I’ve never seen this movie. All I know of it is that my Aunt May had a copy, VHS, in her meagre movie collection. Aunt May was not a woman known to have a sense of humour; she was known for her ill-temper and bitterness. But she wrote me letters and taped episodes of Ramona for me, so I suppose I had a special place for her in my heart and now that she’s gone and I’m an adult who’s been through a thing or two, I wonder about her, about her choices and her loneliness. And about the kind of person she was if she thought this movie was worth owning.
I thought at first I had a case of swapped DVDs: it opens on a National Geography type narration. Here is a family of simple bushmen, living lives of hunter-gatherers in their own naive way. They live in isolation, in a dry and flat land absent of anything harder than the earth and animals living in it. A plane flies overhead, a noisy bird they think, or perhaps evidence of God’s flatulence.
Then we are informed that just 600 miles south of this village is a very large city. These people have very different lives. They drive cars, go to work, and are regulated by the almighty clock.
Back with the bushmen, an extraordinary thing falls from the sky. You and I might recognize it as an empty Coke bottle, but the tribe think it is a gift from God. It is harder than anything they know, and a perfect labour-saving tool with untold uses. Except the gods made a mistake: they sent only one. Suddenly this tribe that has never had anything worth owning, thus no sense of ownership, has a sense of wanting, and of not wanting to share. Anger, hate, jealousy, and violence are soon exhibited. One of the tribesman resolves to throw it off the end of the earth and goes in search of it, coming across a new teacher to Botswana, a despotic revolutionary, and an inept biologist.
Not quite a mockumentary I suppose, but a pretty smart comic allegory all the same. The more they dead-pan make fun of the bushman’s simple ways and juxtapose them with ‘modern life’ that sounds increasingly nonsensical. At times a bit too farcical or slap-sticky for my taste, it still managed to win me over with its sincerity.
This South African film was world’s biggest non-US box office hit during its release; it played for 532 consecutive days at the Oaks Theaters in Cupertino, California, setting a record for the longest uninterrupted run of any movie in Northern California. It was pulled only because the film reels fell into disrepair and a large section caught fire!
Despite the film’s gross of over $100 million worldwide, Nǃxau (who played Xi, the primary bushman) reportedly earned less than $2,000 for his starring role. Before his death, director Jamie Uys supplemented this with an additional $20,000 as well as a monthly stipend – still a pretty crap bargain.