I t’s no secret that filmmakers are influenced by the films they have seen, nor that that influence can take a variety of forms. George Lucas is on record as saying that the character of Indiana Jones was created as an homage to the heroes of matinee serials, but it’s also clear that Indiana is his own unique creation, and no one thinks the worse of the franchise because it was influenced by something that previously existed. On the opposite end of the influence spectrum you have Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, which comes close to being a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, and impressed neither critics nor audiences. Which is a long way of saying that influence per se is neither good nor bad—it all depends on what the filmmaker makes of it in his or her own films.
Nosipho Dumisa’s Number 37, now playing at Fantasia 2018, is an excellent example of how a creative filmmaker can incorporate aspects of a well-known film (in this case, Hitchcock’s Rear Window) in a new film that succeeds on its own terms while also paying tribute to a classic film that many audience members will know. You can enjoy Number 37 even if you know nothing of Hitchcock or Rear Window, but familiarity with Hitchcock’s 1954 film gives you access to another layer of appreciation, as you can enjoy seeing where Dumisa adhered closely to the details of Hitchcock’s film (some sequences are pretty close to shot for shot remakes) and where she took the story in a different direction.
The basic setup of Number 37 will be familiar to fans of Rear Window, although the mood is far grimmer, befitting impoverished characters in modern-day Capetown rather than the appealing Bohemians of the Hollywood version of mid-century Greenwich Village. Instead of a globetrotting photographer with a broken leg, Number 37 features Randall (Irshaad Ally), a small-time criminal who messed with the wrong guys and is paraplegic as a result. His beautiful and much-abused girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) gives him a pair of binoculars so he can while away the time watching life outside the window (Randall lives on the second floor of a building with no elevator, so he’s trapped inside the apartment unless someone is willing to carry him down the stairs).
After Randall observes a serious crime (the murder of a policeman) in a neighboring building, he hatches a blackmail scheme that he hopes will allow him to pay off his debt to a merciless loan shark (Danny Ross). He enlists a friend (Efraim Gordon) to act as his legs, and Pam also plays a role (thank goodness she finally gets something to do—overall, she’s a less assertive character, and her role is much reduced, compared to Grace Kelly’s role in Rear Window). The peril faced by everyone is made clear in a remarkably bloody opening scene, underlying the fact that the world Randall and his friends live in is more Game of Thrones than Hollywood, where one wrong miscalculation, or just a bit of bad luck, could result in an excruciatingly painful death.
Number 37 is a remarkably assured first film, all the more so because Dumisa, still in her 20s, wrote the screenplay as well as directing. She’s a Zulu woman from Durban, and is quite articulate about the cultural specificity of this film: for instance, the black characters speak a version of Afrikaans that is specific to the area of Capetown where the story is set (and was shot), but also carries historical associations of slavery and apartheid. You don’t have to know any of that to enjoy Number 37, but if you would like to learn more about the choices that went into making this film, there’s some good information in this interview with Dumisa. | Sarah Boslaugh