Three women trapped by circumstances and thrown together by fate set out on a cross-country journey of self-discovery in South African director Jenna Bass’ contemporary Western, “Flatland,” which opens the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Bass returns to Berlin a year after taking part in the Generations program with the satirical thriller “High Fantasy.” For her third feature, she sought to make a film that’s as much a tribute to a beloved genre as a reimagining of its gender tropes, asking herself, “What do I bring to this…that another filmmaker wouldn’t?”
Starring Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin and Izel Bezuidenhout, “Flatland” is produced by Proper Film (South Africa), Deal Prods. (Luxembourg) and IGC Films (Germany), with support from the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund. Sales are being handled by The Match Factory.
The film follows a lonely policewoman pining for her fugitive boyfriend while leading a murder investigation with two women as the prime suspects. As the case unfolds, the women’s lives become intertwined, until the trio are embroiled in a cross-country chase through the Karoo desert, crossing the forbidding landscape while searching for a fresh start.
“Flatland” was inspired by the Westerns Bass watched as a child, thrilling to the shoot-‘em-ups of larger-than-life heroes like Clint Eastwood. Returning to the frontier as a grown woman, however, she began to notice how few women would hop into the saddle and ride into the sunset. “I wasn’t very conscious of gender politics growing up,” she said. “I just didn’t question that.”
Bass’ decision to rescript the Western with three female heroes at its heart feels timely. Yet “Flatland” is more than just a contemporary Western for this #MeToo moment, having gone into development several years before the global conversation about the systemic inequalities facing women started taking place.
While the timing feels right, the director wishes she had made “Flatland” sooner. “I’m not the only person asking these kinds of questions, and I don’t think I was five years ago either. But there were definitely less visible examples of it,” she said. “Whereas now, it’s part of a much more visible conversation. The need for it was even greater earlier.”
South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of violence against women, and the country has been roiled by its own debates about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. But while a much-needed conversation is now taking place, Bass says she hasn’t yet seen tangible results. “People are becoming a bit more conscious, but the benefits are largely for white women. Real, transformative opportunities have not really happened,” she said.
In at least one respect, though, the director has noticed a shift. Throughout the film’s long development stage, Bass pitched it at international markets to skeptical producers and distributors who argued that “Flatland” wasn’t, in fact, a Western.
Eventually, though, their protests died down. “People are finally ready to accept that just because a movie has women in it, it doesn’t have to be a road movie, or a coming-of-age movie,” she said. “It can just be a Western.”