Goodfellas in Jozi

Jerusalema

All the hype surrounding the 2008 South African film, Jerusalema, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival is well deserved. A gangster tale to rival Goodfellas and surely proved inspirational to such films as District 9 and any future South African gangster films in the making. Whilst as local locations go, Cape Town could be used for the French Riveira or Toronto, but Johannesburg as a film location is uniquely South African, so brilliantly captured in Jerusalema and District 9, a vast urban sprawl of cosmopolitan energy to rival Rio, Mumbai or Los Angeles. Jerusalema follows the rise of Lucky Kunene from novice car jacker to Hillbrow slum lord who follows two mantras in life those by Karl Marx that all property is theft and by Al Capone, that violence is a means to the end. Not exactly savoury role models. A gangster and the founder of communism. Lucky Kunene sees himself as the Robin Hood of Hillbrow taking some dignity back to the urban slums of downtown Johannesburg, kicking out drug dealers and prostitutes and claiming the high rise buildings as his own, whilst neglected tenants languish in the outer suburbs of the urban sprawl, too afraid to venture into Hillbrow and fix up the severely neglected tenement buildings.

Gangsters Paradise Hillbow style

Where Jerusalema triumphs is Ralph Ziman’s uncompromising  and skillful direction, depicting some serious social issues in downtown Johannesburg ranging from poverty, crime, drug addiction, xenophobia and inter-racial love, whilst never losing the sense that Johannesburg is a thriving and massively industrious city, where all its citizens are earning money to survive some by less scrupulous means. Johannesburg is as much a character in the film as Lucky Kunene, played with relish by Rapulana Seiphemo with a great supporting cast of South African actors.

The violence is uncompromising, the story gripping and the humanity undeniable all packed into a frenetically shifting urban landscape which remains as uncertain as the characters which inhabit Hillbrow. Jerusalema is heavy on action, great on story line and could rival such crime epics as Goodfellas or The Departed, depicting one man’s attempt to raise above the poverty he was born in and the environment he hopes to escape. Success is naturally as elusive as forgiveness, but the point is made that quite often men can shape their environment, seize opportunities as much as circumstances can shape or break a man’s future.

The fact that Jerusalema was not selected as a contender for the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards is more  to do with it not entirely being in Xhosa, whilst the thought-provoking subject matter could rival any recent Foreign Language Film winners, like The White Ribbon and Pan’s Labyrinth.

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