Plot: Panic, the thief of the title, is a formidable anti-hero. He's not just a thief but a bully and a mooch. All around him, Soweto residents, including the son (Eugene Majola) of his landlady, are mobilizing a rent strike. But Panic's busy stealing from unsuspecting whites and brawling with rivals in black bars, with a little police informing on the side. His girlfriend Pat (Themba Mtshali), who works in an English-speaking household, is his unwilling source of cash and potential burglary prospects. When Sam disappears and Pat leaves Panic for union organizer Duma (Peter Sephuma), the thief is forced to take sides in the political struggles going on around him.
Panic--rendered in an excellent performance by co-scripter Thomas Mogotlane (he gets you both to pity and to empathize with a man whose bravado hides the panic of not knowing himself)--is a character that many directors would shy away from creating, in a drama located in Soweto. But Panic, like the character Richard Harris played in The Molly Maguires, is the pivot on which the crisis of apartheid spins.
Panic is both exploiter and victim in this system; he thinks he's getting away with something, but discovers there's no escape. And that reveals the inevitability of the conflict around him.
Style: The film, whose heroes are members of the UDF, and whose arch-villains are the white police and the callous white bourgeois exemplified by Pat's mistress, clearly takes sides. But it also illuminates the contradictions within Soweto, not only through Panic but through characters like Pat--who just wants a decent job; Sam's desperate mother; and the black town council members who are getting rich off black misery.
Mapantsula is well-told, although its central device--showing Panic's story in flashback while he's in jail--can sometimes be confusing if you're not paying attention.
Background on director/film: South African director Oliver Schmitz is white (the child of German immigrants); his co-scriptor, Thomas Mogotlane, is black South African. Films such as Woza Albert! and Voices of Sarafina! have already prepared American audiences for superb professional performances, and Mapantsula's cast, drawn from a pool of black TV and stage actors, only enhances that reputation.
An Australian, English and South African co-production, Mapantsula was approved by South African officials as a gangster film--like many made in South Africa today for black audiences, and indeed like one we see black audiences watching in the film. Its $1.5 million budget was raised from South African investors, most of whom were only looking for tax advantages and also assumed it was a gangster movie.
Production context: In the latter half of the 1980s, according to Keyan Tomaselli in a visit to The American University in 1990, more than 800 features were made in South Africa, including a handful of anti-apartheid films. They were Helped by anti-apartheid technicians' unions. They have been important elements in cracking the legitimacy of apartheid. One of the reasons such features could be made was that a theretofore extremely conservative cinema holding operation (controlling production, distribution and theaters), Star-Kinecor, was sold in 1984 to more progressive owners, who encouraged "more adventurous production and exhibition policies." Producers also availed themselves of tax-driven financing available between 1986 and 1988. Ster-Kinecor and others confronted the government on its segregation policies in cinemas in 1988, after the threat of international boycotts of film product raised the possibility that the chains would not have sufficient product, and won their case. See also Woza Albert!
Importance: Part of a first wave of anti-apartheid feature made inside South Africa by South Africans. Mapantsula won the AA Life Vita Awards, provided by an insurance company, and thus the right to be shown on pay cable. However censors demanded 17 cuts, which Schmitz refused to make but the producer eventually agreed to.Further reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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