Cold Harbour and the case for socially-engaged genre cinema


On the third night of the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), one of the
most eagerly anticipated South African films of 2014 was premiered in a packed
theatre at Suncoast CineCentre – Carey McKenzie’s noir thriller Cold

Word among the festival-goers in the hours before Cold Harbour was screened
on Saturday 18 July was that more people had been invited to the premiere
than the cinema could actually accommodate. Indeed this proved to be the case.
By the time the houselights went down, every seat was filled and people were
sitting wherever they could – in the aisle, on the floor in front of the screen. This
was the kind of scene that one simply never sees in South African cinemas –
especially when the movie about to be screened is a local production.

Cold Harbour is the debut feature of Capetonian filmmaker Carey
McKenzie. A graduate of New York University’s Film School with a couple of
internationally acclaimed short films and documentaries under her belt, McKenzie
is something of a cineaste with a strong knowledge and appreciation of cinema
history. This knowledge appears to have informed her vision of the kind of films
she wants to make. Cold Harbour is the opening move in her
strategy of creating a unique South African form of socially-engaged genre

African cinema not necessarily art house

“What’s frustrating for me is that there is an out-of-date expectation that African
films need to be art house films and that’s because, historically, a lot of the
cinema from the continent that has made an impact has been West African
cinema with a strong Parisian influence,’ McKenzie says. “Certainly the influence
of French cinema is felt in those West African films of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.
In South Africa we’re quite different. In terms of cinema culture we are evolving
in a way that is more akin to Australian cinema – which is in a dialogue with
American forms – or I really hope that, at our best, we’re even doing something
as exciting as what happened in Mexico or Brazil, which is characterised by
accessible, entertaining local stories, not necessarily always genre but definitely
not art house.’

Cold Harbour melds the influence of two particular genres
differentiated by time and stylistic nuances but sharing many thematic
similarities – the film noir of 1940s and 1950s America (which itself was inspired
by the German crime dramas of the early sound period) and the crime thrillers of
the 1970s such as Bullitt or The Parallax View. The crime genres
have earned a reputation among some critics as being somewhat low-brow. This
was certainly not always the case. From Fritz Lang’s M (Germany 1931) to John
Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (USA, 1941), through to Roman
Polanski’s Chinatown (USA, 1975), the crime films received a
considerable amount of critical and academic ink and proved themselves able
vehicles for expressions of philosophical (particularly existential) thought. Even
in its most lurid forms, such as the Italian giallo films of the 1960s
and 1970s, the crime thriller was capable of being socially conscious and, when
handled by the masters of the genre, such as Sergio Martino, Mario Bava or
Umberto Lenzi, also demonstrated high levels of cinematic merit.

This is the kind of space in which McKenzie is endeavouring to work. With
Cold Harbour, she and her collaborators – including producer
Tendeka Matatu of Ten10 Films, stars Tony Kgoroge, Fana Mokoena, Zolani
Mahola and Deon Lotz, and cinematographer Shane Daly – applied this ethos of
socially-engaged genre filmmaking to a story that explores the peculiar
unwritten laws of loyalty and honour that govern the interactions of people who
steal and kill for a living. The story begins with the discovery of an unidentified
Chinese national on a beach in Cape Town. Young policeman Sizwe Mia (played
by Kgoroge) grabs hold of the case in a bid to make his promotion to detective.

Another side of Cape Town

The story revolves around the perlemoen (abalone) poaching syndicates that
operate in Cape Town and their connection with the Chinese Triads. Stories
about perlemoen poaching break in the Cape Town newspapers all the time,
McKenzie says. Additional inspiration came one day while she was out jogging.

She recalls that she saw police officers gathering evidence on the beach, where
a disembodied leg and other body parts had washed up on the shore. As
McKenzie began to research the Cape Town criminal underworld, she discovered
that the Triads had been active in the city and in the abalone trade since the
harbour was opened in the mid-1990s. Behind the glamour and charm of the
Mother City, rival gangs with connections to one of the world’s most
sophisticated and brutal organised crime networks fought for control of the
abalone supply. Police officers to whom McKenzie spoke told her how it became
routine to find the bodies of unidentified Chinese men in the dunes of Atlantis.
Inspired by these events, the film presents Cape Town as it has never been
seen before. This is not the tourist paradise sold in both the local and
international media; this is a shady world of dingy docks and warehouses over
which the famous mountain presides indifferently.

A classic thriller hero

McKenzie always had Kgoroge in mind for the role of Sizwe. “I wanted to do a
classic thriller hero. He had to be handsome and charismatic and have
something about him that was suggestive that he might have a troubled past –
a little bit of anti-hero. Maybe this would be a guy who could lose his temper in
an ugly way. Think of Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop or Michael Caine
in Get Carter. Those are really inspirations for the character. We’re
rooting for him but there’s something about him that makes us wonder what he
has got up to in the dark. Sizwe has that.’ Kgoroge, who says that he closely
studied Jack Nicholson’s performance in Chinatown before doing the
role, was awarded the Golden Giraffe (DIFF’s new statuette) for Best Actor.

A cosmopolitan film

Language presented an interesting challenge to McKenzie. The film includes five
different languages. McKenzie says: “Tony and Fana’s relationship is in Sesotho,
Tony and Zolani’s relationship is in isiXhosa, the Chinese characters speak
Mandarin – even though one actor, Kenneth Fok, doesn’t speak Mandarin in real
life, he speaks Cantonese, but he still did the part, which is amazing. There is a
bit of Afrikaans, which I understand but, I’m not confident, having gone foreign
for some years, to speak anymore. So yes, the language was a real adventure.

It’s really about trusting the actors and ensuring that they have a good grasp of
the scene so that when they change lines – which Tony and Fana did quite
frequently – everything will still be in place, the plot points will still be there. The
thing that was great about it for me was that it enabled me to work on directing
subtext above everything else. The language element was also important to me
because it authentically represents the cosmopolitan nature of the city.’

The finished film is not without its flaws – but what film is? It does feature some
fine acting, It tells a story about our beloved Mother City that we have not
heard before and shows a gritty side of her that mainstream perceptions are
eager to ignore. It is also shot and designed beautifully. For those of us with a
love for fine genre filmmaking and who advocate its place in South Africa’s
cinematic output, is a relatively strong opening
argument. We wait impatiently for the next word in that dialogue.


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