Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ethical Entertainment

Oscar has developed a social conscience this year, with weighty real-life themes ranging from ethics in big business and media to racial tensions, dominating the movies vying for the big prizes” writes Los-Angeles-based Marc Lavine in the Mail & Guardian this week.

The Oscars are just around the corner. And people here in South Africa are paying special attention – not only because our Charlize is once again up for an award, this time for her role in North Country, but because a local film, Tsotsi, has also been nominated for an Academy Award.

Ethical, moral and social issues seem to be the order of the day if one considers those films that have scooped the nominations this year. Which, according to Hollywood Reporter columnist Marty Grove, is unusual, given that, a few years ago, the serious film would have been the odd-man out. But this year, many of the films that are up for various awards – Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Crash, Munich, The Constant Gardener, Syriana, Brokeback Mountain - deal with issues that Hollywood once thought too serious and too dark for mainstream movie-goers, including homophobia, freedom of expression, journalistic ethics and media censorship, terror in the Middle East and the morality of avenging terrorism.

In a rather more cynical view, Brian Johnson of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine claims that these movies collectively represent a landscape of (white) liberal guilt, populated by tortured male protagonists. Never in the history of the academy have issue-oriented films so thoroughly dominated, he writes.

Which got me thinking: South Africa may be a relative new-comer to the Oscar’s list of nominees, but it has a long(er) history of producing films that have highlighted ethically-weighty and socially-conscious issues. In Tsotsi’s “raw and compassionate depiction of Johannesburg’s criminal underworld, where poverty and AIDS are mainstays of existence,” there is an “almost mythic sense of reclamation and redemption…an insightful glimpse of post-apartheid life, from its most violently severe to its most culturally vibrant.

Tsotsi follows in the film reel of other powerful depictions of apartheid’s legacies of racial inequality, injustice, bitterness, outrage, hope, and forgiveness: Cry, the Beloved Country is one; Country of My Skull another. Cry, the Beloved Country’s portrayal of the “path of tolerance and compassion” and Country of My Skull’s portrayal of “how a country goes about resolving its pain” run parallel to the themes of redemption and reconciliation that have punctuated South Africa’s reality.

And then there are those that have placed women on centre stage. Zulu Love Letter shows the “desperate and emotional journey of two mothers searching for their daughters” while the main character grapples with the “haunting images and unrelenting grief of the past”, and aims her “barely suppressed rage…not directly at White South Africans so much as those around her for not dwelling on what she and millions of others endured during the apartheid era.” Yesterday, South Africa’s first ever Oscar-nominated film in 2005, deals with AIDS as other movies have dealt with apartheid, depicting “what AIDS does to people, families, and communities without being overly dramatic or too emotional about it.” It is a film about one woman’s survival, courage and determination, with the lead character, Yesterday, fighting against AIDS, and refusing to die before she completes her mission: seeing her daughter go to school.

Like the gritty roles that have seen a transformed beauty, Charlize Theron, nominated for Oscars – Monster and North Country - these films convey some of the harsh messages that emanate from what, to so many of us who live here, is a very beautiful country, with an extraordinary people.

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