The World Unseen has generated much controversy in South Africa, primarily around a local television magazine show’s decision to cancel an interview with the lesbian-themed film’s director, citing its subject matter.
But is all the fuss and attention warranted by the film itself? Based on its 11 recent South African Film and Television Awards, one would certainly think so. On seeing the film this proves to not be the case: The World Unseen, however well-intentioned, delivers little cinematic impact.
The film is set within the 1950’s Indian community in apartheid South Africa; a setting that often provides more interest than the story itself. When Miriam (Lisa Ray), a dutiful but abused wife and mother of three, meets the carefree Amina (Sheetal Sheth), who owns a local cafÃ©, their attraction to one another is apparent. They must decide if their love is enough to fight against the constraints of their community and country.
In terms of representing the awful contradictions of apartheid South Africa in which race, gender and sexual orientation combine to make life astonishingly difficult, the film succeeds.
It brings home how repressive the system was – especially if you were on the wrong side of the racial and gender divide. It also notes the irony of the pecking order of the “races” – in which, for example, some Indian South Africans, themselves victims of apartheid, looked down on black South Africans.
Based on a book of the same name, written by Shamim Sarif, who is also the film’s director, The World Unseen is otherwise simply too placid to generate much emotional interest in its characters. Despite much potential, little tension or drama is ever generated.
The two leads do a decent enough job; but the material is so held back and reserved that they don’t have much to work with. Ray is a stunning beauty on screen however and has real cinematic presence; despite playing an extremely passive character.
David Dennis stands out with his performance as Amina’s business partner who must decide if a budding interracial relationship with a white woman is worth the many risks that come with it. Colin Moss disappoints onscreen once again; this time as a one-note rage-filled Afrikaans policeman. In fact many of the secondary characters verge on stereotype; as men, women and as South Africans.
The World Unseen lacks fire and passion in its characters and as a film. The direction, camerawork and editing are static and plodding. This doesn’t in any way aid a meandering storyline which is simply not focused and spends too much time setting up its world instead of getting to the heart of the plot.
The film seems unsure whether it’s about a romance between the two women or about the numerous other subplots and characters, which is a real shame. This could well be because the director is primarily a novelist and may be too close to her material.
There are some genuinely moving moments in The World Unseen, but the film lacks pace and is simply too much about the surface to be memorable. If this is the best film we have produced in the last year, we have much to reassess about our film industry. It’s not a terrible film, but could have been so much better.
The World Unseen is now on circuit.
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