Film review:  Days of Cannibalismof pioneers, cows and capital, feature documentary, directed by Teboho Edkins

The much anticipated feature documentary, Days of Cannibalism, directed by Teboho Edkins is joint premiering in Africa at the Encounters South African Documentary Film Festival on Friday 28 August, 2020 at 8pm and at the Durban International Film Festival from September 10 to 20. Catch it at Encounters on Friday, 28 August 8pm, available for 24 hours and then it is gone. Free but limited tickets. Geo-blocked for South African viewers only.

South African born filmmaker Teboho Edkins is currently based in Berlin.  Days of Cannibalism, had its World Premiere at the Berlinale International Film Festival in February 2020. Edkins will talk about his journey in making the film on the Durban Does Docs platform at the Durban FilmMart, September 4-13.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction and that is what comes across for me in this intriguing film which mashes up narrative documentary with the genre of Hollywood Western. In Days of Cannibalism- of pioneers, cows and capital – the frontier is Thaba-Tseka in Lesotho. It is a space for opportunity and profit -where law, order, justice is infinitely malleable. Against the backdrop of the beautiful but stark mountain kingdom, Edkins tracks entrepreneurial Chinese merchants who have settled in Thaba-Tseka. Some are there for the long haul and have taken out citizenship. Others are there as migrant workers – to make money and return home to China.  They are operating stores, restaurants, factories, embarking on major construction projects. Labour is cheap and that is one of the narrative through lines of this film- the exploitation of people who are forced to work for colonisers of their land for slave wages.  In tandem with the cannibalism of people and land, there is the larger picture of Lesotho as Mountain Kingdom- and the appropriation of herds – not only physically – by acquiring herds – but by disregarding the laws and rituals of the kingdom. Cattle is sacred. It is livelihood. It is like money but it goes beyond commerce and a commercial transaction.

In the film, the traditional Basotho cattle breeders reflect on their heritage; the need for respect and trust amongst each other. Thou shalt not steal. Animals are branded. When animals are stolen, there are consequences. It is not just the cannibalism that the elders face from the outside – from outsiders- like the Chinese settlers/merchants -but is from within the community – which has been de-railed by poverty and despair. When there is no work available on the mines, cattle becomes a commodity for those that are desperate. I won’t plot spoil but let’s say that the court scene revolving around stolen cattle, is edge-of- the-seat viewing.

Beyond trust in the community, a Chinese shop owner muses that one of his employees has stolen money and phone cards. He had worked for him for ten years. The shop keeper admits that he thought he could trust him. “Everybody steals That’s for sure…. To have no theft at all is impossible”. It is a frontier town and every person is on the take.  Survival and/or greed?  Well, in the tangle of “pioneers, cows and capital “, this slice of Africa, is shrouded by many layers.

My expectation of this film was a documentary about Chinese who have settled in Lesotho and their interactions with cattle breeders but the film goes beyond “documentary”. It is a film which documents a place and a time but it transcends its form and becomes a story which grapples with survival, fear, violence, xenophobia, exile, home – and much more. We see Chinese people chatting to family home in China and talking about how Africa is not dissimilar from China – except for “the firearms” – and that there is not much to spend their money on in the kingdom of cattle.

Edkins has assembled protagonists and interlocking narratives which comes across for me as a fiction film. I kept thinking – ‘what is going to happen – how is this going to end’. Yes, there is a plot or rather plot-lines. Without plot spoiling too much – skip this paragraph quickly – I have to tell you that footage used from a security camera, provides a hectic dénouement to this landscape of “of pioneers, cows and capital “. The cinematography (Samuel Lahu) is beautiful in its capture of the landscape and impeccable in its capture of interior shots, gesture and expression. The camera work has an intense intimacy. The protagonists forget that the cameras are there or perhaps they think that no-one knows what they are saying.  We have sub-titles to decode what is being said.

The leitmotif of children running through – innocents in the days of cannibalism- is chillingly juxtaposed with the images that we see on the screen. Reminiscent of Robin Williams as DJ in the film, Good Morning Vietnam, the film is threaded with chit-chat from radio announcer, chatting on the local station Mojodi FM. He urges his listeners to get to know the Chinese in Lesotho –to know each other- respect customs -to talk with each other.

This could have so easily been a heavy handed film but the result is an intense film, with vivid protagonists. Mixed in with the carnage and ravaging of land and animals, there are moments of playfulness and humour. I loved the use of sub-titles. The protagonists often don’t understand each other. They talk, using rudimentary signs and words. As viewers we get a parallel narrative – revealed through the sub-titles- hidden from the protagonists. It may be lost through lack of translation -for them -but we get the full thrust – in plain English.

I loved watching Days of Cannibalism -a riveting film which deserves all the accolades it has picked up so far. It is like watching a Western/crime thriller but it happens to be about real people in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, in Africa.

Days of Cannibalism trailer:

Produced by KinoElektron, Day Zero Films, Kepler Film Days of Cannibalism the world sales rights have been picked up by Paris based Indie Sales. The film has screened at major film festivals in Europe and the USA: CPH DOX in Copenhagen, Sweden, in New Directors / New Films in New York, USA, Visions du Réel in Switzerland , DOK.fest in Munich, Germany and others.

Director: Teboho Edkins

Writers: Teboho Edkins and Geoffroy Grison (consultant)

Producers: Don Edkins, Janja Krali

Co-producers: Koji Nelissen, Derk-Jan Warrink

Cinematography: Samuel Lahu

Editor: Laurence Manheimer

Image credit: Supplied.