Saturday, 02 August 2008

Seedy world of sex for sale

Christmas Eve in Johannesburg is the setting for independent filmmaker Aryan Kaganof’s SMS Sugar Man, which recently premiered on the sidelines of the Grahamstown Arts Festival. The film, written and directed by Kaganof, focuses on Sugar Man (played by Kaganof), a pimp who is losing his grip on reality, and his three prostitutes, the Sugars, as they travel in his 1966 Valiant to hotels in the city to service their clients.

The film is unique in a number of ways, mainly because it is the first feature-length film to be have been shot on a cellphone camera.

“The natural evolution of film is away from film and towards digital projection technologies,” says Kaganof.

The cellphone camera provides film with its next great historical milestone, and evidence of this is that all over the world many festivals are springing up to advance this direction. Hollywood is also embracing the medium, with Spike Lee doing a cellphone film for Nokia.

“I am proud SA was the first country to produce a full-length feature film generated using this technology,” says Kaganof.

The film is a bit pixilated in places, but rather than signalling inferior quality, the pixilation adds to the sense of the seediness of Sugar Man’s world — one of sordidness, exploitation, kinky sex, pimps, prostitutes, junkies, pushers and gangsters.

It adds a dreamlike vagueness to the action, the reality of which is open to question, while simultaneously evoking a realistic and immediate feel, like a homemade film or documentary.

One of the central themes of the film is that of identity. In its first moments, the Sugar Grace (Leigh Graves) asks: “Who are you, Sugar Man?” Identities are mostly kept concealed throughout the film. The Sugars do not reveal their real names to clients, who in turn are simply referred to as Wallets.

It is an anonymous world where sex is merely a financial transaction, and who people really are is not important. The Sugar Selene (leading actress Deja Bernhardt) refers to Sugar Man as wearing a mask, which he says is his business mask.

The characters often use cellphone cameras in the film, almost interrogating each other with their questions, searching for the truth. This also suggests a film within a film, as if the characters are indulging in play-acting.

There are striking similarities between the figure of Sugar Man and Jesus Christ, especially in his relationship with the Sugars, which parallels Christ’s relationship with his disciples.

There is also the theme of betrayal by a favourite. Biblical references are frequent throughout the film, and one Wallet appears to be a vicar (“appears” because it could be fantasy role-play) who spouts biblical passages while receiving a blowjob.

Setting the film on Christmas Eve provides an opportunity to explore tensions. Christmas Eve might generally be a warm, traditional family occasion, but it is also, as Sugar Man points out, the most depressing time of the year — especially for the lonely, from whom pimps can make good money.

When Selene says to Sugar Man that she feels something bad is going to happen, his response is that it is Christmas Eve, so how could anything bad happen? But the sense of doom is reinforced by Atilla the hit-man’s insistence that he feels “bad things will happen”.

The film opens with the fairy-tale introduction of “Once upon a time”, but there is little that is innocent in this story. At one point, Selene puts a transvestite Wallet to bed as if he were a child, tucks him in and tells him a bedtime story while masturbating him.

The feel-good movie genre is one I have always viewed with a certain malevolent distaste,” says Kaganof. “This film introduces South African audiences to the feel-bad movie, a genre of my own that I have finely honed and shaped over the past 20 years.”

The film is filled with loneliness, such as that of Sugar Man and of the Wallets. In one powerful scene, a Wallet (John Matshikiza) calls Selene “darling” and asks her what her name is. Selene leaves without saying a word, leaving him to his loneliness.

“I have to give full credit to John Matshikiza for digging very deep into himself, as an actor and as a man, and finding a character that is recognisable and deeply tragic,” says Kaganof. “It was a great privilege for me to work with John, whose chemistry with Deja Bernhardt was, literally, heartbreaking.”

Kaganof goes on to quote French philosopher Jean Baudrillard: “Even good and evil dream of each other from the depths of their loneliness.”

Feelings matter little in this world of sex for money, and it is notable that none of the sexual encounters in the film result in penetrative sex.

“Real sex, penetrative sex,” says Kaganof, “cannot happen in a world of masks and screens, the world of simulacra. But this is the world of the new SA, the world of the spectacle, the world of the mall and the world of the reality of the illusion of freedom, the illusion of democracy, the reality of the illusion of progress. The illusion that we have choices that will make us happy.”

In the film, Sugar Man says: “Money is God.” There are several close-up shots of money being counted, and it is money that binds Sugar Man and the Sugars together. Sex, relationships, trust, and even life and death seem to be purely a matter of financial transaction.

Yet this sordid world in which the film is set is in many ways not very different from the “respectable” middle-class world of the suburbs, of what is “decent” and acceptable, or from the legal financial transactions that take place every day in business.

Kaganof says: “The underworld microcosm of the film’s milieu serves, of course, as a reminder that this is how it’s down here in the new SA, the cashocracy.”

One of the main presences in the film is that of Joburg: its streets, people, garages and convenience stores, the phallic Hillbrow tower, the seedy as well as plush hotels with their equally lonely and mysterious empty corridors. It is a setting reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s film, Alphaville, to which Kaganof acknowledges a debt.

Alphaville is a seminal film of the ’60s,” he says. “Nowhere is the extreme horror of the modernist dystopia better realised than in that film. What SMS Sugar Man does is update this dystopian perspective in Johannesburg.”

With barely a superfluous shot or word spoken, SMS Sugar Man takes us to the ugly heart of the city — a nightmarish, deceitful underworld in which human decency and self-respect are lacking. All that matters in this milieu is money and gratification, but it comes at a price.

First published in The Weekender August 2, 2008

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