Khalo Matabane deftly inverts both road movies and audience expectations in "Story of a Beautiful Country," his documentary about the new South Africa. "For the first 15 years of my life, this is what I knew of my country," he says over the opening scenes of his home village Mpahlele, near South Africa's northern border. Filmed from inside Matabane's mini-bus, it's all tumbled-down bricks and bleak looking red-dirt fields, with the occasional black man or woman walking along the otherwise deserted road. You think you are about to view another earnest effort to describe the injustices and struggles of the apartheid years.
Instead, "Story of a Beautiful Country" is a fresh exploration of how that past extends into the present, as rich in guarded, uncertain hope as it is free of easy answers.
Subverting the typical film travelogue, where the director goes out into the world to record experiences, Matabane creates a world and films from within it. He puts his focus on the people he talks to through the open window of his mini-bus, or invites into the back seat for interviews.
The mini-bus, a van typically used in South Africa as mass transit for the poor and working class, becomes a neutral territory where class and race are equalized. As they're driven around the streets and highways of Johannesburg and Cape Town, these young, ordinary, middle-class South Africans discuss their realities of race, language, identity and democracy. They struggle to articulate pain and patriotism, to express who they are in the present reality, shaped but no longer totally defined by the violence of both apartheid and the fight for liberation. That world--for most of Matabane's passengers, the world of their parents--is gone, but no one seems sure of what's going to take its place.
Although he interviewed nearly two dozen people, Matabane largely features the handful who visibly struggled with his questions.
"I think South Africa is an experimental country," Matabane said yesterday at the film's New York premiere at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, part of the 2005 African Film Festival. "South Africa is such a complex country that I needed to focus on the less articulate people," those whose hesitance to deliver ready answers to the camera reflected the country's struggle for identity.
"Story of a Beautiful Country" is Matabane's highly mediated vision of South Africa today, but one that he feels gets closer to reality by acknowledging open questions and subjectivity of experience, rather than going for non-existant closure. While affirming that the thoughts and words of his subjects were all their own, he explained that he often constructed scenes by asking them to wear particular colors or items of clothing. "I don't believe in the notion of objectivity and realism. I think we live in such a complex world, where fiction and reality sort of blend.
"I don't know where is the reality as we know it, as we experience it, and where is fiction. I like this idea of playing around with the state of being awake, and the state of dreaming."
"Story of a Beautiful Country" screens again this Wednesday in New York City.