crazy. I kept telling her: ‘Emma, put Amy on the phone.’ After a while, she just said Amy hanged herself and dropped the phone.”

It’s plain he has turned this over in his head a million times; he cuts me off before I can ask. “I know a lot of facts,” he says, “but I really don’t want to say I know what she was going through. And it’s not even Amy. There’s this whole sensibility that if you can eat and have a house then don’t fucking complain. And I actually starting being like no, no. There’s another story here, about distance.”


The protagonists of Necktie Youth are middle class; they drive their parents’ cars, spend their parents’ money, put things on account and generally live a life free of economic consequences, free of responsibility. Is this what breeds the distance?

He answers: “There’s another story about?…?My dad’s a Zulu, a lot of people are Zulu, but I mean I’m a different kind?…?I grew up on MTV and McDonald’s. I didn’t grow up the way they did – but does that mean I’m not a Zulu? What am I? You know what I mean? Like a white-black kid, and I started realising: ‘No, I’m not actually. Not at all. I’m extremely black.’

“You turn on Mzansi Magic or you go to see Tsotsi – these are good South African films, but they don’t really speak to me about what I see. So it wasn’t this massive revelation, more just being like I want to make a film that is South African, that looks like a South Africa I know, about the life I live.”

He thinks about this for a second.

“Because, I mean, Jabu in the township, who is in gangs and used soccer to save his life?...?I can understand that, but it’s not my life.

“So my whole attitude to cinema is purely being critically honest, and I just want to make the films I can’t actually rent from the DVD store.”

»Necktie Youth premieres in SA at the Durban International Film Festival in July

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