South African musical creates a 1950s fantasy
Do you remember your first kiss? If you have a few years under your belt, maybe you stole it in the back of the movie theater, the projector whirring in the darkness. Or rather, back of the "bioscope," a word for the cinema in South Africa in the old days.
The fantasy world of "Pretville," a Grease-style film musical in the Afrikaans language, celebrates 1950s Americana, the thrill of first love and foot-tapping classics that evoke innocence and discovery.
It is also an affirmation of an Afrikaner identity that spent years in the doghouse after 1994 elections and the end of apartheid, the system of white minority rule imposed by Afrikaner nationalists in 1948. And while most of the actors are white, two who are not play authority figures, lampooning the now-discarded racial order.
The musical, its creators stress, is joyful escapism, not a whitewashing of South Africa's tortured history of race relations. As co-producer Paul Kruger noted, "pret" means "fun" in Afrikaans. The movie indulges in rock `n' roll, vintage cars, greasers in sneakers, pin curl hairstyles and swing dresses, lots of pastel pink and blue, and double thick strawberry milkshakes with extra cream.
"I think we've been excluded in that whole journey during the `50s in South Africa," Kruger said. He added with understatement: "We were busy with too many other things, too many other politics kept us busy."
The plot is about a farm boy and a town slicker who vie for a beauty's affection, with assorted side-sagas and a generous sprinkling of flamboyant characters: an aging crooner called Eddie Elektriek who courts an old flame, a candy storeowner with an eye for the guys, a hairdresser-cum-mayor with a goatee and a pompadour, a stutterer in horn-rimmed glasses and a pregnancy that fuels fevered gossip.
The feel-good film borrows from Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and West Side Story. But it's a whole lotta shakin' with an Afrikaner stamp. For example, the song "Is Jy Myne" (Are You Mine) is loosely based on "My Boy Lollipop," and "Skud, Skop en Hop" (Shake, Rattle and Roll) echoes "Great Balls of Fire."
"It's taking something old, putting something new," composer Machiel Roets said of pairing Afrikaans with vintage vibes. "Voila! A new recipe."
Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of the descendants of European settlers, is spoken as a first language by 13.5 percent of South Africa's 51 million people, according to the 2011 census. Pretville has a strong fan base and English subtitles but it isn't a cross-over hit. The movie's promoters say it's part of a larger revival in the last few years of music and movies in Afrikaans, a language once tarred by its association with apartheid.
The film set, which resembles small-town Main Street, is a popular tourist attraction for Afrikaans-speaking crowds that ogle the Hammerstein radio, Nash Metropolitan car, Handy Hannah hair dryer and other props, many bought on eBay and shipped from the United States.
Annelie Engelbrecht, who was celebrating her 49th birthday there, and her husband, Pierre, traveled 700 kilometers (435 miles) from their home near South Africa's Kruger game reserve to soak up the movie's aura. The set lies near a mountain range west of the capital, Pretoria. A sign at the entrance announces the production house: "Hartiwood Studios," a play on the nearby town of Hartbeespoort, and Hollywood.
"We used to go to the films and kiss at the back of the movies. It was really like that in the olden days," Engelbrecht said. She thought the racial mixing in the movie was "tongue in cheek" because it was unthinkable under apartheid in the 1950s.
"Blacks and whites wouldn't have danced together, I can promise you that," Engelbrecht said. "That is just the new South Africa."
Actor Terence Bridgett, the campy mayor who sashays around a hair salon, is of mixed heritage. His two assistants, Dyna and Dot, are "The Supremes" of Pretville. Entertainer Emo Adams, who has a Malay background and released an album titled "Tall, Dark & Afrikaans," plays the police chief, breaking up a fight between the love-struck suitors and tossing them in jail.
In a classic send-up, Adams delivers "Elvis the Pelvis" dance moves in the olive-green uniform of the 1950s South African police. Security forces at that time harshly enforced a growing body of law that enshrined a system of white domination and racial segregation. Blacks lacked political rights, the right to move freely, the right to live where they wanted. They couldn't, of course, visit "bioscopes" for whites.
In 1976, the South African government tried to force the teaching of Afrikaans on schools in black townships, triggering massive protests and a bloody crackdown that ultimately invigorated opposition to white rule.
After apartheid, Afrikaans became one of 11 official languages in the multi-ethnic country. R.W. Johnson, author of "South Africa's Brave New World," wrote that many Afrikaners felt so guilty about the past that they were reluctant to assert their culture, "in much the same way that after 1945 many Germans became uncomfortable with any assertion of German national identity."
Lizelle de Klerk, a Pretville actor, remembers shunning her cultural background and helping craft plays in university about "how we hate being Afrikaans," but now she believes Afrikaners can proudly tell their own stories, whether they are about race or not.
De Klerk dreams of performing on London's West End, but also wants to contribute to South African expression in the years ahead. She is reading a book about the 1990s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which opened a nation's story-telling floodgates by hearing testimony about apartheid-era cruelty.
"South Africa finally had a new narrative that they could draw from to make stories, because finally you had black peoples' stories, colored peoples' stories. You heard offenders' stories. You heard `people that were victims' stories," de Klerk said. "So it's a whole new dynamic. But I think we're moving, slowly moving, forward. And it's great."