Back of the Moon
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
28 July 1958. Badman, an intellectual and the leader of the most powerful gang in Sophiatown, lives life on his own terms in this crazy, cosmopolitan, half-demolished ghetto on the edge of Johannesburg. The gorgeous Eve Msomi, a torch-singer on the brink of an international career, is giving her last concert in the local hall before she travels to London. Tomorrow, legions of police will force the residents of Gerty street out of their homes and they will be trucked to a desolate township, 15km out of the city. Refusing to face the bleak reality of black South African life, Badman has decided that he will fight to the death for his home. But fate thrusts Eve Msomi, whom he has loved from a distance, into his orbit. And, on this night that bears this beautiful encounter, Badman’s gang, The Vipers, sensing his vulnerability, turns on them both.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Identity, love, violence – Back of the Moon dances with many historical South African nuances set against one of the past government's biggest crimes – dispossession.
Directed by the award-winning Angus Gibson, the film is a beautiful, yet raw, portrait of Sophiatown, an amalgamation of the people affected by its dismantling – not only their houses but also their sense of belonging. It also doubles as a gangster film, set in the late 50s brought to life through engrossing cinematics and brilliant costume design – but ultimately it's about a man making peace with the life choices he has made and finding beauty in his life one last time.
Back of the Moon follows the stories of various residents of Sophiatown on its last day before being forcibly moved by the government to a far-away township. A singer bids her last adieu before embarking on an international career, a gangster boss struggles to let go of his family home, a criminal makes plans to take over the Vipers gang, and a forlorn musician full of unrequited love narrates all the events unfolding before him.
It's not hard to see why Back of the Moon won the award for Best South African Film at the Durban International Film Festival – the enigmatic storytelling and superb production value makes this a film that can contend on an international stage. But it doesn't just look pretty – the cast delivers passionate performances headed by lead Richard Lukunku as Bra Max. The complexities of his character are not so easily translated to the screen – he had to balance the hardness of a gangster and the soft touch of a lover without it looking like two completely different characters. Singing angel Moneoa Moshesh's debut in her first feature film was also a knockout, exuding elegance in situations dominated by barbarism, like the quiet menace of Ghost boldly portrayed by Lemogang Tsipa.
I do unfortunately have one gripe with the film's use of rape and threat of it as a plot point. It's something that is prevalent in the movie industry that has irked me for a while as a woman. Looking past historical accuracy or other elements that would warrant the inclusion of rape in a movie, I don't believe rape should be shown as gratuitously onscreen as it does, especially when recently in South Africa men's violence against women has reached such staggering levels. The rape scene in Back of the Moon was quite upsetting, and I don't believe it added value to the plot at all except as a twisted way to introduce the only woman main character to the leading man. This isn't only a criticism of the film, but of the industry in general, and hope that one day when we go see a film with a violence rating there wouldn't be a fifty-fifty per cent chance of seeing rape.
Despite the gender-criticism, Back of the Moon is a spectacular film that deserves its accolades and will make South Africa proud on the international stage. Dispossession has had such long-lasting effects on our society despite the freedoms we enjoy today, and perhaps looking back at Sophiatown will help us understand better how to continue moving forward. Like Bra Max, we all shape our own destinies.