South Africa’s official entry to the highly competitive Best Foreign Language Film category is the enchantingly titled Sew the winter to my skin. There is little enchanting about the plot though, a blend of violence, racial tensions and inequality that had begun to be institutionalized in pre-Apartheid era South Africa.
Films with high minded (Read: Oscar) ambitions coming out of Mandela country tend to dwell on the country’s rich and traumatic history. Think Darrell Roodt’s Yesterday which followed a mother dying of HIV, Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, an ultimately hopeful account of slum dog living and last year’s Inxeba (The Wound), a potent examination of toxic masculinity with a lightning rod socio-cultural background.
Sew the winter to my skin does not court controversy in the way that writer-director Jahmil X.T Qubeka’s Of Good Report did back in 2013 but that doesn’t mean the story is any less compelling. Based on true accounts of the life and times of John Kepe, a self-styled “Samson of the Boschberg,’’ who in his own way, sought to upset the establishment.
Opening the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) in Lagos, Sew the winter to my skin presents Kepe, a Xhosa outlaw who stole from his white, wealthy neighbors as some kind of cinematic hero seeking some redress for the economic imbalance. White colonial land owners bore the brunt of Kepe’s pilfering ways and for this narration, the ‘’villains’’ are represented by General Botha (Peter Kurth), a war hero and nazi sympathizer.
Qubeka’s screenplay isn’t particularly concerned with fleshing out any of his supporting characters and indeed, even his leading man, played with loads of expressive physicality by Ezra Mabengeza is ultimately given short thrift. There are repetitive scenes of Mabengeza’s John Kepe fleeing from his hunters- sometimes with a sheep dangled across his shoulders- but too few that dig into the core of Kepe’s character. Kepe is physically present but the movie is only interested in the broad strokes of his character. The supporting players, from Bongani Mantsai’s battle ready Fearless, Zolisa Xaluva’s “Black Wyatt Earp” to Kandyse McClure’s Golden Eyes. All of these characters are vividly rendered, named for a particular striking feature or character trait. But none of them is given room to blossom into anything other than crutches to hold the thin plot.
The outcome of the twelve-year manhunt for John Kepe is a matter of public record. To keep things fresh- and audiences engaged- Qubeka presents his film in a non-linear, time scrambled format that makes little use for plotting.
Technically, Sew the winter to my skin is excellent. The vistas and nature shots are ravishing and Jonathan Kovel’s cinematography lights up the characters in ways that are striking but he manages to keep them unknowable and at a distance at the same time. Dialogue is kept to the barest minimum as actors work with their faces and bodies yet the film never for once feels like a gimmick. This form of arrangement only means that other senses are activated as well and the cinematic experience is even more rounded. The result may be lukewarm but Jahmil X.T. Qubeka is ready for the big leagues.