Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Wooden Camera

Hidden amongst hundreds of films made every year, are little gems, which sadly just do not get the viewing-attention and viewer-numbers which they truly deserve. "The Hidden Camera" from South Africa is one such film.

Charming, exuberant, and disturbing, this film delves into the racial ambivalence of South Africa, and a child's life, heart and mind, with rare sensitivity. Through the bonding and love of four black children – Madiba (the young hero of the film), Louise (his sister), Sipho (Madiba's dearest friend); and one white girl from a privileged family, Estelle, the entire spectrum of a nation's prejudices and a child's growing pangs and ambitions, are put into a fast-moving narrative.

Madiba and Sipho find a gun and a video camera on the body of a dead man who is thrown off a train. Sipho keeps the gun (with one bullet) and Madiba keeps the camera. And their lives change forever. Madiba hides the camera in a wooden box so the folks in his slum do not get enticed to it. And Sipho finds the power of a drawn gun very quickly.

One starts shooting the world around him digitally – and finds romance and magic in the most mundane of images of everyday life. And the other finds how people can be relieved of their belongings with just a flash of a weapon. The trajectory of their lives takes off on different planes.

And then Madiba, whilst shooting in Cape Town, encounters a white girl, Estelle, who steals a book for him, and gives it to him, as she speeds away in a huge car. Estelle is an unusual white girl: she reads Malcom X, has her walls covered with posters which say "We will stand by our rights", and pierces her nose because "(I) like it and it drives (my ) parents crazy"!

Madiba shoots everything and everywhere. Some of the best moments of the film come as he learns the power of a moving shot by getting a friend to pull him on a wheel barrow, and learns about the magic of lenses by shooting through colored plastic pieces.

The conflicts come in the form of Estelle's racist father, who can't stand blacks; and Sipho's taste for easy money. The denouements of both are immensely moving and shocking.

The film brings out the intense tension of the confrontations which poor kids face on a day-to-day basis as they go about their lives, and the challenges which an auteur faces in a world where there is no saying where the next morsel of food will come from.

The grime and the energy of the slum area are established with disarming and graceful charm. The friends, as they form relationships, who judge not before loving; and the siblings, as they enjoy each other's company, are etched effortlessly. Even as Sipho steals and kills, and Estelle fights and protests with her father, their intrinsic innocence and faultless view of the world never falters.

The final scenes of the railways tracks, as Madiba and Estelle set out to find their own world and way, are a testimony of a spirit which seeks its own rules and answers, as also of the infinite search for truth and beauty. And this film finds both in abundance.

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