Punk is at its best when it has something at which it can be pissed off. The greater the enemy, the louder it gets — and the quicker it inevitably dies. Keith Jones’s and Deon Maas’s documentary chronicles this exact process within the political powder keg of southern Africa from the late 1970s to the 2000s, when being punk used to mean more than getting drunk onstage.
The documentary is split between two eras of southern Africa’s, specifically South Africa’s, history — pre- and post-Apartheid.
In pre-Apartheid South Africa, the punk movement is retold as initially a means to shake up the monotony of everyday life for the white minority youths. But the film quickly takes on a stark, anti-Apartheid stance which, one could argue, was infinitely more hardcore than anything The Dead Kennedys and the like ever produced or were involved with. The shortcoming with this section of the doc is that, though the stories and history are present, there is never a sense of any visceral threat to these young abrasive bands. The closest the film comes to such a moment is when a former member of the community displays a sticker, which could have landed him in jail at the time. That’s as high as the stakes get. Ultimately, the first section of the film is an accountant’s didactic version of an inherently vibrant history within South African music.
While the first chapter of the film deals with a tangible cause and purpose, the second chapter suffers a fate similar to the era of music it portrays. The film begins to jump schizophrenically from one contemporary band to the next as each tries to explain post-apartheid South African identity. For the lack of cohesiveness in this scattered half of the film, perhaps blame rests on the shoulders of the filmmakers (too many subjects, weak moments in form), but forgiveness may be in order because they undertook a monumental task. This shattered quality of the second chapter can then be seen as a reflection of the shattered identity of South African youths today — especially those who identify as white. Again, the music and stories are here, but the ecstatic potential that lies within them is not.
Thus is the biggest flaw of Punk in Africa — it loses itself within the complexity of the situation. Ironically, in trying to take on so many stories, Punk in Africa fails to present a cohesive picture of one idea. Another film that uses music as a means of telling a challenging story and achieves its goal is Lisa Barros D’Sa’s and Glenn Leyburn’s Good Vibrations (2012), which gives a narrative-film take on punk music and its role during The Troubles in 1970s-occupied Belfast. But, then again, Good Vibrations is a fiction film that was able to tailor its story to its needs. Punk in Africa, while admirably taking on a giant of a topic, is chained to its multiply varied social subjects and thus becomes overwhelmed with their stories.
By Rory O’Dwyer