When it comes to international film festivals, it’s almost a given that there will be at least one dark multi-narrative film among the lineup. This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was no exception. Hailing from two countries as vastly different as South Africa and the Czech Republic, respectively, directors Akin Omotoso and Petr Václav brought a pair of harrowing ensemble dramas.
In Omotoso’s “Vaya,” Johannesburg is the city of focus, where the lives of three strangers collide in unanticipated ways. Much like the numerous immigrant dramas about achieving the American dream, it follows these South Africans as they journey to the city from their more rural homes in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Unaware of what’s to come, they are in for a rude awakening when they find themselves in an unfamiliar, cutthroat world.
The first character we meet is Zanele (Zimkhitha Nyoka), a caretaker tasked with bringing a little girl to her mother, a failed singer who migrated to the city. Next we’re introduced to Nkulu (Sibusiso Msimang), who is sent to retrieve his deceased father’s body, who worked in the city’s mines. While Nkulu’s mother warns him of the city’s dangers, Nhlanhla (Sihle Xaba) is more optimistic, expecting to experience the high life his cousin Xolani has bragged about. All aboard the same train, they are heading to the same destination. Little do they know, they will indirectly change each other’s lives forever.
Indeed, all three become sidetracked soon after they arrive. And before long, they are all unwillingly caught up in an underworld of organized crime leading back to one powerful gangster. Putting the trio through the fear of abandonment, torture and even death threats, the script is brutally honest about the perils of this dog-eat-dog world.
And it’s a world we get to know quite well throughout the film, thanks to the work of cinematographer Kabelo Thathe. Like a helicopter tour of Johannesburg, his stunning aerial photography takes us from the high-rise buildings, to the suburbs, and all the way down to the dump, where the city’s poorest are left to scavenge. The imagery is truly the film’s star, conveying much of the plot’s underlying tensions through Thathe’s indelible images.
Director Omotoso is also aided by the strong work of his cast. Indeed, all three of the main roles are perfectly cast, effortlessly conveying their small-town naivety and vulnerability. In particular, Nyoka is so affable as Zanele that you feel the urge to reach out and protect her from her inevitable misfortunes.
The filmmaking on display in “Vaya” is far from groundbreaking, but the empathy it engenders through characters like Zanele is what sets it apart from other similarly gritty dramas. Its vision of Johannesburg isn’t restricted to just the sordid, cliché details surrounding crime and poverty. To the film’s ultimate benefit, Omotoso also uses “Vaya” to define Johannesburg by its music, rituals and other positive aspects of its vibrant culture.
Whereas “Vaya” found rays of light in its portrait of Johannesburg, such comforts are rare in the gloomy European town featured in “We Are Never Alone.” Directed by Petr Václav, “We Are Never Alone” begins with a heavy dose of black and white “kitchen sink” melodrama, as a cancer-afflicted man (played by Karl Roden) vocally laments his impending death and the vulnerable shop clerk wife (played by Lenka Vlasakova) and children he’ll leave behind. He berates his two sons, who have just ruined his blood pressure monitor. Feeling distraught, he goes to a nearby open field to mope. And while there he meets his neighbor (played by Miroslav Hanus), a similarly worrisome prison guard concerned about the state of the nation. He also suffers from paranoia, seeing ominous signs in anything peculiar. These two kindred spirits become close, leaving more time for the shop clerk wife to seek relief from her stressful life. Her desire takes her to the local nightclub, where she strikes up an attraction to the bouncer (played by Zdenek Godla). But his heart belongs to the younger, more beautiful stripper (played by Klaudia Dudová) who works there. However, her attention lies elsewhere, as she waits for the return of the father of her child. As all these characters go about their lives, Václav’s bleak outlook gives credence to the expression that “misery loves company.”
Indeed, although the cinematography haphazardly switches between color and black and white, the tone barely lightens up. Save from a few humorous moments playing off of the prison guard’s paranoia, there’s not much levity to be found in the plot. Instead, we bear witness to endless bouts of depression, sadness and rage. And while the script intriguingly connects all these characters, the overall tone is a little too mean-spirited towards its characters.
By the time an innocent old man is carelessly, unnecessarily murdered, the film has long become suffocatingly dreary. Furthermore, it fails to provide any likable characters to latch on to for our sympathy. Even the children are cruel. And as the film builds towards its predictably unhappy ending, it proves that even European arthouse drama can be as formulaic as Hollywood fare.
Admittedly, the film is undeniably well shot, offering up some striking images that take advantage of the evergreen forest environment. But those shots are the only good thing to take away from the film. Otherwise, “We Are Never Alone” is a film you’d likely forget.