23 Aug 2021
Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin, Izel Bezuidenhout
Flatland opens with a wedding. Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) and Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse) are married in a small church beside a busy road. That night, ignoring Natalie’s pleas and discomfort, Bakkies rapes her. Natalie takes his gun and runs, seeking the sanctuary of her beloved horse, Oumie. The priest who performed the ceremony confronts her, but she refuses to go back. A shot is fired. In the morning, Natalie flees with Oumie and collects her friend Poppie (Izel Bezuidenhout) along the way. Meanwhile, Captain Beauty Cuba (Faith Baloyi) begins to investigate the priest’s murder, refusing to believe that her ex-fiancé, who was just released from prison, is responsible.
Sarah Cunningham’s cinematography brings South Africa to brilliant life throughout the film. We are led through the Karoo desert by her clever hand. Heavenly lens flares on the wedding day give way to harsh realism on the wedding night. Endless desert and distant mountains, snow in the middle of the night: everything reflects and supports the plot. It is a shame that the film loses its way after a stellar first half. Natalie is the daughter of a Black woman who worked for a white family before she died. Poppie is white, but grew up alongside Natalie, and considers her a sister. She defends her against racists, as well as anyone else who gets in their way. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the film, and while Beauty’s storyline is compelling, it never feels quite as solid.
Stylistically, the film is consistent if a little strange. Jenna Bass has clearly been influenced by soap operas, and characters switch between realistic and melodramatic at the drop of a hat, which is a polarising choice, to say the least. It hurts the more serious moments and undermines important themes. Essentially, Flatland is a Western – a contemporary, feminist Western filtered through a soap opera lens, but a Western nonetheless. There are shootouts, characters traversing the desert on horseback, and a bitter law enforcement officer tasked with bringing down fugitives. The film also has much to say about race and gender, marriage and sexual freedom. Seeing some of those themes play out in the ridiculous TV show that Beauty loves is effective, but this style bleeds into the characters’ actions and dialogue, and unfortunately it does not always work.
However, the film does explore important issues. Poppie is fifteen and pregnant, and rather than criticise the older man responsible, other women consider her 'loose'. Natalie is expected to submit to her husband, and in fact is unsure that she has been raped until Poppie explains it to her. No means no, she says. “I saw it on TV.” It is frustrating that, despite their bids for freedom from the patriarchal culture, their lives revolve around men. Beauty seems strong and independent, but she is willing to risk her career for a man. A man’s interest in Natalie drives a wedge between her and Poppie. The power men have over women is absolute, and running away appears to be the only viable option.
Flatland’s only problem is its second half, but that is a big problem. The first half is incredible, and the muddled remainder is frustrating. The experience is not ruined, though the intentional tonal shifts and inconsistencies will split audiences. Jenna Bass puts her heart and soul into the film, and that strong personality and sense of self carry us through the weaker moments. Beauty’s love of melodramatic soaps is an interesting through line but too heavily affects the real world. The grounded, gritty moments – and the lead performances – are strong enough.
Available now on digital platforms