Taking place on the precipice of a hazy, drugged-out South African upper crust wherein Mandela is written off as a fluke, filmmaker Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s debut Necktie Youth spans a single day in the lives of a gaggle of rich kids in Sandton, a posh suburb north of Johannesburg. Youth is a work concerned with both the post-apartheid generation and its painfully complicated self-image, but the filmmaker’s approach appears uniquely collaborative. Comparisons between the 23-year-old director’s film and the work of Bret Easton Ellis have been tendered, as well as Larry Clark’s Kids —I would add to that list Dazed and Confused, the improv-intensive set pieces of the younger Spike Lee, and Doug Liman’s Go.
I arrive to interview Shongwe-La Mer at a chic hotel in the Financial District, and he introduces me to his entourage: lead actors Bonko Cosmo Khoza and Colleen Balchin, and director of photography Chuanne Blofield. As the five of us settle into what I had mistakenly thought would be a one-on-one, the mood is convivial, rambunctious, shit-talking. Forever playing catchup, I ask Shongwe-La Mer to clarify that Youth is without distribution—to which he replies, “No. We have distribution: we’re playing 23 cinemas in South Africa and coming out on same-day VOD. Also playing Brazil, France and the Netherlands. But, yes—we’re seeking US distribution desperately. Write us a puff piece!” Then, lowering his voice: “I mean… you wouldn’t be interviewing us if the film was shit, right?”
The director is mostly correct, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask how his press circuit is going; if he feels like he’s been hate-interviewed. “Wait. Is that like hate-fucking?” Well, I offer, there’s now hate-clicking, hate-reading, hate-watching, and therefore could well be hate-interviewing, to which Shongwe-La Mer replies, “I only know hate-fucking. So you mean like somebody asking, ‘What do you feel when you’re making a shit film?’ Only my mother has asked me that.”
Parents or rather, the absence thereof are a defining feature of the film. Youth follows a group of Sandton kids (older than high-school age, but college is scarcely mentioned) in the aftermath of a suicide: a girl named Emily has livestreamed her own hanging to the entire world. “For our context, the film is about individualism,” said Balchin. “It’s important to know it’s not supposed to be representative of South Africa at large.” To which the director fires back, sarcastically-but-not: “Yes. That is what the film is about. I mean… It’s based on a true-life occurrence. A girl we knew named Amy hung herself, videotaped it. So when I started writing, I knew who I wanted from my circle of friends to play which character. It was meant more as a portrait of myself and my friends—a generation that was.
“And when we were making it,” Shongwe-La Mer continues, “I didn’t even think anyone in South Africa would wanna watch this film. I was just like: ‘Are my friends gonna think this is an good, honest depiction of this time in our lives? Of this flux, this purgatory that we’re in?’ Secondary to that was like, I wanted to make a memorial to a lot of the friends I knew who did commit suicide.” “The kids you see in the film,” Khoza claims, “That’s us.”
Balchin then stresses, “Well, they’re versions of us,” to which her director nods. Following a 40-minute draft version that got Shongwe-Le Mar some traction at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, he started a production company—“and people were saying, ‘Yeah, work with talent.’ But I knew from the bat, this was one of those films that was never gonna work with performers. It had to have a sense of vulnerability. We weren’t even paying attention to ‘our generation’ when we were making it; we ran lines for a couple days in rehearsals and it just wasn’t working, so we ended up spending the rest of the time just… talking. I did one-on-ones with everybody: We talked about the suburban experience, post-apartheid hopes, dreams, our families, suicide. I think the film works because we were being honest with ourselves, and that’s what’s documented.”
Professional actors were hired to play the well-to-do parents of Khoza’s antihero Jabz, and they appear entirely peripherally, arguing about corruption at opposite ends of a hilariously long dinner table while their son is upstairs lifting cash from his father’s wallet. It’s almost as if the parents are living in another film. “We shot an argument scene,” Khoza explains, “between the two of them and I, and Sibs cut it—I guess because it just stuck out so much. From the movie’s natural tension, you could see it was professional actors giving a performance. They showed up on the day of the shoot, read the script, hadn’t been through the process with us and just jumped in.”
According to Balchin, “Something Sibs said from the beginning: ‘I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know when I see it. When it feels right.’ He gave us a lot of room, it wasn’t like, ‘We’re looking for this, there, you’ve hit it’—it was more like, ‘Ok, what’ve you got?’
The spoils of privilege manifest themselves not just in Necktie‘s white-slab mansions and hired help, but also in the prescription drug habits of its characters and the onset of paranoia that arises in not knowing how to respond to a tragedy. The creeping sense that Shongwe-La Mer’s film is distracting its audience is very much by design. I ask him about its narrative hopscotching—how the movie will begin to address Emily’s suicide only to smash-cut to another room, another scene, another party. “We spent a lot of time playing with the motifs in the film; I wanted a structure that was almost an anti-structure, you know what I mean? A dream of a life. A dream of a remembrance.” For the first time in 20 minutes, Blofield weighs in: “We wanted it to be seen as a bit of an outsider, almost like a rebel. That’s why we chose to shoot black and white—in the context of contemporary style, black and white is more rebellious.”
The filmmaker stars as Jabz’s best friend September, one of the film’s many unreliable narrators and a character whose never-ending diatribes about pussy and bitches have gotten Necktie dinged by some critics for excessive juvenilia. “We’d done so much prep in terms of defining characters and where we’re going, I kind of just trusted. But in shooting, the blueprint said: ‘Ok, for 10 minutes, September RAMBLES.’ And we’d improvise it, and shoot too much of September, say ‘Cool!’, jump cut ten minutes out, and the character is still saying the exact same thing.” According to Khosa, “Sibs and I did a lot of scenes together. And when I watch it he just seems so comfortable. Me, it was my first time on set, I had a lot of lines stuck in my head, but to be honest, my mentality as an actor had been like: Hit marks! There, there, there, there!”
“If we had an hour to shoot a scene,” according to Balchin, “You’d have 40 minutes camera and lighting, and then the last 20 minutes? Just run, guys. Just take this in two takes.” Blofield incredulously asks: “Was it really like that?”, and the room erupts in laughter, before Balchin counterbalances: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, though.” Khoza mentions a late scene filmed in a park, a circle of kids passing a joint and talking less-than-solemnly about Emily’s death, prompting a member of their party to drift into a silent reverie. “This dude’s trying to tell a story, he’s gone a bit overboard, kids were just sitting there while this dude is going on and on and on. And it’s not acting.”
Our time together grows brief, so I ask Shongwe-La Mer if there were specific forms he wanted to push against. “I don’t watch South African films,” he says. “I’ve never been able to identify with the regurgitations that get put on screen; for me it was more a personal truth, which I suppose I became very aware was a contradiction of how ‘African cinema’ had been perceived. And that really excited me. I was just like, fuck. I wanna show something people might have not seen of this continent. Also,”—he raises quotation-mark-fingers into the air—“’middle class.’ Like, you’re in Africa, you know what I mean? You’re a wealthy South African kid. Shut up. You’re not from the townships. You went to a good school, you had a chance in life that no one really had.’ And also, yeah, it’s an existential crisis in that sense—that, yeah, affluence has its own problems.”
The subtext of Necktie Youth‘s scenography of its gilded milieu won’t be lost on anyone who sees it but this was, to me, an exceptional point to conclude on: the soul-sickness of class inequality cuts both ways, even in a so-called “Rainbow Nation.” (The film’s characters have vividly colored flashbacks from the days after Nelson Mandela took office as South Africa’s first black president, unto itself a confrontational formal reconsideration of Youth‘s otherwise lush grayscale digital photography.) “Young kids don’t really make films in South Africa,” Blofield agrees. “For me it was a personal goal to do something that they didn’t want to try, just to prove a point: young kids have got stuff to say, but they can do it through film, they can say whatever they want.”