Is this film the South African Kids?

Already drawing comparisons to Larry Clark, Tribeca breakout Necktie Youth chronicles the post-apartheid teenage wasteland you’ve never seen

“Things been pretty good since they did away with all that apartheid shit,” reckons Jabz, Necktie Youth’s main protagonist, in a voice-over during the film’s unflinching first few minutes. You want to take his word for it, yet this kinetic, Kids-indebted snapshot of an affluent teenage wasteland set in suburban Johannesburg rapidly casts doubt on the character’s claim. One of the highlights of the recent Tribeca Film Festival, this remarkable debut by 23-year-old Sibs Shongwe-La Mer has already drawn comparisons to Larry Clark for its brazen, rock-driven youthscape; Bret Easton Ellis for its hedonistic, pharmaceutically enhanced malaise; and early-career Spike Lee for its undercurrent of visceral indignation.

Necktie Youth kicks off with the caption “in loving memory of 1991” – an homage to the filmmaker’s birth year and to a hopeful time in South Africa’s recent past – as it began repairing historical wrongs. But the gorgeously monochromatic film that follows that inscription is divested of all promise. Its upper-middle class, racially-mixed youths – which includes horny Jewish girls, cross-dressing dealers and melancholy black dudes – all came of age in a country whose democracy is younger than they are.

Many regard their “rainbow nation” as a twisted kind of purgatory. After the film opens on the gruesome sequence of a teenage girl live-streaming her suicide, Necktie Youth fast-tracks to a year later, to chronicle a day in the lives of her recklessly wistful friends and lovers. As a tabloidy documentary crew questions those who best knew the girl, the film’s nihilistic bunch channel their existential grief and post-apartheid angst into Ativan-aided joyrides, nutty nighttime diatribes and loads of carefree sex, drugs and merrymaking. We recently chatted with Shongwe-La Mer to break down his vividly rendered portrait of Sandton’s disaffected youth.

BRINGING SOUTH AFRICAN FILM INTO THE 21st CENTURY

The self-taught filmmaker acknowledges that South Africa’s film canon has never reflected his reality. Necktie Youth was his valiant effort to see that his generation wouldn’t get left out of the conversation. “The films being made here feed more into the general European ideas of Africa. They cater to these stories of hope. I suppose it’s a lot easier to obtain financing and attract European and American audiences, as an African director, if you portray the slums more than our generation. These are filmmakers of an older generation, talking about what they saw South Africa to be, but not necessarily what it is today.”

“It’s a lot easier to obtain financing and attract European and American audiences, as an African director, if you portray the slums more than our generation” – Sibs Shongwe-La Mer

Necktie Youth offers a sharp critique of modern-day Jo’Burg, from the vantage point of a fairly affluent group whose voice gets drowned out in the media (some would say, justifiably so) by talk of township troubles and thorny Mandela legacies. In Shongwe-La Mer’s film, linguistic and racial diversity are givens – Afrikaans, Zulu and English all coexist (albeit with the occasional spark of tension) – because his generation’s struggle is not one of ethnic inclusion, but rather an existential one, “of finding a united sense of belonging,” he says. “At Tribeca cocktails, people from my government would come up to me and ask: ‘why paint our country in such a negative light?’ I told them that I saw my film as very patriotic because it questions us. If I didn’t care about my country, I’d make something that doesn’t offend as much. But it highlights a reality, and it’s a part of our existence.”

JO’BURG RENDERED IN MONOCHROME

At a time when audiences have practically come to expect their teenage tales rendered in eye-popping Technicolor, Shongwe-La Mer’s black and white treatment could be regarded as an act of discriminating defiance. Talking it over with the consummate cinephile (who cites Jarmusch, Truffaut and Kubrick as influences), he chalks up his timelessly romantic stylistic inclinations to European masters Fellini and Godard. “As a kid from Johannesburg who’d never been to France, watching Jean-Luc Godard and Paris in black and white was so romantic. Seeing a world that you haven’t seen etched out in this palette that’s not lifelike, but rather drained of colour, made it even more romantic. If I was going to take you to Johannesburg – a place you’ve never seen – I was going to present it in the indie language and I was going to hyperromanticize it for you. It has to feel like an alien land. Plus, people tend to show contemporary youth in ultra colour, glam HD, whereas I wanted to show the malaise of their world, stripped down, raw and naked.”

“I think Kids will always come up in conversation, because it was, and still is, the ultimate portrait of youth culture, rock and roll, decadence and dystopia. It’s the benchmark” – Sibs Shongwe-La Mer

A PARTLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL LABOUR OF LOVE

Shongwe-La Mer has been toiling away on many versions of the project for the past seven years, workshopping it at the Venice and Locarno Film Festivals, but never straying too far from his initial impulse to put pen to paper. “When I was 15, my girlfriend hung herself and videotaped it. So I suppose, as a 15-year-old, it sent me on a different life trajectory. I started writing different versions of the script, because I was looking at my friends and realizing all the things we weren’t telling each other; all the sadness and displacement that wasn’t being articulated.”

When it came to the casting process, he couldn’t imagine having to direct anyone other than his friends, with whom he’d already extensively knocked around ideas regarding his story’s loose, improvisational structure. “I didn’t want to go to a drama school, start looking for random kids who didn’t live this existence, and try to workshop it with them, to go through this dramatic arc,” reasons Shongwe-La Mer, who also plays the part of Jabz’s best friend, September. “I wanted it to be as loosely and organically them as possible, so that they weren’t necessarily acting but rather reflecting a reality. Ultimately, my biggest allegiance is to my friends, and (when I first played Necktie Youth to them), I was more nervous than anything about how they would respond to me portraying them and their experiences.”

BEING LUMPED TOGETHER WITH LARRY CLARK

First-time filmmakers are usually reticent to embrace the knee-jerk parallels people will make with other, similarly themed movies. Au contraire, Shongwe-La Mer regards the Larry Clark connection as a most flattering one. He even credits Kids with giving him his first taste of what cinema could be. “One of the things that got me into cinema as a 14-year-old in my bedroom, late at night, was watching Kids. That intro with Telly on the bed, with the girl, the sweating, that little voice-over, and that ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (rock music) intro when the credits kicked in – it was so exciting! I think Kids will always come up in conversation, because it was, and still is, the ultimate portrait of youth culture, rock and roll, decadence and dystopia. It’s the benchmark. You could make a film about a bunch of kids who get fucked up and do too many drugs in Scandinavia, and people are still going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of like Kids.’ It’s a fantastic portrait.