'High Fantasy' — shot all on an iPhone 7 — tackles race, gender & class in post-apartheid South Africa (TIFF Review)

September 20 2017

My daughter has this inside joke about those billboards commonly seen around city containing a beautiful photograph with “Shot of on the iPhone 7” across the bottom. We think that they are actually shot on DSLRs and being passed off as iPhone photography because, as much as I love my iPhone, I’ve never know it to have a camera able to produce images like the sharp, professional ones I’ve seen on the ubiquitous billboards. Well, seeing Jenna Bass’ second feature film High Fantasy. which has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 in the “Discovery Section,” now I’m going to have to take it all back. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 and it is stunningly rendered. 

In High Fantasy, four friends who’ve embarked on a camping trip through the Northern Cape, wake up to the realization that they’ve all swapped bodies. This is a brilliant device for exploring empathy and engendering honest and difficult conversations about things that have been previously unearthed. From the onset of High Fantasy, we are plunged intimately into the world of these travelers due to to the selfie style in which it is shot; the smartphone camera ruminates on facial expressions, quirks and captures the nuances of the characters, helping us to feel like we know them straight away.It is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, with an effect of visceral realness which was somewhat ahead of its time.  Among the effects of having such a jarring series of close-ups in High Fantasy lend a performative element to everyone’s actions. For better or worse, we are living in times where we are all hyper-aware of the fact that we are being watched. How do we act differently when we know a camera is on us? This film is brilliant in its ability to be at once fun and carefree — expressing the buoyancy and joie de vivre of youth and powerfully challenging to a system continues to be problematic in so many ways.  

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We see the four friends (who also co-wrote the film): Xoli (Quandiswa James), Thami (Nala Kumalo), Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) and Lexi (Franchesca Varrie Michel), dancing together, having an impromptu talent show, having inane conversations, smoking joints, and just being silly young adults, interspersed with reality TV style confessionals, which I suspect are conducted by Bass. The interviews give us the opportunity to go deep into the psychology of what it would feel like to inhabit the body of another. What does it feel like to be faced with your own corporeal form, to see someone else interacting with something as personal and essential to your identity as your body? Thami admits that occupying the body of a woman and being confronted with possibly being subjected to being treated the way he’s treated women, is the only way he is able to see the impact and vileness of his behavior and attitudes.  Reactions to the swapping among the group range from wonderment to anger and sheer horror. But despite the fact that they are experiencing the strangest and scariest moments of their lives, Tatiana muses, “Imagine how many views we’d get on Youtube if we posted what happened this weekend?”

High Fantasy’s unassuming, yet piercing examination of race, class and gender embeds Bass firmly in the pantheon of an exciting new wave of South African filmmaking characterized by introspective directors who are digging deep to challenge the narrative of identity and what it means to be coming of age in post-Apartheid South Africa. This emerging film movement represents a generation of youth who feel duped by the Rainbowism ideology promulgated in South Africa after the abolition of Apartheid in 1994. Rainbowism which attempted to create a class of people, who are unconcerned with respecting differences much like the idea of the Melting Pot here in the United States, which is now universally rejected as politically incorrect. During “High Fantasy,” in a confessional, Thami vehemently expresses his disillusionment for the Rainbow Nation, “I used to sing the national anthem with pride, but now I don’t fuck with it!” Instead of the creation of a class of youth who will turn a blind eye to structural inequality, we are seeing the emergence of a brave group of filmmakers pioneered by filmmakers like  Bass, who do not necessarily have answers, but aren’t afraid to pose the important questions.

Against a backdrop of intensely stunning landscapes and gorgeous, complex skies (on which the camera is often trained), The land is lovingly shot---desert land sprawling with sparse, yet beautiful flora and bountiful hues of terracotta. The sky represents another character. There are times when conversations are extended across a frame of breathtakingly, lush and vivid sunsets and skies. As a poetic, visual refrain, there is an aerial shot with the camera sailing over the northern cape terrain. The friends acknowledge the landscape several times throughout the film calling it beautiful or as Tatiana says, when she’s laying out her blankets to sleep  under the night sky, “stars are my vibe.”  

Bass combines rigorous contemplation of life in South Africa with innovative cinematographic techniques. High Fantasy shows a confluence of the various languages of the South African millennial.  From the expression selfie culture, to the incessant use phones to document everything that happens in their lives no matter how seemingly insignificant. It is a language of an unapologetic desire for freedom and equality underpinned by an abiding love for and respect for friendship, themes also present in Bass’s first feature film, Love the One You Love.  She recently observed“We are still an incredibly segregated country and I would be lying if I said I understood how everyone felt about various aspects of life. But I felt like the one thing we all had in common was love.”

by Nella Fitzgerald on September 20 2017

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