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
Language: English, Yoruba, Sotho, Zulu
Runtime: 90 minutes
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.
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.
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.