Johnny is nie dood nie

A scene in Johnny is nie dood nie. (Photo: Robert Hamblin)
A scene in Johnny is nie dood nie. (Photo: Robert Hamblin)

What it's about:

A story about friendship and betrayal, sexual and political liberation, youthful idealism and middle age awakening, the loss of innocence and the acceptance to compromise for the sake of survival.

What we thought:

Though I grew up post-1994, alternative Afrikaans music always had a pivotal role in shaping my experiences as a young person in South Africa, including the Voëlvry music that helped shaped white Afrikaans youth in the turbulent 80s. The song that also titles this film – Johnny is nie dood nie – is one of my favourite songs ever, and venerates the great Johannes Kerkorrel. The film, based on a play by Malan Steyn, is also an ode to those that went against cultural norms, but it becomes more personal by showing its impact on a generation scarred by the Border War and their growing opposition against Apartheid.

A group of close friends have a reunion braai on the day that famed musician Johannes Kerkorrel commits suicide. They reminisce about their university days, the tragedy they all experienced, their fight against apartheid and the devastating border war and the music that they all loved. 

One character in the film perfectly summed up why alternative Afrikaans music was an important part of the fight against Apartheid. The movement gave a small but important helping hand to change young white Afrikaans mindsets about Apartheid and its oppressive policies. It’s one part of Afrikaans history we don’t have to feel ashamed about and even if you don’t like the music personally, few can deny the impact it had on Afrikaans culture. Johnny is nie dood nie perfectly captures this essence, but instead of a biopic of the musicians (which we should still make though) the audience experiences its impact on a personal level, with characters that will make you laugh and break your heart.

Well-known in theater circles, director Christiaan Olwagen makes his silver screen debut with this film, and together with his cinematographer Chris Vermaak and an amazing sound design peppered with the best Afrikaans alternative tracks (I may or may not have sung along), they produced a film that not only tells a compelling story, but looks and sounds beautiful as well. Continuous shots are a unique mark of the film, especially the big psychedelic party scene that was done in one take and with a massive cast, which will be one of the most impressive local movie scenes you’ll ever see.

Beyond that, the cast also gave stellar performances and worked as a unit to create a picturesque chaos tamed by their adult years, though not fully harnessed. Roelof Storm was a force of nature and Albert Pretorius’s character seemed silly at first, but surprises the audience with incredible depth. I was also surprised with Rolanda Marais, whose acting in previous films I found a bit too sweet, but here she takes a big bite of the lemon (after downing some tequila first) and gives her best performance yet. Though the characters of Ilana Cilliers and Ludwig Binge didn’t stand out for me as much, they still rounded off an amazing ensemble, showing once again how good our local talent can be.

Every Afrikaner in love with the alternative scene needs to see this film, and every other Afrikaner that’s ever demonised the best thing to happen to Afrikaans music should see it. For the non-Afrikaners, please go see it just because it’s a great film in general. But don’t take my word for it – seven awards from the prestigious Silwerskermfees, including Best Feature Film, should be in indication that Johnny is nie dood nie is a masterpiece of Afrikaans cinema.    

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