Award-winning South African punk documentary is back. Why it’s so special

Fokofpolisiekar’s lead vocalist Francois van Coke. Liam Lynch

An award-winning documentary about the iconic South African Afrikaans punk-rock band Fokofpolisiekar (Afrikaans for “fuck off police car”) made nearly 10 years ago is back on screen; this time on the small screen. The band, which was formed in 2003, was instrumental in articulating the disillusionment and rebellion of Afrikaans youth growing up in the dreary suburbs outside Cape Town. These young people felt disconnected from their Afrikaner heritage and from the political realities of post-apartheid South Africa.

Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive Them for They Know Not What They Do” (Bryan Little, 2009) is streaming on Showmax, the internet TV service, which is available in 65 countries, including 37 African countries.

So now you can see, from the comfort of your couch, what the fuss was about when it was first released. In 2009 it won the audience award and its screenings were sold out so quickly that extra ones had to be added at the Encounters International Documentary Film Festival. It also created a buzz at the International Film Festival Amsterdam, one of the biggest and most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world.

The band’s popularity drew many viewers to the film at the time, but the reason the film endures is because of its form, particularly the way in which it was edited. The self-reflexive style it uses for its editing is not seen nearly as often in documentary film as continuity editing. Continuity editing, which is prevalent in conventional, mainstream films, usually tries to limit possible interpretations a viewer can make.

How does it work?

Self-reflexivity entails the inclusion of cues within the film that remind the viewer that it is, indeed, a film. Continuity editing is a well established style of editing for many documentaries. As a matter of fact, it is the style taught generally, and certainly taught first, at most film schools.

The goal of continuity editing is to make cuts invisible to the viewer, so that she is not distracted from the narrative or from emotional identification with the film. This allows viewers to focus on, and lose themselves in, the narrative and forget about how the film was made. But it is not the only way of editing a documentary. Self-reflexivity makes the audience aware of the constructed nature of the film, thereby acknowledging the subjectivity of the filmmaker(s).

The most overt forms of self-reflexivity in documentary films are, arguably, the inclusion of the director or other crew members on screen, or direct references (onscreen or offscreen) to the production of the film. But there are also more subtle ways of reminding the audience that they are watching a construction. The way the film is shot, edited or structured, what is included and left out, can all lead to self-reflexivity.

The “Fokofpolisiekar” documentary uses several devices to create visual interest in the film itself. It includes, for example, animated photographs in which the foreground, midground and background have been digitally separated and moved in relation to each other This documentary juxtaposes shot size, format and content. It also alternates behind-the-scenes handy-cam tour footage with high production value concert footage.

Self-reflexive editing is often fast paced, disjunctive and jarring. This increases the visual intensity of the film, heightening its effect. Fiction films like “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “Man on Fire” (2004) and “District 9” (2009) are edited in the self-reflexive style, taking their inspiration to some extent from music videos. Film theorist Ken Dancyger refers to this style as “MTV editing” in the book “The Technique of Film and Video Editing”.

This style of editing can incorporate flash frames, jump cuts and animation. Self-reflexivity often arises from a combination of different editing styles in one film. In “Fokofpolisiekar” the editing matches the fast pace and energy of the band’s music, and so there is a conversation between what is shown and how it is shown.

Three consecutive close shots from Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive Them For They Know Not What They Do.

A jarring cutting pattern, characterised by cutting between close shots without the use of wider, contextualising shots, is often used, as in a sequence of seemingly unrelated close shots from “Fokofpolisiekar” shown above. Characters and details are much more important than narrative, temporal or spatial clarity.

Characters, events and objects may be shown, but the audience might never find out where the events occurred, what triggered them or what their consequences were. This can be effective in communicating mood or atmosphere, concepts or themes. The viewer has to engage with the film actively to draw meaning from it. Meaning is not presented to the viewer in an uncomplicated or mediated way.

The value of self-reflexive editing lies in its ability to engage the audience actively since, as the Academy Award winning editor Walter Murch says:

suggestion is always more effective than exposition.

Past a certain point, the more effort you put into a wealth of detail, the more you encourage the audience to switch off, to become spectators rather than participants.

Omission, discomfort and active engagement

In the introductory sequence of “Fokofpolisiekar”, for example, a visual sequence is accompanied by audio extracts from various interviews. No interviewees are shown and no indication is given of who the various speakers are. Omitting chyrons (an interviewee’s name and designation usually provided at the bottom of the screen during a documentary interview) and faces at this point in the film signifies that the opinions of experts and laypersons should be weighed equally. It suggests that all perspectives collected here are of similar value, and that the source of an opinion is not as significant as what is being said.

Fokofpolisiekar guitarist Wynand Myburgh. Liam Lynch

But these disembodied voices lead to discomfort in the viewer. We want to know who is speaking, so that we can place and weigh what they say. The omission is conspicuous and so the construction of the film is emphasised. While the audience tries to figure out who is who and how valid each perspective is, this engagement pulls them into an active conversation with the film. It encourages them to question what they see and hear, rather than take it at face value.

Self-reflexive editing invites the audience to engage actively with the text to make meaning of what they see on the screen. Where continuity editing largely fixes interpretation, self-reflexive editing often requires that viewers make connections between details or infer context from the actions shown. Viewers may have to wait longer to have the questions that are posed by the film answered, if indeed those questions are answered at all. And they are constantly reminded that what they are watching is, indeed, a film.

“Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive Them for They Know Not What They Do” is worth watching again today, almost 10 years after its completion, not just if you’re a fan of the band, but also if you’re interested in the evolution of the South African documentary form. As this film shows, South African film has certainly come a long way from the binary of apartheid state-sanctioned public broadcast television documentaries vs underground resistance films of the pre-1990s. “Fokofpolisiekar” manages to question mainstream notions of identity while remaining visually stimulating and entertaining to watch.