A fascinating contribution to the rich global trend of blending documentary and fiction, Khalo Matabane’s “Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon” begins with one man’s curiosity about a lonely woman in a Johannesburg park and expands its scope to include a look at exiles living in South Africa. Matabane cleverly uses his central character as a device to introduce him to several people with stories about how and why they ended up in Africa’s thriving but crime-ridden southern tip. This creative contribution to South African film will draw strong interest from fests and serious-minded pub TV networks, especially in Europe.
Woozy and unstable Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge), looking a bit hostile, voraciously reads Nuruddin Farah’s Somalian novel “Links” on a park bench in Johannesburg one Sunday afternoon. Scene proves to be a mood-setter as Keniloe finds Fatima (Fatima Hersi), a lonely, lovely Somalian woman in the park, as if one of Farah’s characters had come to life. (There’s even the unresolved possibility that Fatima may be a product of Keniloe’s fertile imagination.)
Keniloe gently talks to Fatima, and she relates her tragic personal history, one Keniloe finds so gripping that he returns to the park each Sunday to listen to more.
These Sunday encounters are noted numerically on screen (“First Sunday,” “Fourth Sunday”), as if to build to a climax. Instead, it builds to a mystery, as Fatima fails to appear one Sunday and Keniloe begins to search for her.
Pic gradually turns into a docu, as Keniloe asks strangers in the busy city streets if they’ve seen Fatima, and then asks them about their own stories.
Like an amateur documentarian, Keniloe gathers a book’s worth of accounts of exiles, ranging from a Montenegro woman who fled bombing in Bosnia, to a former Congo presidential guardsman who survived a machete attack. Some, like a Palestinian family separated from their homeland for 35 years, are more or less rooted in Johannesburg; others, like a Ugandan woman living in South Africa for 20 years, never seem to lose their sense of being in exile.
No conclusions are drawn except that the city has become a haven for refugees from the world’s war-ravaged zones.
Roving hand-held vid camerawork is extremely fluid and intimate, and the capturing of city life rarely if ever feels staged for effect. Carlo Mombelli’s doom-laden jazz score runs against aud expectations of a South African film with typically South African music.