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TIFF 2017: High Fantasy challenges image of colour-blind South Africa

In High Fantasy, four South African friends on a camping trip wake up to discover they’ve all swapped bodies.

Courtesy of TIFF

Everyone knows the main conceit of the body-swap movie. Two characters – totally different in demeanour and beliefs – switch bodies by some stroke of the supernatural and ultimately gain an understanding of what it's like to be the other person. The music swells, a moral is learned, radical empathy is unlocked, and all involved go home happy.

South African filmmaker Jenna Bass, whose new dramatic comedy High Fantasy is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, recognizes this narrative as more than a mere storyline. It's also uncannily close to the story her country likes to tell about itself. That is, the celebration of a post-apartheid "rainbow nation" – as Desmond Tutu designated it – where democracy, understanding and harmony reign.

For her second feature after Love the One You Love, Bass wanted to toy with this tidy understanding of a colour-blind contemporary South Africa, and the result is the very punk High Fantasy, the story of four friends who go camping in the Northern Cape, swap consciousnesses and find themselves temporarily in skin and genders not their own. Described by its director as a "selfie movie," it was shot on iPhone 7s by Bass and the cast, who also forwent a script in favour of collaborative improvisation. The film's politics are laid out in its succinct tagline: "Our rainbow nation is bullshit."

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The film follows the phone-wielding millennials as they head to the isolated landscape for a few nights, with Xoli (Qondiswa James) as the outspoken activist, Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) as the peacekeeper, Thami (Nala Khumalo) as the only dude, and Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel) as the sole white woman, whose land they are camping on – and which, the others often remind her, was stolen by her ancestors generations ago.

In an interview during TIFF, Bass explained that she found the convention of the body-swap movie to be similar to the official narrative of her country. "It's like, 'We've talked about [apartheid], we've had our truth and reconciliation, we are a rainbow nation and now we're chill and we get each other's pain.' And that's just not the reality of the situation by a very, very, very long shot."

At film school, Bass found there was always scorn for movies explicitly about apartheid, "I think because it was just the same story being told over and over again," she said. "Not because the past doesn't have relevance. Even just walking down the street in South Africa you're confronted by the fact that these things happened and the effects are palpable. This history is very real."

Instead of a polemical film that rails against just how wrong the idea of a rainbow nation is, High Fantasy is a thought experiment that tests what might happen if South Africans really were to swap places. "What would the result actually be? Would it be this personal growth? Would we get each other? Would it actually result in change?" Bass asked. "Or would we basically go back to our lives more terrified by the situation we are in than we were before?"

Not always as dramatic as it sounds, the film also plays to the inherent humour of the body-swap genre. Characters grope at their faces, tug at their skin and gawk at their new forms – at times ogling themselves in a fashion that calls to mind the simplicity of dating apps such as Tinder, where you swipe right if you like what you see. These moments of reprieve from the racial tension at the heart of the film only work because the cast has a chemistry – and just the right amount of discomfort left over – to make their unbelievable transformations convincing.

That Bass studied at Cape Town's College of Magic for seven years also means her filmmaking style trades in misdirection and sleight of hand – she understands intuitively what it takes to suspend an audience's disbelief.

The young director has been dubbed part of the new wave of South African filmmaking that has little time or energy for the static politics – and male-dominated power structure – of the traditional movie system. "There's apartheid-era cinema of which The Gods Must Be Crazy is a part – and which makes up the old guard and which, I suppose, we are keen to distance ourselves from. Then there are post-apartheid films but that are still being made within a particular style and in a traditional model. What I'm interested in are new ways of making films practically and creatively that are directly inspired by the environment we are in, rather than the way Hollywood does it."

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Shooting on iPhones was one way Bass and the cast decided they could draw outside the lines of conventional cinema. When asked if she was at all influenced by Sean Baker's shot-entirely-on-an-iPhone Tangerine from 2015, Bass admitted love for that film but not homage. Like Baker, she sees the freedom, not the constraints, of working with a tiny camera – "a totally new film language that we now have access to," she said. "I thought that [High Fantasy] might be like any movie with found footage, like Blair Witch, but the fact that it's a phone camera specifically, and the way that we interact with phones, makes it different entirely from a hand-cam. It's an interactive relationship."

She realized that using hand-held phone cameras "could bring a whole other level to the movie about this generation, about identity, about how we present ourselves" and consequently "the idea of it becoming a selfie movie became very important to what it was.

"I personally have a penchant for small cameras, and coming off a hundred years of cinema, it's like, 'What can you do differently?' One of the things I can do differently is move with the camera in a way that someone physically could not do a hundred years ago."

Calming aerial shots of the dusty landscape, filmed with a drone, also offer short breaks from the film's highly framed tension. A large pool float in the shape of a piece of pizza enters one of these scenes shot from above – a lone slice on the Northern Cape. This sweeping bird's-eye view leaves the politics of intergenerational trauma and land claims below for a moment, as if to allow the film itself to take a breath.

There isn't much of a history of collaborative filmmaking in South Africa, but Bass doesn't blink at the prospect of being first – rather, she feels an ethical imperative to break with the idea of a single director calling all the shots. High Fantasy's cast and crew – 10 people in total – were all paid the same regardless of experience or their role in the film. Bass co-wrote and improvised the script with James, Khumalo, Michel and Scholtz, who also shared the filming of the movie. "I used to subscribe to this idea that I was an auteur, but then I realized: What do I know, really? It just doesn't seem right" Bass said.

Although she may be flattered to be named part of her country's cinematic New Wave, that flattery doesn't amount to much for Bass, who is white.

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"Until there is a truly diverse collection of South African filmmakers – especially black women – it doesn't mean very much to me. The fact that I made this film is a problem – it's really a problem. The person who makes a film that discusses land politics and race is a white person – it should not be that way."

So why did she make High Fantasy if she had concerns about appropriation? "At the end of the day, I thought it was better to make it so that if anything I could be criticized for doing that. I feel that these issues are important, and if I'm not making something about them then I just feel redundant." Without guile, Bass locked eyes: "The success of my film is the failure of my country."

High Fantasy plays TIFF on Saturday , 9:30 p.m., Scotiabank.

Video: Jennifer Lawrence praises co-star Michelle Pfeiffer (The Canadian Press)
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