The Whale Caller

2017-10-13 15:18

What it's about:

An enchanting romantic-comedy of sorts told with poetry and magic. Since childhood the Whale Caller has been calling the Whales to Hermanus and seems more in love with a whale he named Sharisha than the woman who loves him. Will he be brave enough to connect with humanity again, and brave enough to love?

What we thought:

Zakes Mda has always been a fascinating storyteller for me – he creates these stories that although rooted in reality have this sense of wonder and magic around it without making it too fantastical. Despite his stunning stories, I am not so sure how well they would translate to the big screen, and The Whale Caller shows that disassociation between a film and a book. The characters are quite wild and although they were appealing in the beginning, the longer you lounged in their world the more bored you got with their insanity. The film had grand aspirations, but forgot to tether itself to the ground.

We meet a man (Sello Maake Ka-Ncube) obsessed with a certain whale he calls Sharisha, who dances to the tunes of his kelp horn. He becomes involved with the town alcoholic Saluni (Amraim Ismail-Essop), who becomes jealous of his relationship with Sharisha, and tries to force him to choose between them.

If you’ve heard of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope in cinema, than be prepared for an overdose of mania. Saluni is the type to sing by herself in the forest walking underneath a colourful umbrella, and then randomly decide to almost-kidnap a pair of twin girls because they sing like angels.

The overdose of drama works for a while, and you genuinely feel sadness for the ‘love child’ and her delusions of fame, but after a while it feels more like the film is delusional rather than the character itself.

The whale caller is also a sad man, haunted by a different kind of delusion, believing to have been ‘abandoned’ when his parents died. Maake is a brilliant actor and of course is a strong choice for the character, but as with Saluni you become fed up with the ridiculousness of his life.

Interestingly they changed the outcome for his beloved whale, which feels a bit like a cop-out. The crazy twins from the book were also changed into little darlings, and if the film really wanted to go full avant-garde they should have kept these darker parts of the story.

Directed by Zola Maseko, I see what he was trying to do – a unique South African film that takes risks with story and exposition – and for some parts it worked, but a mainstream audience will lose their interest halfway through, losing interest in the characters and the strong themes around nature and belonging. 

If you have a strong tolerance for the obscure and weird, then perhaps The Whale Caller will appeal to your tastes, but it will struggle to find an audience outside of the cinephile circles. It did very well at the Durban Film Festival and won the Best African Film award at last year’s Joburg Film Festival, but I think it might be a case like the Oscars – critics may love it but the masses won’t.

P.S. Be prepared for a painful CGI whale…

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