Movie Review: Poppie Nongena

Poppie Nongena is a South African historical biographical drama about a housekeeper who struggles to keep her family together in the face of inhumane pass laws. Set in Cape Town during the ’70s when South Africa was under the rule of the Apartheid government, Poppie Nongena is an important and powerful story, based on Elsa Joubert’s ‘The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena’, one of the best African novels of the 20th Century. Directed by Christiaan Olwagen, whose films include Kanarie, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie and Die Seemeeu, Poppie Nongena was a highly anticipated feature film for local cinephiles. Starring Clementine Mosimane, Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Chris Gxalaba, it’s an epic multi-lingual drama shot predominantly in Afrikaans, winning a record 12 Silwerskermfees awards.

The drama is aiming for prestige, often attaining a sense of this through its important and overarching narrative about a woman’s attempts to overcome growing adversity in restrictive and hostile circumstances. From impressive and sweeping long shots, solid production values, authentic production design and fine-tuned wardrobe to an expansive ensemble, Poppie Nongena is visually-striking and has heft thanks to some inspired cinema and grounded performances. The film is laden with fine ingredients and punctuated by fine and recognisable character actors in Dawid Minnaar, Rolanda Marais and Nomsa Nene.

Olwagen’s continous shots allow him to explore his characters and situations through free-ranging cinematography, immersing and swathing the audience in his dramas. Coming from a theatre background and still involved in stage productions, he tries to capture the spontaneity of theatre and life through his films. Poppie Nongena continues this trademark effect, composing beautiful shots though carefully planned and grand exterior scenes… it’s exhilarating and brilliant to observe and experience.

While the respected filmmaker has developed a strong reputation for himself, Poppie Nongena is one of his more troubled films in terms of continuity and consistency. By embracing such brilliant single shot departures, the rest of the film is shown up and made to look inferior and much less cinematic. The interior scenes have weight but seem self-conscious, stilted and stifling within the context of the big picture. These more intimate scenes help move the story along through dialogue but seem insubstantial next to some of his portrait shots of Poppie Nongena, played by a spirited Mosimane.

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Travelling in a bus, closing the film… these shots make it seem as though some longer shots would’ve worked for the drama as well as the crowd scenes. These special moments raise the film’s profile and make it look as accomplished as his international peers. Unfortunately, they’re fleeting and the uneven feel makes for a see-sawing film experience where you’re longing for the bigger scenes.

As an adaptation you imagine that there must have been some pressure to keep the film as close and faithful to the book as possible. Yet, somehow there’s a slight disconnect with Poppie remaining resilient with her guard up in understandably difficult and frustrating circumstances. Operating from this perceived distance, the film is more about events than character and this alienating aspect is further exacerbated by some contrived dramatic elements.

Poppie Nongena still has some emotional power, something that Olwagen prefers to allow as a natural side effect rather than through manipulation. The screenwriting enables us to get an inside perspective on her two polar opposite worlds and the government’s stonewalling tactics, but contributes to a stagey feel in the tighter confines. There are some furious scenes that ripple with urgency but then there are some that seem constrained.

Poppie Nongena‘s a slow-moving film that may have taken a few notes from Roma, but it’s one that would have been more textured and interesting with a touch of humour. Perhaps if Olwagen had a bit more creative control over the story it would have had a better sense of urgency and intimacy. As it stands, Poppie Nongena is a respectable and relatively safe adaptation, restrained by its flaws and elevated by its touches of brilliance.

The bottom line: Admirable

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