Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TIFF Review: Akin Omotoso's Man On Ground

TIFF Review: Man on Ground
Written & Directed by Akin Omotoso
Starring: Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Fana Mokoena, Fabian Adeoye Lojede, Makhaola Ndebele, Bubu Mazibuko
Cinematographer: Paul Michelson
Editor: Aryan Kaganof
Sound: President Kapa
Music: Amu
Country: South Africa
Year: 2011
Language: English, Yoruba, Sotho, Zulu
Runtime: 90 minutes

Still Screening:
Saturday September 17, 2011
Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto

Man On Ground opens to dungeon-like corridors and the sounds of torture - or so you think, but no one is telling the whole truth in this story, including the filmmaker, who keeps his story cards close to the chest, revealing it only in bits and pieces and much of the time in hindsight. It's a skilfully told drama about one brother trying to find out what happened to the other against the backdrop of rising zenophobia in South Africa.

There are recurring images of fire, matches lighting, that you won't understand the significance of until the very end, some scenes that are more symbolic than literal, and others that describe background rather than acting as pieces in the puzzle of the central mystery of what exactly happened to Femi, a Nigerian worker in the construction site at Extension 29, an "informal settlement" in the Eastern Cape region.

Ade, the older brother, goes to meet Femi at a cafe, and after a no-show, he's contacted by Femi's fiancée, who's worried sick. Ade agrees to go to Extension 29 to look for Femi, and from here the story begins to unravel. Ade is long estranged from his brother, and has his own dark history with his sibling, but he's only the first character among many to have secrets and hidden agendas, including the construction site foreman where Femi was working, his wife, and assorted locals. It turns out the area's inhabitants live largely in shacks, waiting for government housing that's due to be given to them for free - but then is mysteriously sold to foreigners instead. It's become a hotbed of strife and conflict, with riots and killings and a pervasive hatred of foreigners, and those dancing flames that consume half built houses.

This is the filmmaking of a master storyteller and it works on many different levels. The story unfolds visually in a series of contrasts - the contrast between Ade's urban comfortable life and Femi's scrounging as a street vendor. Femi's voice in a voiced over letter talks about the pretty South African countryside as we see people setting buildings on fire. Talky scenes cut back and forth with the violent action of the protesters.

It's also a very economical form of storytelling. The courtship of Femi and his fiancée takes places over a few quick yet telling scenes. "Are you legal?" she asks. "Legally a refugee," is the answer. In a single line, Ade reveals the deeply felt childhood jealousies at the roots of their estrangement.

Recurring images and symbols foreshadow in unexpected ways, and I was particularly impressed with the use of sound in the film. The fires - even a match lighting a smoke - crackle with a malevolent life all their own, the sounds alternating with a great musical soundtrack. Together they serve to both move the story along and underpin the plot. The visual elements also work hard to reinforce the overall tone, especially the cavernous and mostly empty schoolhouse that acts as the construction office. The haunted nature of an abandoned institution works well with the displaced sense of truth, and the hollow nature of public institutions in this violent landscape. The actors turn in entirely convincing portrayals of these conflicted people, without a false note between them.

The story comes to a tragic conclusion, but one that you really won't guess at till the end. It's an absorbing story and a really nicely made film with a highly accomplished and developed sense of style.


  1. Beautiful movie about an ugly subject.
    The cinematography crackles with poignancy.

    The story is told in chunks of magnetic dialogue that suck the viewer into the political and humanitarian milieu that is heavily relevant to South Africa and the world.

  2. Well said! It's such a well made film.

  3. Thanks for posting, makes me want to watch, but Im a fan of Akin and all the stars so will watch anyway!

  4. Great review of this film. how does one go about getting a DVD copy for the general public? I would like to get a copy, if it's not too expensive. Best, Edwin

  5. I can't seem to find it on DVD anywhere - it only just premiered in September at TIFF, so I suspect it may not yet be available.