English Title: Forerunners

Country of Origin: South Africa

Studio: SaltPeter Productions CC

Director: Simon Wood

Producer(s): Paul Egan, Caitlin Robinson, Simon Wood

Screenplay: Simon Wood

Cinematographer: James Adey, Felix Seuffert, Simon Wood

Editor: Khalid Shamis

Runtime: 52 minutes

Genre: Documentary

Language: English, isiZulu, Sotho, Xhosa

Starring/Cast: Martin Magwaza, Karabo Malupe, Miranda Puza, Mpumi Sithole

Year: 2011

Volume: African / Nigerian

The documentary film Forerunners explores what it means to be black and middle class in South Africa.  It follows four young professionals who are part of the first generation of black South Africans to rise from poverty and join the country’s ‘middle class’.  They must balance the traditional views learned in childhood with the western consumerism that rules their professional lives.    

Mpumi Sithole is a project manager with two young boys.  She is managing the biggest project of her career, the construction and launch of a community care centre in Rorke's Drift, Kwazulul Natal, more than 500km from her office in Johannesburg.

We follow Miranda Puza from the end of her pregnancy.  Tension with her in-laws soon leads to the dissolution of her relation with the child's father.  The now-single mother tries at first to drown her sorrows in work, but only finds peace once she visits her grandparents' graves and the rural village they lived in.
Martin Magwasa lives in a security complex in Johannesburg, but it does not feel like 'home' to him.  His father advises him to consult a medium or nthandazi. At first he is sceptical, but he soon realises that her insights have given him much to reflect on.

After losing his father, Karabo Malupe takes over the role of patriarch of his family.  This entails taking over the upkeep of his family home, supporting his unemployed mother financially and taking in his rebellious younger sister to try and keep her in school.  

The South African documentary film Forerunners has been selected for numerous international festivals including two of the most prestigious, Cannes and IDFA.  At IDFA in Amsterdam it was listed among the ‘Best of the Fest’, and it won the Dikalo Special Jury Prize (2011) at the Festival du Film Panafricain in Cannes and Best Cinematography at the United Nations Film Festival in San Francisco.

It is a stunning film to look at. Focus, composition, colour and movement are used to signify the internal conflicts faced by the film's four main characters.  The two men and two women must each face their own battles between traditional African values and contemporary western consumerism, work and family, success and failure.  

Compositionally divided frames are used repeatedly as metaphor for the conflicts the characters face and to enhance the feeling of isolation they all express to a greater or lesser degree in their interviews.  When Karabo visits his mother in Soweto, for example, the ’Soweto’ title appears on the right hand side of the frame superimposed over an interior wall, with the mother on the left side of the frame.  The doorway to the lounge where the two are seated creates the vertical divide in this image.  The mother faces right to left, seated in a chair in the lounge beyond the doorway.  Her head is compositionally cut off by the wall edge.  This divided image, combined with the uncomfortable framing of the mother, signifies the disconnect between mother and son, and that she does not understand him or his Western way of life.  

The editing is subtle and sophisticated.  Clever transitions amplify the contrasts and parallels between the four stories and visuals are juxtaposed to emphasise the divide between rich and poor in a country where first and third world coexist in constant tension.  Wealth and poverty are repeatedly juxtaposed in Forerunners.  The first shots of the introductory sequence alternate between a time lapse shot of a highway with streams of cars speeding past and a shot of a beggar at an intersection.  By the third cut from the highway to the beggar, he kneels down in exasperation as cars keep passing him without stopping to lend a hand.  The juxtaposition emphasises the divide between rich and poor in South Africa.  

The illusion is created that there is interaction between elements in the shots and the titles superimposed over them.  At one point, for example, it looks as if a shopping trolley that is pushed down a road wipes the ‘Soweto’ title in front of Karabo's parental house off screen.  A ‘Johannesburg’ title looks as if it is attached to the side of a building.  And when Miranda is pictured during her baby care demonstration, a chyron or caption with her name, which would normally be placed at the bottom of the screen, is displayed first in the middle of the frame and second in the same spot but from the reverse side, after a cut to an over the shoulder shot shows her, so that her name looks as if it is seen from behind, just as she is.

These self-reflexive devices lead to an awareness of the constructedness of the film, and adds a meta-communicative layer of meaning to the film. A critical consideration of the filmmaker's role in representing actuality and his position towards it is invited.  And this is appropriate, considering that the director, Simon Wood, is Caucasian and English, while his four subjects are African.

There is a hint of magic realism in Forerunners. The sound of the wind is woven through several scenes and almost becomes another character in the film.  When Miranda visits her grand-mother's grave the second time, it is as if the ancestral spirits show their presence through the sound of the wind in the trees.  Shane Cooper's haunting soundtrack adds to the effect of the ambient sound.  The director has said he believes that ‘change is a constant in our lives and I wanted to demonstrate that in the film’.  The soundtrack forms a metaphor for the changes evident in the stories of the subjects, and for the social and political changes that had occurred over the course of seventeen years of democracy in South Africa.

The film never feels slow, and yet there is time for the viewer to process events and emotion.  The focus is on character, not on plot. Moments of stillness in the film invite viewers to draw comparisons and to insert their own interpretations.  Forerunners provides viewers with an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally engaging glimpse into the lives of four ambitious South Africans.  It highlights that climbing the ladder of success is not without complications and it is often a lonely pursuit, especially in a country where status, wealth and culture can divide people as easily as advance them.

Author of this review: Liani Maasdorp