Film Review: Ghostland: The View of the Ju’Hoansi (2016)

ghostland.jpgDirector: Simon Stadler
Writers: Catenia Lermer, Simon Stadler

Review by Gilbert Seah

Most filmgoers should remember a small little South African comedy that made it really big in 1980 called THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY written and directed by Jamie Uys. Financed only from local sources, it is the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa’s film industry. Now after more than 35 years, comes a similar film, a documentary called GHOSTLAND about the same Ju/‘Hoansi bushmen who are “living well off the land” in the Kalahari Desert.

In THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane and falls to Earth unbroken. Initially, Xi’s people suppose this strange artifact is another “present” from the gods and find many uses for it. But in the documentary GHOSTLAND, director Simon Standler takes a more serious (though still humorous) look at the tribe. He shows that life in the vast Kalahari desert has drastically changed for one of the most ancient cultures on our planet. He takes a selected few of the Ju/’Hoansi people, travelling with members of this culture as they become tourists in the “modern” world around them, first in Namibia, and then in Germany and Italy.

When the film begins, titles inform the audience that Government regulations have banned hunting and thus forced the Ju/’Hoansi to abandon nomadism and live in a fixed location, making them dependent on “gifts” from the government and adventurous tourists. They used to kill and eat animals like giraffes and deer that wander into their village. Stadler shows the customs and culture of the tribe before taking them on a tour outside their closed village. So, they venture into the “modern” world, first at home in Namibia, and then -through an invitation to speak at a school – in Europe.

The Ju/’Hoansi are filmed in huge shopping malls in Germany or in trains or elevators for the first time. (Fortunately, they are given modern clothes to wear, or there will lots of screaming German women.) Stadler records their reactions, often of great awe, in their language, with English subtitles. But they still long for their home, as they were born and have grown accustomed to living in the bush.

There is nothing really wrong in filming their amusing reactions to modernization and city living, but it is another thing to have an entire documentary on the subject. It is just as interesting to watch the Germans fascinated by the rituals of the Ju/’Hoansi. But one can tell that each side is being over polite not to offend anyone.

The film offers no real new lessons in life that one has not seen in one form or another. So watching the Ju/’Hoansi’s reactions soon becomes repetitious with the display of modernization already too familiar to most audiences who live in large metropolitan cities.

The film did win the 2016 SXSW SXGlobal Audience Award, and has frequently been referred to as a real-life version of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The film opens theatrically in Toronto for a one-week run on Christmas Day 2016 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. The film might prove an unconventional yet still heartwarming holiday option.



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