Movie Review

Apartheid film 'Poppie Nongena' is filled with spectacular nervous energy

This kykNET film is bursting with minor details that add nuance to its depiction of an ultimately familiar tale of our country's painful past, writes Kavish Chetty

02 February 2020 - 00:00 By Kavish Chetty
The cast of 'Poppie Nongena' includes Clementine Mosimane.
The cast of 'Poppie Nongena' includes Clementine Mosimane.
Image: Supplied

I recall a time when the cinematic fate of SA lay principally in the hands of foreign directors. Under their gaze, the country's complex history was turned into an exotic circus act for international audiences.

From the museum of such travesties, I'd nominate City of Violence as the most squalid exhibit, with Orlando Bloom's cop character lurching around with a stick of droëwors dangling from his lower lip: a surrogate cigarette doubling as geographic emblem.

It's been affirming, then, to see a slew of new period dramas and adaptations that aim to give a deeper account of our political situation. And who would have imagined that kykNET would be the production house to commandeer such a progressive vision?

Its recent Fiela se Kind was one such example, and now Poppie Nongena, based on Elsa Joubert's 1978 novel, continues the tradition.

Poppie is an unwaveringly bleak existential tale of the eponymous heroine, a housemaid working during a particularly volatile moment in apartheid SA. The country is riven by anti-state resistance and is caught in the grip of revolutionary fervour.

Beret-clad "comrades" prowl trains terrorising passengers, the streets are scarred with the aftermath of protest, and lean, angular-jawed military youths hang over the edge of hulking Casspirs, rifles slung over their shoulders.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Poppie Nongena'

This is one of those films that carries itself with a spectacular nervous energy; one watches with the dread anticipation of something bad coming soon.

The film opens with a scene that reminds us of the indignity of living under the perpetual surveillance of the state. Poppie applies for the renewal of her work permit in the Cape, and is told by a classically indifferent civil servant that she "must go", in other words, she must "return" to an artificially assigned homeland in the Eastern Cape from which she never came in the first place.

She was raised in Upington (hence her predilection for Afrikaans, despite being a Xhosa woman), and her family lives on the edge of Cape Town. Such a simple act of paperwork proposes disastrous consequences for her, threatening the nucleus of her family life, and offering uprooting and exile as her destiny.

The movie gradually accumulates an image of the nightmare of apartheid bureaucracy, with characters struggling hopelessly against a heartless system that is incapable of registering them as human beings.

Clementine Mosimane as Poppie Nongena and and Anna-Mart van der Merwe as Antoinette Swanepoel in a scene from 'Poppie Nongena'.
Clementine Mosimane as Poppie Nongena and and Anna-Mart van der Merwe as Antoinette Swanepoel in a scene from 'Poppie Nongena'.
Image: Supplied

In this sense, the plot is made from the same materials as a Kafka novel, with Poppie - and the white liberals who come to her aid - disoriented, endlessly thwarted, and unable to make sense of their Sisyphean predicament.

The director has a confident eye for symmetry of composition, and a rich colour palette animates this era of Cape Town: from the bleached-out pastel overcoats of the Black Sash ladies, to the candy red steps of Poppie's employer's house on the sloping streets near Table Mountain.

Poppie is bursting with minor details that add nuance to its depiction of an ultimately familiar tale.

It builds a portrait of female solidarity in the shadow of conspiring men, yet, through the character of Magriet (the louche, chain-smoking sister of Poppie's madam) it shows the often-occluded complicity of white women in black oppression.

It dramatises the inter-generational divide between the younger cohort of student agitators - destructive, full of righteous anger - and their nerve-shattered parents who've already endured waves of protest and carnage, suppression and defeat.

The film even spares a moment to show how black cops were drawn into the power game and turned against their own with special venom

It even spares a moment to show how black cops were drawn into the power game and turned against their own with special venom.

These depressing cultural artefacts, like Poppie, have their place. The more time intervenes between the horror of the old regime and the present day, the more a certain generation comes to encounter apartheid as little more than a distant abstraction, a set of monochromatic photographs in their history textbooks.

Poppie restores the anger and humiliation at a sensory level, and those who watch it will feel it chipping away at their composure.

But we should be cautious of this phenomenon of bloodletting in South African cinema. There is a fine line between honouring a grim reality and succumbing to a morbid fascination.

No doubt there's a parallel group of our countrymen who are reaching exhaustion point with these return journeys to a painful epoch, the symptoms of which still encircle us today.

Nevertheless, Poppie is another capable adaptation and I think we should enjoy these history lessons before what I suspect will be the next wave of genre-compulsion in our cinematic output: science fiction and fantasy.

• 'Poppie Nongena' is on circuit.


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