A Thelma and Louise-style romp across the plains of post-apartheid South Africa, Flatland uses the road movie to comment on the state of the nation. Tackling everything from the police state to interracial relationships to rape culture, it expertly balances its humour and smarts to provide something as vital as it is enjoyable.
The film starts with light-skinned Natalie’s (Nicole Fortuin) wedding to white police officer Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse) in a small rural town. The pastor officiating the wedding retells the myth of Adam and Eve, and how Eve herself came from the rib of a man. This frames the film within a misogynist framework, like women owe men everything simply for the fact of existing. On her wedding night, and despite her protestations, he rapes her. That’s the way he thinks it goes. But after the rape, she grabs his gun and runs away to her horse, stationed back at the Church. The pastor barges in and tries to stop her, but she panics and shoots him dead.
Looking a bit like Julia Roberts in The Runaway Bride, Natalie visits her childhood friend, Poppie, and the two of them galavant across the vast Karoo in the midst of winter. They are pursued by a police investigator named Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi), who is looking for justice for her wrongly imprisoned husband. Beauty is a massive fan of soap operas, perhaps fond of how even the most disastrous of relationships always find a way to repair themselves. With a touch of Marge Gunderson from Fargo about her, she suffers no fools in this male-dominated world, doggedly pursuing the wide-open case. Her character is truly the heart of the film, elevating it from mere pop culture fun into something deeper, something about sticking to your word and making the best of things in a compromised world.
Everyone here occupies a moral grey zone, and that seems to be the point — nobody is pure in a country this tainted. The promise of the “Rainbow Nation” — a post-apartheid place where everyone can live in harmony — seems like a hollow myth, basely re-purposed here by one man in order to refer to his posse of girlfriends. The old conflicts are restaged here in a new guise, with the convergence of race and gender giving Flatland a sharp, intersectional edge. While it doesn’t quite claim to solve the issue, it is deftly explored as a backdrop, elevating a genre movie into the realm of the necessary.
With an unpredictable plot that’s more tied to its character’s desires than the whims of its writer, Flatland is a great example of how narrative can be used to illuminate character. Starting in media res, information is drip fed to us as the story progresses, the film slowly deepening its themes as the stakes get higher. Perhaps it would have benefited from more suspense, however; certain scenes designed to shock are unable to provide the landing they need. Yet, the central relationship between the two girls is rock-solid throughout, making us care about them as they dream of a better life. The old adage that the journey is more important than the destination certainly rings true here.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.