If you were to rely solely on films such as Tsotsi for a view of Johannesburg, your impression could easily be one of a near-future dystopia: a broken and desperate city ring-fenced by impoverished townships, a place where violent crime is rampant and carried out with a dispassionate sense of necessity. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s debut film, by contrast, aims to cast light on the young people living on the more affluent side of the tracks, where life itself is evidently treated with a comparative despondency. These are the disaffected suburban youths of post-apartheid society: cynical, apathetic and sedated, pretty much the same as they are everywhere else.
Using a vignette-based narrative with a delivery style that falls somewhere between Larry Clark’s Kids and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Necktie Youth follows a day or two in the life of several young friends as they aimlessly drift along from party to party, stopping briefly to consider their place in the world or resupply from the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. The film opens with Emily, a member of the social circle, leaving a meandering cry for help on a friend’s answerphone before hanging herself from a tree in her parent’s garden, pointedly on South Africa’s Youth Day, which commemorates the Soweto uprising of 1976. The effect, or in some cases lack thereof, this has on everyone else is covered largely by a documentary team seeking to understand the death. Along with the narration, voiced for the most part by the self-destructive Jabz (Bonko Cosmo Khoza), this device acts as a means of adding coherence to the film’s loose structure.
Throughout the piece Mer and cinematographer Chuanne Blofield use a montage of evocative city scenes shot almost exclusively in black and white, which has the effect of casting both the rundown and upmarket in the same unbiased light. One of the few moments where colour is used is by way of a nostalgic home video depicting life immediately following Mandela’s ascension to power, perhaps suggesting that the hope collectively felt in an emerging Rainbow Nation has now all but dissolved into a grim shade of grey.
This is a strong debut film that combines some excellent camera work with a few slick editing techniques to convey levels of emotional distress and/or stupor. The most striking element of the piece however is the natural and almost improvised feel of each scene, assisted in no small way by an extremely convincing cast, including Mer himself. The only problem is that in some instances, they can be a little dull to watch – which in fairness is possibly the point.
Necktie Youth does not yet have a confirmed date of release.
Watch the trailer for Necktie Youth here: