The white colonizers of South Africa had the habit of naming the towns they created after European cities, which explains how there came to be a town called Marseilles in the backwaters of the Eastern Cape. Michael Matthews’ Five Fingers for Marseilles, now playing at Fantasia 2018, opens during the Apartheid era, during which time the white police force of Marseilles felt free to take their frustrations out on the black residents. The “five fingers” of the title are five African children who decide to fight back, with rocks and bicycles, against the trucks and rifles of the police. The results are predictably tragic, and the bravest and most foolhardy of their number, Tau, has to flee for his life.
Jumping ahead 20 years or so, the adult Tau (Boyo Dabula) has a well-earned reputation as a violent criminal, earning him the nickname “The Lion of Marseilles.” Upon his latest release from prison, he decides to give up the criminal life and take up an ordinary, peaceful existence in his home town. Apartheid is over, which should raise the probability for his plans to succeed, but this is no fairy tale and a happy ending is definitely not assured.
Back in Marseilles, black and white people may exist on a more equal basis than they did during Apartheid, but all is not well. Tau’s old friend Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi) has become mayor, Luyanda (Mduduzi Mabaso) is the police chief, and Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini) is the local gang lord. Bongani talks a good game, but in order to maintain his power, he has cut tacit deals with Luyanda and Sepoko, who are allowed great leeway to carry on their activities, often to the detriment of ordinary townspeople. Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), his childhood crush, now has a child who idolizes Tau the legendary gangster and isn’t interested in advice about how that’s not the right road to take. Far from the peaceful idyll Tau imagined, he’s walked into a new version of the Wild West, and he may not be able to avoid getting involved in the troubles around him.
The Wild West analogy is no accident. Five Fingers from Marseilles was shot around the village of Lady Gray in the North-Eastern Cape, and the countryside there looks a whole like the American Southwest, and also like Spanish locations of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. The characters and story are specific to the South African context, but they also take on a mythological character, as the story line echoes one of the most basic of all plots—A Stranger Comes to Town. Another aspect of the story will also ring true to many—throwing the old crooks out may not accomplish much if the replacements are just as bad.
All the technical elements of Five Fingers for Marseilles are good, but Shaun Harley Lee’s cinematography deserves special mention. He’s a master of low-light photography as well as of day-time, widescreen landscapes, and his work is key in maintaining the balance between the realistic setting and the allegorical resonances that make this film work so well.
Not a lot of South African films seem to get to St. Louis, but judging by the two (first Number 37 and now Five Fingers for Marseilles) I’ve seen so far at Fantasia, I hope we get to see more in the future. They’re both great films, and they also provide much-needed insight into different aspects of South African history and culture.| Sarah Boslaugh