Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wooden Camera

(South Africa, 2003)

Madiba and his friend Sipho are hanging around the tracks one day in Capetown when a man falls or is pushed from the train. Looting his dead body, they find some money, a gun with one bullet it in, and a video camera. Sipho takes the gun and Madiba takes the camera. They return to the squalid shantytown where they live, basically nothing but sheet metal and scrap wood and cardboard. They build a box that looks like a toy camera and Madiba turns into a film nut, shooting everything he sees.

You know Sipho will shoot someone with the one bullet, and he does. You’re set up to expect Madiba to tape something he shouldn’t be seeing, but it doesn’t work out like that. He loves his camera, and is artistic and inventive. It is apparent this is his only possible escape from the hellhole of his origins. He makes friends with a rich white girl who is experimenting with liberal tolerance and rebellion against her racist father.

It all works very well, aside from one clichéd improbability near the end. I think it’s best appreciated as a dark, urban fairy tale, and there is even some narration to that effect. The princess in the tower and the dark prince.

I suspect South Africa needs films like this. Despite confounding my every fear of a bloodbath, so far the death of apartheid has gone wonderfully well down there … but 90 minutes of seeing how gigantic the divide between rich and the huge masses of ultra-poor still is and you know there is trouble ahead.