Fiction, 117’, South Africa / Luxembourg / Germany
Lingering on the rolling desert scape, Flatland begins with the wedding of Natalie and policeman Bakkies. A series of tight, claustrophobic shots following Natalie as she wobbles through the occasion, culminating in her rape on her wedding night—she manages to escape, taking Bakkies’ gun and running into the night. Natalie goes back to her beloved horse who she believes to be her dead mother and accidentally shoots the reverend who married her earlier the same day.
Returning to her aunt’s house to collect her sister, Poppie, who is heavily pregnant, the two women flee on horseback through the desert. Beauty, a police officer with a penchant for soap operas, becomes intertwined with the two women as Billie, her ex-lover, is framed for the murder of the priest, the same night he was released from 15 years in prison. As Beauty realises that Natalie has pulled the trigger, she sets out to find the two.
Bass deftly illuminates the tensions that are brought to light through the narrative; race, gender and class power structures are ever-present, whilst not overshadowing the agency of the characters themselves. Poppie waves Bakkies’ gun in her aunt’s face after she aims a racial slur at Natalie. When Beauty visits the aunt’s house to question her, there is a poignant pause after she asks why Poppie, and not Natalie, went to school. ‘This is our land!’ the aunt shouts at Beauty’s retreating back, ‘Our past. Our future.’
Cinematography by Sarah Cunningham is a mixture of brutally vivid imagery paired with dream-like sequences, enhanced by electronic music by Bao-Tran Tran. The tone is rich and at times dazzling. By no means perfect, Flatland’s re-imagining of the classic Western gives way to an imperfect and imbalanced portrayal of people who consistently defy characterisation. The threads of the narrative intersect in surprising and unexpected ways—reflecting the messiness and unruliness of the world in which the characters live. The most coherent structural linchpins of the film are provided by the soaps that play at 8pm every evening. The shows are condemned by Bakkies as unrealistic—stupid people doing stupid things—‘sounds like life to me’ says Beauty.