By Benjamin Akpan
Jenna Cato Bass’ Flatland opens with hazy, claustrophobic shots of a small wedding. Shot through the eyes of Natalie (Nicole Fortuin), this light-skinned bride is a timid young woman whose love for her horse Oumie defeats all else. Before her is Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse), her husband-to-be, to whom she doesn’t want to be married. But of course, she’s reminded by the pastor that she was led to her husband by God, and “when you lead a horse, it obeys without question.” Natalie is a victim of a system that has repressed the freedom of women for so long, that the relegation of a burgeoning young lady to a life of male servitude is deemed an ‘act of God.’ So, when her wedding night eventually ends in rape, Natalie grabs her horse, shoots the priest standing in her way, and seizes the opportunity to reach for the release that drives the film for the rest of its duration.
In her first effort since 2017’s High Fantasy, Jenna Bass takes the classic Western and strips it to its very essence. She replaces the American Old West with the bare landscapes of South Africa, injecting into the genre themes of feminism and race. But there’s a lot about Flatland that falls, well, flat. Bass should be complimented for her bravery in bringing to the fore, a story that would not otherwise have been told, and though there’s much to love, Bass’ direction and writing lacks a certain focus that would’ve tied all the themes together in perfect harmony.
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Bass weaves together the story of three women trying to escape the rigidity of South African patriarchy. Following Natalie is her pregnant best friend Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout), an impulsive and erratic young White girl who barely wavers in her support. Of course, her being White means that – even in the post-apartheid society in which the film is set – their friendship bears an abominable connotation. Nevertheless, with nothing but a horse, a gun, and the clothes on their back, Natalie and Poppie run for Johannesburg, in search for independence. Fortuin and Bezuidenhout share an undeniable chemistry that is riveting to watch. Fortuin’s quiet and reserved performance is balanced out by Bezuidenhout’s loud and showy display as they hitchhike their way to greener pastures.
When the pastor is eventually found dead (by Bakkies no less), the police captain sets out to investigate. No character is as fleshed out and well-acted as Captain Beauty Cuba, a soap opera-loving, observant woman who is as trapped as the women she’s looking for. While Natalie and Poppie run from their past, Beauty hopes to reverse hers: her fiancé is imprisoned for a crime which he committed in her defence. After serving fifteen years, he’s accused of the pastor’s murder on his first day out. Beauty is hardly bothered by the male-dominated world she’s found herself in, and so she sets out to prove her fiancé’s innocence, bring these two girls to safety, and asserting her strength in the process. Faith Baloyi puts forth a brilliantly nuanced performance as Beauty, one that’s tough-as-nails yet vulnerable when necessary, rescuing the film from monotonicity.
But there’s a lot more wrong with Flatland that Captain Beauty Cuba can’t save. The film lacks cohesion tonally, making certain editorial choices that are as dissonant as they are confusing. Much of its conflict is clumsily handled by Bass’ writing, leaving a lot – if not most – plot points underdeveloped. Bass focuses a great deal on the look of the film, which, to her credit, is pleasing to the eyes. Gorgeous sunsets envelope the scenes, and countless close-ups perpetuate the confining environment that the characters are in. But the stiff, robotic writing in the script does little to match Bass’ ambitious ideas. When clunky writing and rough editing clash, what results is a slow, poorly paced effort that leaves a lot to be desired.
Yet, for all its weaknesses, Flatland’s strengths culminates in an action-driven third act that flips whatever conceptions you might’ve formed on its head. While the first two acts forcefully tether the plot to reality, Bass loosens the cord on all fronts, diving head first into chaotic melodrama, just on par with the soap operas Beauty so dearly loves. There’s a gnawing tonal disconnect between the last 30 minutes of the film and whatever preceded it, but the sudden dramatic turn makes it all feel worth the wait. Amidst all the madness, previously-reserved Natalie finally takes the bull by the horns in a moment of empowerment that – though buried in the slowness of the film – was sure to come. It is at this point that all the values of the western finally come into play: there’s a lot of guns (which means a lot of shooting), a lot of running and chasing, a lot of dust, and, thankfully, a whole lot of exhilaration.
Flatland is inconsistent, crazy, and even unrealistic. But, as Beauty points out when similar complaints are made about soap operas, she mentions that it “sounds like life.” As a feature, there’s too much incoherence in the film to be satisfying; but as a soap opera reflective of life, Bass may very well have succeeded in her endeavors. For that at least, some praise is due.
*Editor’s Note: Flatland screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of Contemporary World Cinema and TIFF Next Wave.