Nobody’s Died Laughing

Pieter-Dirk Uys (Ster-Kinekor)
Pieter-Dirk Uys (Ster-Kinekor)

What it's about:

A documentary about the life and work of beloved South African comedian, Pieter Dirk Uys, as explored during his latest comedy tour. 

What we thought:

That I am, to be entirely upfront about this, not a particular fan of Pieter-Dirk Uys' comedy, does little to detract from the fact that this documentary only heightened my respect for the man and his work. It's not necessarily a particularly great documentary and the clips we get of his comic performances don't exactly turn him into John Cleese or Bill Hicks in my eyes but Nobody's Died Laughing does do a fine job of capturing Uys' incredible work ethic, his irreverent attitude towards authority and the pulsing humanity that lies behind every joke he's ever told; every costume he's ever donned.

Directed by Willem Oelofson, Nobody's Died Laughing is a film that's clearly in love with its subject, which is fair enough as Uys certainly comes across as quite lovable here but those looking for even the slightest whiff of a dark side to this South African national treasure, are certainly not going to find it here. Uys is probably too humble for a documentary about him to be entirely hagiographic in nature but between the endless kind words said about the man from any number of his friends – both famous and otherwise – and the general complimentary tone of the film itself, it's not too far off either.

And yet, for all of the film's tendency towards the celebratory and complimentary, Pieter-Dirk Uys himself gives the film more than its share of playfulness on one hand sharpness on the other, with a rich stream of melancholy running throughout the film as we uncover a background that was seldom untouched by the hand of tragedy.

From the suicide of his mother to his maternal grandmother's Jewish roots in Hitler-era Germany to his being a gay man in ultra-conservative Apartheid South Africa, there is more struggle and sadness in his past than his more notorious eff-the-government grandstanding and “adorable” alter-egos would suggest. 

Indeed, while the portrayal of art verses totalitarian governments never gets old and there is something undeniably charming about just how playful his anti-Apartheid satire was and his New South Africa satire still is, it is the more intimate moments that we share with him that are the real pleasures of the film – and give us a far greater understanding of this kind, warm and gentle soul than all the good-natured but tediously fawning celebrity interviews that are peppered liberally throughout the film.      
Considering my own Jewishness, it's probably not surprising that probably the most affecting part of the film for me takes place when Uys goes to Germany as part of his comedy world tour (the UK is another major stop off) and visit's the Holocaust museum there and he reflects not just on the similarities between Apartheid and the Holocaust and the way two countries have tried to come to terms with their past but on his own personal Jewish roots. 

In particular he shows us a grand piano that his grandmother managed to smuggle out of Germany with her prior to the war, that had spent years as a center piece of their own house before finally landing up back in Germany as part of a display at its main Holocaust Remembrance Centre. It's a simple, small and exquisitely touching moment that elevate the film above its occasional tendency to rather overcook the pudding.

Oelofson's warm-hearted tribute to the man who is, on occasion, also Evita Bezuidehout, may not always be firing on all cylinders, occasionally even coming dangerously close to sputtering to halt in its more fawning and overly earnest moments, but it has more than enough to recommend it to both fans and non-fans of Pieter-Dirk Uys' comedy alike.

Bloody awful title, though.