Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie

It was the perfect pre-show to a gritty and brilliant film: the red carpet, glittering dresses, air kisses fluttering to the floor, pierced by impossibly high heals, perfectly masked and made-up faces, hipster beer and hipsters. In between, warm hugs of old friends thankfully swallowed the echoing of the hollow laughs of the industry shmoozing, the nerve centre that is a premiere.

Johnny is nie dood nie is up there with Noem My Skollie on my top South African movies list. The Afrikaans script is incredible and the English sub-titles are almost as incredible, which is saying something. Usually so much of the nuance is lost in the translation (and horrifying lack of proofreading). Here, not so. I wished that I could turn my phone on and take notes, there were some lines that gave me shivers with their perfection. I will watch it again.

Perhaps I found it so brilliant because of its familiarity. While I’m ten years younger than the characters are in real life now, and ten years older than they are in the ‘present day’ of the film, it’s a story line that hits close to the bone. It’s about the inevitable loss of youth, replaced by house mortgages and talk of school fees. It perfectly portrays the wandering and experimentation of student life, between lectures and farm dams, political uproar, the fear of conscription to fight in a war they didn’t believe in and fearless love, youthful ego and friendship, all dressed in mini skirts and sheepskin-collared leather jackets.

Then, while nobody’s looking, we suddenly find ourselves (they find themselves) closed in by the electric-fenced walls of suburban mediocrity, the ancient, unreliable VW Kombi filled with adventure and lust replaced with a Soccer Mom SUV that smells like pine. Inane, middle-class, claustrophobia. The cast are outstanding, every one.

I thought it was a film about Johannes Kerkorrel. It is, but it’s also about his circle, friendships in a politically tumultuous era, love that survives distance and time, betrayal, the restlessness that’s attached to midlife crises and, ultimately, the fragility of life and the tragedy of those who don’t manage to survive. And the tragedy of those who do. It’s all set to the rocking and intense soundtrack of Johannes Kerkorrel and The Gereformeerde Blues Band, his music, his collaborations: Bernoldus Niemand en die Swart Gevaar, Andre Letoit, all fantastic. And heartbreaking.

Sadly, the one that doesn’t survive – as always – is the shape-shifter, the one with paper-thin skin and an intricate soul. The film left me sobbing, a snotty, salty mess. I wept not only for the loss of a superbly talented man, but for the loss of youth and its passion.

It made me want to find the nearest dodgy bar, to drink whiskey in a smoke-filled room with loud music and wild conversation.

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