The Whale Caller's flawed genius

2017-10-15 00:00

City Press Review

Film: The Whale Caller

Director: Zola Maseko

Starring: Amrain Ismail-Essop, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube

For years I have been rooting for this film, so the following line is the hardest I’ve had to write at the Durban International Film Festival this year: The Whale Caller should be one of the great South African films, but it isn’t, not by a fairly long shot.

One of the country’s most admired directors, Zola Maseko; one of Africa’s best-loved authors, Zakes Mda; one of the local stage’s most revered actors, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube; a majestic, smitten whale and a seductive, hedonistic heroine of rare complexity. What could go wrong?

It was the casting. There was lots of big old stage acting but very little on-screen chemistry between Ka-Ncube’s Whale Caller and Amrain Ismail-Essop’s Saluni.

And it tore a hole in the fabric of an often exquisite piece of knocky, romantic magic realism bursting with blooms of African surrealism.

The Whale Caller, based on Mda’s fifth novel of the same name, is a grand, silly, audacious and metaphysical tale of love, loss and jealousy between a man, a woman and a whale. Literally three mammals in a love triangle in a marginal world of marginal beings of great power.

He lives in a shack on the beach in the coastal town of Hermanus in the Western Cape, with its stifling whiteness, moral police and boerewors-roll-scoffing tourists eager to witness the annual whale season. Since he was a boy, the introverted whale caller has been patiently obsessed with the annual return of a particular southern right she-whale.

She is his rhythm and meaning, and he shamelessly dances and blows into a kelp horn to communicate with her when she is in town to mate. He has named her Sherisha and she dances with him in the water. The fellow misfit who has developed a crush on him is Saluni, a free-spirited barfly with a very average singing voice who dwells inside a creative possibility for her life. She wants to be a star. She is a star. Now she needs a stage.

She bursts into his shack and rearranges his heart – but knows it is already captured by Sherisha. She will rage against “the fish” while looking after the Bored Twins with searing singing voices who live on a nearby farm.

A series of disasters and tragedies will bring darkness to their land, a place close to home but immersed in a trance of storytelling.

And in its art direction, its visual choices and its score by Pops Mohamed, The Whale Caller matches the lyricism of Mda’s novel. As a friend who saw the film cleverly said: “It is as good as the book in the way it offers a state of freedom from metaphysical oppression.”

The Whale Caller also reinvigorates the tired landscape tropes in African cinema, to display a nature that is alive and seething with messages from the other side.

“Visually, it offers a new way of seeing,” my friend said.

It is the kind of film the South African industry wishes it was making and the only film I can remotely compare it to is Katinka Heyns’ classic Paljas (1998).

But it did not hit pay dirt for everyone in the audience here in Durban. I had seen the film at the Joburg Film Festival but it didn’t feel ready to review. Now, with more post-production work, it is more polished.

It has been a massive struggle for Maseko to realise the film in an industry that does not easily back mid-size budgets for black films. And computer-generated whales are expensive. Yes, there are budget issues in The Whale Caller, but there are also triumphs of low-cost creativity, best summed up by one scene’s sumptuous play of light through trees strewn with toilet paper ribbons.

It wasn’t budget that did it, it was the casting and performance direction.

He is thespy and she is shouty and the whale caller and Saluni are too often reduced to 2-D renditions of their characters. We don’t buy in and connect.

If they had played it down, with nuance and vulnerability and real erotic passion, almost all the film’s problems would have evaporated, the sometimes scatty plot would’ve pulled together and the audience would have suspended its disbelief.

Despite its flaws, it’s an important film. As nature-inspired fictions go, I’d far rather have seen The Whale Caller than the derivative horror film Serpent that opened the festival this year.

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