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Aryan Kaganof as Sugar Man in SMS SUGAR MAN slow criticism | SMS SUGAR MAN

Aryan Kaganof, the filmmaker formerly known as Ian Kerkhof, shot his new film with a cell phone, even before Dutch' enfant terrible Cyrus Frisch did so. sms sugar man is now available on dvd, and sure is missing in the Rotterdam Size Matters line up, observes Martijn Meijer.

'Women are sugars. Men are wallets. Money is God. Life is very simple.' Such is the philosophy of Sugar Man, a pimp driving through Johannesburg on Christmas Eve with three of his 'sugars'. On a night like this, men become lonely and Sugar Man and his companions do good business driving from hotel to hotel. Selene, Grace and Anna are the names of these girls and that's all we learn about them. True identities don't exist in this world of shadows. Sugar Man (convincingly played by director Aryan Kaganof) has an eerie premonition, but we never find out why or about what. He acts the part of the amoral pimp, but seems to hide a genuine vulnerability. "Why do you wear that mask?", one of his girls wants to know. "Mask? That's my business face", he replies.
sms sugar man has been described as 'Tarantino meets early David Lynch', but it is unmistakably Kaganof's film. Its shady characters, its mixture of sex and violence, its nihilism — all are typical characteristics of the director formerly known as Ian Kerkhof, who shot sms sugar man using eight Sony Ericsson W900i cell phones with built-in cameras. Such technical innovations breed high expectations: on the director's blog, Kagablog, visual and graphic effects editor Jurgen Meekel is quoted as saying: 'It will hopefully democratize filmmaking. After this film no one can say I cannot make a film because I don't have the equipment.'
Kaganof was the first to shoot a feature on DV tape (naar de klote!/wasted!) then blew it up to 35mm. Now he claims to be the first director to have made a cell phone feature. In a certain sense he's right. Matthew Noel Tod made nausea in 2005, but this was a piece of video art compiling footage shot on cell phones that ran 54 minutes. And Cyrus Frisch's why didn't anybody tell me it would become this bad in afghanistan? (2007), shot on Sharp 902 and 903 phones, may have been released before sms sugar man, but the latter was made earlier, in December 2005. The reason for the delayed release (the film was recently shown in Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Edinburgh and was released on DVD in December) was a protracted legal battle between the director and production company DV8 Films, concerning the director's refusal to make changes to the finished film.

Apartheid
At first glance, sms sugar man seems content to rehash certain clichés about prostitution. Upon closer inspection, though, a number of surprising nuances reveal themselves, such as the fact that all the clients are black businessmen and all the hookers are white girls — a reversal of the situation in the days of Apartheid. Or take the scene in which a father orders a 'sugar' for his inexperienced son: when the girl takes him to a hotel room, we expect to see the usual tale of a boy's rite of passage, but instead the young man declines to sleep with her because he refuses to obey his father. He prefers to get stoned and when they dance together after smoking a joint, he asks her for a kiss. She refuses on principle, kissing a client would 'blur the lines'. But eventually she gives in. Afterward, in the car, those few kisses turn out to have upset far her more than a string of quick lays.
No contact — this seems to be the film's conclusion. The pimp, the girls, the clients, they are all lonely, lost in a world in which people look at each other up close but never get to know one another. It's as if they are mere images, momentarily appearing on each other's display screens. All life is superficial. In an interview, Kaganof mentioned Baudrillard as an influence, and his characters do indeed appear to be living the French philosopher's concept of hyper-reality: physical reality has been replaced by a reality of simulacra (images) that only refer to themselves and each other. In simpler terms, the real world is only experienced in the shape of media images.
The plot may have its shortcomings and the finale lacks credibility, but the ambiance and beauty of the images more than make up for these. The low resolution creates a coarse pixilation, which lends the film a sort of painterly quality that suits its dark, dreamy atmosphere well. Kaganof made inventive use of the cell phone camera, sometimes tilting the frame, as we tend to see in home movies, and making imaginative use of split screen: we see Sugar Man filming one of his girls on his phone, and in the frame next to it we see the recorded image. Moments like these erase the divide between cast and crew, creating an intimacy between camera and actors and subsequently between the film and its audience. The viewer feels like a voyeur, as if staring at spontaneously recorded footage. Intimacy created by a film about people who shun it.

Martijn Meijer

Martijn Meijer studied Philosophy in Amsterdam. He published two novels (Arthurs apocalyps, 2005 and Foute man, 2008) and works as a freelance journalist and editor.

sms sugar man (Aryan Kaganof, South Africa 2008). On DVD from SMS Movies.


Powers of ten VII
Finisterrae
The end of the world used to be the place where the world ended. Now one can travel to various spots with that name on Google Earth. Finisterre in France, Land's End in England, the end of the world in Argentina. At the beginning of die blechtrommel (1979) by Volker Schlöndorff, there is a scene of a woman sitting on a bare field. It is filmed in such a way that that field seems to continue endlessly, all the way to Amsterdam and to Vladivostok. Sometimes filled with trees, sometimes with under wood, sometimes bare, but always: land. Imprisoned in the Eurasian landmass, as they call it in geography. A scene of true horror. Can you be claustrophobic on such a grand scale?
The German TV series Heimat contains a similar scene. At the end of World War One a boy stands on a mountain in Turkey and sees a valley that seems to go on until Hamburg, so clear is his vision. The soldier takes a deep breath before he walks down, into the land. In Amsterdam — thank god — the beach is always nearby. There you have the land behind you, to cover your back. There you learn that you can see the earth is round. The blue of the water leans down; the first thing visible of a ship is the mast.
And yet, the most western part of Spain is still called Cabo Finisterre and in Cornwall there is still Land's End. The end of the world is as stubborn a fiction as a heart shaped heart. Everybody knows it does not exist. But the idea stays in circulation.

Bianca Stigter



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