Words: Lungile Mathupa

Questions. The same form as a statement, but with the lilt of curiosity just as the words come to an end that’s far more interesting than its full stopped counterpart. No other medium encourages the pursuit of answers quite as well as film. And at the 5th Annual Jozi Film Festival’s Johannesburg premiere screening event, those seated within Rosebank’s Cinema Noveaux wanted to know more.

The setting is Apartheid South Africa; the year 1987 to be exact. The darkest days of the regime it is often said. The introduction mentions social justice and the mind begins to wonder.

The poster of the film, with Shepherds and Butchers in giant block letters consuming most of the midsection, flashes before my eyes. Three pale faces stare back and the first question of the night drops into the darkened space – why is there not a single person of colour on a poster about social justice that is set in apartheid South Africa?

 

The question is taken over by scenes of a stormy night with a shaky old bakkie on a windy dark road. Another pair of headlights appears and as the camera pans out, a minibus is speeding toward the bakkie. The expected collision doesn’t happen, instead, the bakkie manages to stay ahead of the minibus. But only for a short while before the minibus, with riled up passengers in tow, overtakes the bakkie. The bakkie lurches forward in hot pursuit, and with the road suddenly coming to an end, forces the minibus to swing to the side before coming to a stop. As the angered occupants spill out, the bakkie driver (Garion Dowds) flings open his door and with pistol in hand shoots every last one of them dead.

Had it been on the stage, the curtain would fall to claim the audience’s shocked response, an outpour of gasps and questions. Back to the story and the bakkie driver is now a dishevelled shackled shadow of a man. And through his lawyer’s questioning, we find out he is the hangman. While he doesn’t pull the lever to end the lives of Death Row prisoners, he does herd them toward their last breath under the same law.

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Since 1959, the South African government officially performed 2949 hangings, including 1123 in the 1980s. In 1987, 164 South Africans were executed by the government – an official tally higher than that of any other country, including The People’s Republic of China and Iran.

Last year marked a decade since the death penalty was abolished in South Africa by the Constitutional Court. And now we found ourselves in the courtroom listening to a warder who brought more than 1000 living dead their daily meals, met their families and even read the bible to those who requested it. He would also measure each prisoner’s weight and neck to determine the rope length which would ensure a clean break.

“The only thing harder than killing a stranger is killing someone you know.”

Solomon Ngobeni was the last person to be officially executed by the government of South Africa in November 1989. Sandra Smith was the last woman to be executed by the state. Their names and stories are known – a basic Google search does the trick. But what about the hand that led them to their deaths? What was his name and what brought him to this horrific environment?

Shepherds and Butchers tries to direct audiences toward that narrative through one individual’s troubled story. With a surplus of emotion and detail, the production describes his character, his job, his responsibilities, all the while questions about the prisoners too come to mind. There are also monologues a plenty including one where Robert Hobbs says, “The only thing harder than killing a stranger is killing someone you know.”

But the unshakeable questions are about who gets to die because of their wrongdoings. These are questions of justice as you look at the woman whose son was killed by the warder – and in the same token when you try and escape the warder’s eyes as he recounts his days with the rope. It’s a film that’s difficult to watch, but aren’t all our stories when the telling is so very close to the truth?

Shepherds and Butchers is produced by Anant Singh and directed by Oliver Schmitz, with talent from Steve Coogen, Robert Hobbs and Eduan van Jaarsveldt


 

Puff and pass

A Billion Lives – an American documentary feature saw its first screening on African soil at this year’s Jozi Film Festival. The film was directed by Aaron Biebert who travelled across four continents to promote the production about the safer alternative to cigarettes: vaping.

With various contributors including leading scientists, doctors, members of the vaping category and even ‘The Winston Guy’ – who not only witnessed the rise of cigarettes but played a significant role in marketing the lifestyle as rugged, sexy and the go-to for moments of camaraderie.

Anyone who decides to smoke deserves to die

The resistance to change from many powerful institutions and organisations, which could ultimately save smokers from deadly addiction, is the key message in the film. While vaping has been discovered to be a safer alternative to smoking, the innovation is failing to garner the support it needs to help those who need it most. Through educating people using research and real-life experiences, hopes are for myths to be demolished and greater support gained for the e-cigarette category.

What is vaping?

a-billion-lives-media-graphic-august-2016A phenomenon linked to the e-cigarette which allows the smoker to ingest nicotine without the harmful toxins and tar which accompany normal cigarettes. Through watching A Billion Lives the harrowing reality is that cigarette manufacturer knew the side effects of their product but neglected to share it with their consumers. And even when pushed into reckoning with the truth by medical research and the rising number of deaths caused by smoking-related disease.

In approach, they differ, but as drivers of international issues of concern and interest, A Billion Lives and Supersize Me (2004) are similar. Both speak about self-inflicted (no matter the initial unknowing state) addictions that are leading droves and droves of people to an early and unnecessary grave.

Cloudless skies ahead?

While the local vaping community is still but a burgeoning branch of a global movement, if e-cigarette restrictions pass in more first world countries everything will end, and the deathly tobacco cycle will resume.

Anyone who decides to smoke deserves to die is a phrase from the narrator that’s difficult to shake off. And in the way big business and tobacco benefactors are reacting to attempts to help people to quit smoking, this sentiment may be an entrenched belief.