Meerkat Maantuig or Meerkat Moonship is a film by writer-director Hanneke Schutte, which tells the story of Gideonette, a young girl, who moves in with her grandparents after her father passes away and her mother goes to rehab. Based on the novella Blinde Sambok by Riana Scheepers, this Afrikaans language fairy tale mystery drama is intriguing, starting off by introducing us to a curse that has lingered with the de la Rey family. Named after her father, young Gideonette tries to get to grips with her father’s passing and seeks to understand and avoid the looming curse.
Schutte follows her directorial debut, Jimmy in Pienk, with a film that is ethereal, nuanced and lovingly made. Functioning like a live-action Studio Ghibli project, the film embraces a similar tone, sense of spirituality and blend of man, nature and technology. The sentimental air keeps things intimate, similarly poised to the fiddliness of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, taking the perspective of a young girl whose sullen disposition becomes a frame of reference, gradually buoyed by a growing sense of optimism. Facing your fears and living each day in fullness is the underlying message, brought forth by the central story and blossoming outlook of the characters. Embedded in an eco-forest, the cinematography is lush and sumptuous, using netting and dappled sunlight to nurture a growing positivity as the film shifts from dark to light.
The casting is superb, with Anchen du Plessis following on from her solid film debut in Vaselinetjie, to deliver a thoughtful performance. A beautiful girl with full facial features, her face is a ceaseless point of fascination as she moves through several shades of emotion. Ouma Koekie and Oupa Willem, played quite effortlessly by Pierre van Pletzen and Rika Sennett, are eccentric and ever-present, doting on her, caring for her yet trying to keep their distance. Her special friendship with Bhubesi forms the film’s emotional core as the charming Themba Ntuli bubbles with jubilation, conveying his character’s quirkiness through his obsession with space exploration.
“Beam me up, Bhubesi…”
Meerkat Maantuig is a thoughtful film, with every shot filled with purpose, rich symbolism running through and great restraint when it comes to unfurling the mystery. This is nuanced and mature film-making, which makes it a cut above, employing sub-textual elements to echo and reinforce the story. Some will appreciate the subtlety, detail and finer narrative elements, which enrich the film experience. It’s quite dazzling to behold, visually captivating in its approach to retro styling and its offbeat quirkiness, taking place at the residence of some rather eccentric, estranged yet lovable family members.
While the story is about being a kid in a dark world, it’s a curious and fascinating emotional exploration for all ages. Entering this ethereal state, one is drawn in by the story’s mythology and amused at the many curiosities. Embracing its playful fairy tale side, the film is reminiscent of Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Wild Things Are, operating gingerly when it comes to fantasy. There are even elements of Heidi at play as our young heroine begins her adventure on a farm with her Oupa. Dealing with death, family curses and mental illness, Meerkat Maantuig does go through a number of difficult themes but comes out with rose-tinted goggles, delivering a touching and even poetic finale.
There are one or two gaps around the father and farm, which leave question marks, however the absence of full answers heightens the mystery. It takes a bit of time to warm to young Gideonette, who could have used a bit more texture to make her more relatable, but this elevates the drama around her unburdening and chrysalis. Then, for some it will be a relief that there’s a fair amount of forewarning.
Minor flaws aside, it’s a marvelous achievement, creating an otherworldliness, an unusual tone and the homeliness of a scrapbook. Meerkat Maantuig’s sentimentality and naivete is well-balanced, the genre mix is elusive, the production design is in tune and the artful film functions on a higher level than your typical South African film.
Smart, touching, magical and beautifully composed, Meerkat Maantuig is one of South Africa’s best films to date. It’s amazing to see what you can accomplish, creating a film of magnitude on a relatively small budget and compelling audiences through the power of story with a number of lovable characters. This film could easily be adapted into anime, living in a similar world to that of Studio Ghibli and carrying many of the same wonderful qualities too.
The bottom line: Ethereal