TLA Releasing // 2003 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 18th, 2005
Two friends, two destinies...one shot is all it takes.
Like City Of God set in the townships of South Africa shot through the lens of a toy camera, The Wooden Camera is a story of hope and artistic expression set in the slums (pardon me, the "townships") of South Africa, a country so inherently beautiful and staggering in its natural magnificence that the people who live there seem to have been driven totally insane by all the constant barrage of wonderment and feel the need to drown out the majesty with massive doses of social, economic, and racial politics.
Why, I have no idea. I guess you have to live there to understand it.
In a small slum suburb of Cape Town, two young colored boys play idly alongside a railroad track. A train passes by, and amazingly, a dead body and a briefcase fall out. They open the briefcase and discover two objects of interest: a large handgun and a camcorder. The older boy Sipho immediately grabs the gun, fueling his inherent cockiness and he soon finds himself turning to a life of crime, running rampant through the streets of Cape Town.
Madiba, on the other hand, becomes fascinated with the camera, constructing a wooden faux-camera box to house it in. He begins to shoot his surroundings, capturing the harsh realities of post-Apartheid South Africa with the innocence that only a child with a video camera could record, all unbeknownst to his subjects, who have no idea the wooden camera is "real." His work captures the attention of an artistically-minded music teacher, who helps Madiba edit and fund his projects.
Venturing through the streets of Cape Town, both boys meet a young white teenage girl named Estelle, who comes from a well-to-do family. Against her parent's wishes, she spends more and more time with Sipho and Madiba, attracted by Sipho's charisma and fascinated by Madiba's artistic filmmaking. But soon the lifelong friends' paths veer wildly from one another, and eventually Estelle needs to make a choice, not just over Sipho and Madiba, but over her parents' wishes as well...
Some films are incredibly adept at capturing the innocence, the passion, and the wide-eyed wonder of being young. But not this film. (Okay, just kidding. Where else would I be going with a sentence like that?)
The Wooden Camera is a film of joyful exuberance, despite dealing with the harsh realities of racial tensions in a post-Apartheid South Africa, capturing the spirit, heart, and innocence of youth. This distinction is made very clear from the start; the adults in the film are all racist, clumsy, oafish, drunk, segregated, while the children are creative, ambitious, free-spirited, harmonious, and clever. This is definitely a film told through the eyes of a child, or more to the point, through the eyes of a camera lens. Like in the Brazilian film City Of God, the spiritual brother and companion piece to The Wooden Camera, a young boy coming up in less-than-ideal social situations manages to find some semblance of appreciation for the world through the creative outlet of film, capturing the world around him, finding the beauty where hardly any exists. The Wooden Camera, to be honest, is not as good a film as City Of God, not as emotionally impacting, but The Wooden Camera has an undeniable charm, a quaint sweetness that helps round out the incongruent bits quite nicely.
Madiba seems fascinated with the everyday, like the play of light on a street corner, a plastic bag, the inhabitants of the township; the objects, people, and places that fill his world are his subjects, turned beautiful through the filter of a camera lens. In stark contrast, Sipho wants the camera focused on him and his gangster antics, jumping around and acting the part. They move in opposite directions throughout the film, each following out the natural transgression of their chosen paths. The third critical character Estelle completes the triangle, and exists not so much to drive a wedge between Sipho and Madiba for her affections, but to illustrate exactly how messed up racism can be for children. Coming from a wealthy family in Cape Town, Estelle may as well be from the planet Neptune, so out of touch and isolated from the racial dichotomy of South Africa. Worse, her parents are the bad kind of South African white folk, the kind who would probably have voted in favor of keeping apartheid.
Director Ntshavheni Wa Luruli has a keen and natural talent for the director's chair, but studying under the tutelage of Milos Forman at Columbia University probably doesn't hurt either. He fashions Madiba as the heart and spirit of the film, whose clandestine cinematic compositions have poetic and beautiful aesthetics to them, like tiny beautiful films within an already beautiful film. This film also captures what a strange and bizarre place South Africa is, a melting pot of cultures with the ingredients actively fighting each other, like a baking soda and vinegar stew. Having grown up in Canada in the suburbs of the most multicultural city in the world, I personally have absolutely no frame of reference that can even come close to the deep-rooted racial tension dividing social and economic class between black and white people that have plagued South Africa for centuries. I have absolutely no frame of reference to interpret the reality this kind of film depicts, no idea how to truly understand how people can still be behaving so badly in this day and age. Even though the film is told through the innocent eyes of a child, the world created can still be a harsh and disturbing one.
There is nothing complex about the film on the surface; it tells its story simply, it presents beautiful moving images clearly, but the finished product is fraught with complexity, deep and multilayered, that it surprises you. It is one of the most advanced and masterful tricks of cinema when so much can be gleamed from so simple a film, how so many rich elements come tumbling out from beneath its childlike innocent façade. How a film this good skipped under my radar for so long makes me feel foolish, but I am definitely happy having seen it now.
The transfer is very good, detailed and sharp, but has a strange flatness and blandness that can almost be confused for haziness. The transfer occasionally exhibits signs of damage and wear, but nothing particularly criminal, and the stock has a particular graininess to it, but again, nothing unmanageable. The presentation is not perfect, but does the job well enough. Color tones are muted palette of browns, reds, and grays, and the austere beauty of South Africa is captured expertly through the impressive cinematography and camerawork. A beautiful and good-looking film, though I can't help but think a film like this should be presented in bright colors, not muted tones.
The audio is slightly less impressive, but again, not bad; a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 track covers the bases here. The mix is decent, but environmental noises and shifts in volume can occasionally muffle dialogue, and there is not much in the way of bass response. The film is in English, though some of the South African accents may put viewers out slightly until you adapt your ears to them. The film is scored quite well, alternating from playful classical melody to somber piano pieces and fits the tone of the film quite nicely.
One slightly technical glitch I noticed: with the subtitles enabled, a strange yellow line occasionally appears at the very bottom of the frame in sync with the text, flickering on and off with every on-screen sentence. Viewing on a television, the line no doubt will not be noticeable due to overscan (the plastic border around the glass of a television cuts this part of the image off) but with the image zoomed out to fit the screen, or viewing the film on a computer, the line may be noticeable. It is not particularly annoying or distracting, but it definitely should not be there.
Almost nothing in the way of extras, sadly; just a director's bio and some still photos.
If the DVD has a flaw, it is in the presentation (which is by no means bad, mind you). This film simply deserves better, like a commentary track, a second disc of extras, things like that. TLA has done the bare minimum of work pushing this DVD onto the shelves, and to their credit, took a decent run at it. Problem is, The Wooden Camera is good enough to deserve far more attention by the cinematic world at large; this is a film too good for just South Africa, or for small niche markets of foreign film connoisseurs.
The Wooden Camera is an admiral film for sticking to this conviction that the horrors of the world can be beautiful through the lens of a camera. Full of childlike exuberance, moving and compelling, it is that rare and special kind of film that manages to encourage art to transcend racism, oppression, and poverty into something universal. Chalk another one up for TLA in bringing yet another excellent international film to the shores of North America.
You want a verdict? Cape Town seems to be a very messed up place.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director's Biography
* Stills Gallery