WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A contemporary Western, a journey of self-discovery for three different but equally trapped women. A portrait of femininity against a hostile land, questioning what it means to be a woman today in South Africa and the world at large.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The desolation of the Karoo can be both hauntingly magnetic and disheartening – beautifully captured in the local neo-noir Western Flatland. Outside of the glitzy cities and picturesque holiday towns of South Africa, the lived experiences of its citizens are easily lost in the country's cinematic landscape.
Set in the small hamlets of the Beaufort West region, director and writer Jenna Bass crafts a portrait of three women who, in some way or another, are trapped either by men or circumstance. Complete with murder, a runaway horse, sex and booze, the audience is taken on this journey tinged with self-discovery and selfishness without really knowing who they should be rooting for.
At first, the story focuses on Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) – a bride anxious about her upcoming wedding night, who flees after making a grave mistake. She ropes in her 15-year-old pregnant "sister" Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout) – a white girl her deceased mother was once paid to take care of. The two escape from their lives on a horse with a gun in their holster. They end up being pursued by Captain Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi), who herself is dealing with unresolved emotions towards her ex-lover just released on parole.
These women's stories about the female lived experience in this country are incredibly genuine, reinforced by the authentic scenery they travel through, untouched by cinematic magic. There's artistry in the banal and often overlooked aesthetics of these holes of the Karoo, tilted towards the feminine.
Natalie is still grieving the loss of her mother and clings to the connection she feels through her horse Oumie. Her pseudo-sister is stuck in a fantasy world, where she lives forever after with her pervert of a baby daddy, who just sees her as an addition to his "Rainbow Nation" collection. The two women's relationship is deep, but it calls out the issue of non-white women charged with looking after white children while their own are forgotten at home. To Poppie, they really are sisters, but while Natalie loves her, she's all too aware of that disconnect in their realities.
Then there's the police officer Beauty – a woman longing for a lost love, who hides in the shallow intimacy of soap operas (Generations of course) and goes out of her way to rescue her lover from his self-imposed imprisonment. She struggles between her duty and her heart, while also navigating the subtle racism of a rural South Africa that not only belittles her blackness, but also her womanhood.
But these women aren't damsels in distress waiting to be rescued – they take back their agency from those who think they can control them. You won't always be on their team as they make undesirable choices to their own detriment while ignoring a million red flags, yet they remain unequivocally human. Natalie's husband makes a disparaging comment about Beauty's soapie – "it's stupid people doing stupid things" – and she responds with "sounds a lot like life". It perfectly sums up the film's premise, a sort of celebration of humanity's stupidity as well as the strength we should foster in our insecurities.
Flatland weaves a tale of South African femininity without the false veneer of whitewashed feminism that lacks intersectionality. It might be missing the mainstream appeal that local indie productions struggle with, but through the organic diversity of the cast, engaging storytelling and authenticity of its setting, it might get just enough butts on seats outside the festival circuit to encourage other South African filmmakers to tackle the hard issues that infect our Rainbow Nation.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
Flatland is now showing in cinemas.