The Western film genre as we know it is unique to a specific period and place. It's instantly recognizable. Single-road small towns on barren landscapes populated by ranchers, cowboys or nomadic gunslingers accompanied by horses, each on some mission that's typically central to the narrative: protecting loved ones and property from outlaw gangs; revenge; stories about lawmen or bounty hunters tracking down prey; and more. The cinema helped immortalize the cowboy.
There have been many great Westerns through the years, most of them set in the American west, focusing on legendary characters or the stories which they inhabit. Across the African continent, there have been a range of historical engagements with the genre. Filmmakers like Senegal's Djibril Diop Mambety (Hyenas, 1992) borrowed features of the Western genre to tell a story of love and revenge that parallels a critique of neocolonialism and African consumerism, in turn challenging the dominant Western form. The same can be said for Chad's Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Daratt (2007). Also, Le Retour d’un aventurier (The Return of an Adventurer, 1966) from Nigerien director Moustapha Alassane, one of his most celebrated films, regarded as the first African Western. This homage to the American Western follows a band of wannabe outlaws who ransack a Nigerien village. Finally, Tonie van der Merwe's Umbango (1988), a South African western filmed entirely in isiZulu with an all-black cast, and produced during the last days of Apartheid. A product of what was called the "B-Scheme" – a government film subsidy which saw many films ostensibly made by white filmmakers for black audiences, between 1973 and 1990 – Umbango is one of the few surviving Westerns from that time.
And there are a few other African Westerns to discover.
Simultaneously honoring its cinematic ancestors while also subverting the genre and exploring new territory by placing the story within an Indigenous community - with remnants of colonialism as a central villain - Five Fingers for Marseilles, directed by Michael Matthews, from a script penned by Sean Drummond, is a most recent addition to the African Western canon.
The film is more of a mythic Western, set in a gritty, primal and instinctive world filled with anti-heroes, edgy characters and purely evil villains, bereft of the clear moralism that its American predecessors were known for. It's a drama that fluctuates between a kind of playful energy to a certain sense of danger, with growing stakes in each successive sequence, languidly unfolding with added sensitivity and complexity. Moments of poignancy are given increasing gravity. Panoramic vistas feature vast open landscapes, as characters figure more prominently, leading to a denouement that becomes more operatic.
The plot is rather simple. Apartheid South Africa: The community of Railway, attached to the remote town of Marseilles, are the victims of brutal police oppression and only the young "Five Fingers" are willing to stand up to them. Their battle is heartfelt but innocent, until hot-headed Tau kills two policemen in an act of passion. He flees, leaving his brothers and friends behind, but his action has triggered a conflict that will leave both Marseilles and the Five Fingers changed. Twenty years later, Tau is released from prison, now a feared outlaw known as "The Lion of Marseilles." But scarred and empty, he renounces violence and returns home desiring only to reconnect with those he left behind. At first, Tau finds Marseilles seemingly at peace - the battle for freedom was won, and now the remaining Five Fingers are prominent leaders of their town. However, after reuniting with childhood love, Lerato, and her fiery son, Sizwe, it becomes clear that Marseilles is caught in the grip of a vicious new threat - crooked cops now replaced by a caustic gang - and to Tau's dismay, his childhood friends themselves may have allowed it in. When he and his loved ones become direct targets, he is reluctantly compelled to fight once and for all, as the Five Fingers rise again.
Although the setup borders on the contrived, the result is anything but. It is a story of the trials and triumphs that affects a community and the complex characters who inhabit it, in this new frontier - larger than life heroes and villains. Ideas of "good" vs "evil" are explored, as well as themes of land and ownership, claim and legacy, and the primal urge to protect what's ours and those we love - even from ourselves.
Says screenwriter Drummond, “I’ve long loved the idea of bringing the western into a South African space, but not in a way that risked ‘gimmick’ or stuck to the routine or the expected. In the world of Five Fingers for Marseilles, I found a story I was burning to tell, a chance to explore a part of the country little seen, to capture a vivid way of life, explore little known histories and a chance to write complex, compelling characters, with depth and weight, for the best actors in the country. A film that would create heroes, anti-heroes and villains that might even become iconic.”
While the setting is Apartheid South Africa, it’s not an explicitly apartheid narrative as you might expect, but it's a world that's informed by its past, as the undeniable scars Apartheid left on the country reverberate throughout.
That the narrative leans heavily on mood, tone and visuals wouldn't be a surprise, as Drummond says he's been a big fan of the Western; not-so-much the action-heavy, commercial crowd-pleasers, but more of the brooding introspective kind. Stories that simmer just below the surface, that explore the universal themes of man versus man, man versus himself, and men versus the land. To be sure, there is action in Five Fingers, but the filmmakers are obviously far more interested in the build up towards violence, rather than the act itself. When there is action it is quick, harsh and thrilling, but there’s even grander excitement to be found in exploring the tricky politics of the place and time, navigating the weathered faces of its key cast.
In the lush yet gritty work - gorgeously photographed by DP Shaun Harley Lee, one of the film’s most distinguishing aspects, as well as James Matthes' minimalist score, an eclectic mix of sounds - Five Fingers is directed by Matthews with deliberate pacing and meticulous mise-en-scene, as a revenge story becomes a loose allegory on today’s South Africa, and a meditation on and challenge to the Western genre as we've come to know it. Made on a grand scale, the film stars South African TV star Vuyo Dabula as the aforementioned Tau whose screen presence exudes a necessary ruggedness and decency; he rarely speaks, but when he does, it's in deliberate, brief cadences, with some moments unfolding without a single word uttered. Reserved, patient, and quietly dangerous, beneath his intimidating presence, he's able to project an honor, intelligence and grace even in moments of absolute stillness.
Dabula is joined on screen by a celebrated cast that took five years to bring together, actors with features that reflect the barrenness and harsh environments in which their characters live, with multiple generations of South African talent joining the project, from veteran stars Jerry Mofokeng, Kenneth Nkosi, and Mduduzi Mabaso, to relative newcomers Lizwi Vilakazi and Warren Masemola.
Zethu Dlomo, maybe serving as the film's Claudia Cardinale (See Sergio Leone's great Once Upon a Time in the West) and the lead female, brings a grace, beauty and earthy sensuality which balances the film's overall masculine, physical edginess.
A movie like this is maybe only as interesting as its villain, and Sepoko (The Ghost) is certainly engaging, from his physical appearance (his sinister right eye, and his attire), his hoarse voice that makes every word sound menacing. Played by Hamilton Dhlamini, the actor gamely portrays a terrifying gang boss, conveying a steely cold reserve. His paralyzing origin story as he tells it, which explains his ghastly right eye, forces you to pay attention: "My mother was struck by lightning the day I was born... I fought my way out of her charred body..." And as Sepoko, Dhlamini embodies the enigmatic and savage leader of the Night Runners, forcibly and gradually embedding themselves into the new Marseilles community, as events naturally escalate, providing the necessary catalyst for the conflict. New alliances are formed; once enemies fight alongside each other with survival becoming paramount.
Dean Fourie, Kenneth Fok, Brendon Daniels, Anthony Oseyemi, Garth Breytenbach, Tseko Monaheng, Mosili Makuta round out a solid supporting cast of local talent, inhabiting appealing characters costumed with thin blankets, restored balaclavas, extraordinary masks, hats and more, who speak a modern blend of local languages. Says director Matthews, who committed to casting all of the young versions of the characters from the town itself: “It was really important that the actors ‘owned’ the characters. We created the platform and importance of the scene within the film, but really wanted the actors to inhabit the character. To do what felt real and authentic to them."
Capturing the rich cultural mix of Sesotho and Xhosa, as well as honoring the land and the people, were all of importance to writer Drummond and director Matthews. They took on the responsibility of presenting and celebrating small town South Africa in ways it rarely ever is seen on the international cinema stage, showcasing, through the Western genre, a rather vibrant world, socially and politically, full of culture and completely unique, without necessarily projecting their own POVs onto it, being especially cautious of appropriation or exploitation.
Adds Matthews: “We knew that by setting it in a small rural town, it lends itself to the Western, but more importantly it separates it from being seen as just a South African ‘crime story’. Seeing any kind of crime in South African cities brings up a pre-existing subjectivity that audiences can’t help but attach to the film. So by setting the film in a small rural town, it helps create more of a blank canvas for the story and characters."
To be sure, the film does feature Western genre tropes; notably the film's central character, Tau, who leaves and returns to Marseilles many years later (the prodigal son), but isn't immediately recognized by those who remained (he's called "Nobody" initially, until his identity is revealed). "Nobody" is almost like the scruffy "Man with No Name" character portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" of Spaghetti Western films: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Itinerant and answering to no one but himself, an outsider, ruled by his own moral code, and dangerous with and without a weapon, Tau has much in common with classic Western gunslingers, who arrive seemingly out of nowhere to solve (or cause) problems for the regular town folk before drifting on to whatever comes next, or onto the next life. An apparent stranger in town, seen as a threat by the resident villain, gang leader Sepoko, their first meeting in a bar is almost straight out of any classic Western, all-but guaranteeing a big showdown to come at the end.
Exploring South African culture and history, while crafting an emotionally thrilling narrative populated by compelling, complex characters not usually seen on our screens, Five Fingers is certainly local in its specifics, but also offers a gripping work of art with universal appeal for both a South African and a global audience. Seven years in development, filmed over 5 weeks in grueling conditions with a talented, committed cast, unfolding over a near-sprawling 2-hour running time, Five Fingers is a necessary addition to the Western film canon as we know it. Elegiac, grim and mystical, it's a tale of redemption that remixes Western genre lore with South African history and spiritualism, set in one of the most cinematic mountain vistas in the country. Starring an all-South African cast, it is one of four South African films debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this week.