Hiding out in a cave for around a decade, legendary South African outlaw John Kepe (here played with unhinged momentum by Ezra Mabengeza) rustled sheep and terrorised white landowners until he was caught and hanged in 1952.
In Sew the Winter to My Skin, writer-director Jahmil X. T. Qubeka uses western tropes to mythologise Kepe is his astonishingly assured and stylish fourth feature. Is there any genre better suited to myth-making and breaking than the western? American cinema has always been in uneasy dialogue with the myth of the West, helping to construct it through the films of John Ford and John Wayne, before rethinking the racist and colonialist aspects of manifest destiny with the revisionist westerns of the 1970s.
Next came the Italians – Sergios Leone and Corbucci – distanced from American manifest destiny, instead bringing a hyper-stylised violence characterised by the likes of A Fistful of Dollars and Django. These films bore little resemblance to reality and at once demolished the sentimentality of the Ford era while satirising its latent brutality. In the past decade or so, the western has taken new turns – experimenting with horror – Bone Tomahawk – and even leaving the West itself behind – The Proposition, Let the Corpses Tan – to luxuriate in the accumulated style and violence of their forebears while uncoupled from the time and place of nineteenth-century America.
Now, the western finds itself relocated to the baked plains and dusty homesteads of Apartheid-era South Africa, via the folksy heroics of Robin Hood. It’s a perfect union of genre, mythology and political filmmaking, using generic tropes and familiar narrative patterns both to lampoon colonialism and to reflect on the ways that all westerns are in some way about myth. The sense of mischief that runs through Sew the Winter to My Skin is one of its strongest qualities – Kepe’s repeated failed attempts to steal sheep are often hilarious, and it’s deeply satisfying to see Kepe wage his campaign of antagonism against the choleric white landowner Botha (Peter Kurth).
Kepe’s shenanigans are not without their consequences, however, illustrated by an early, violent encounter with angry villagers whipped up by Kepe’s antics, the violent authorities, and Kepe’s despairing sometime-girlfriend, Golden Eyes (Kandyse McClure). The real-life Kepe might have been a more unsavoury character than his cinematic counterpart, yet in the politically oppressive system of mid-twentieth century South Africa, his crimes have become acts of resistance. Qubeka leans into this symbolic power at key moments in his film, such as Kepe’s introduction in the film’s frantic opening sequence.
Running through the shadows and caked from head to toe in filth, it’s as if Kepe has emerged from the land itself, leading his colonist pursuers on a merry dance through a landscape that knowingly betrays them. Underscored by the fact that the narrative is being retold by a journalist, and that the film itself is almost entirely without dialogue – Kepe is less a man than a vengeful golem brought to life by a thousand angry fantasies.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell