Sew the winter to my skin: a film review

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Rotten Tomatoes description: A rousing action-adventure-epic set in early-1950s rural South Africa, chronicling the captivating chase and suspenseful capture of the native outlaw, John Kepe. This self-proclaimed “Samson of the Boschberg” inevitably became a political threat to the very fabric of the ruling colonial society.

Kudos to writer-director Jahmil XT Qubeka for trying a genre experiment and for making a film almost without any spoken dialogue (by using newspaper articles, singing, chanting and even the name tag on the back of a shirt). Sew the winter to my skin does contain moments of beauty and grace that leave you breathless.

It is a pity the bulk of the film is not in focus. For the first thirty minutes, I kept rubbing my eyes, unwilling to believe that South Africa’s official submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Film (decided by the NFVF) was, in fact, not in focus. I then attributed it to limited focus, but when I couldn’t find the limited section that was supposed to be in focus in many scenes, I accepted this technical fault (and, yet, still confirmed it with other movie critics afterwards). Focusing was unfortunately not the only fault of this overreaching feature.

The absence of dialogue, although interesting, cuts you off from the characters. They become distant beacons that you observe, but that you don’t understand or really care for. Why the white farmhand helps Kepe, or why the black Wyatt Earp persecutes his own, is never explained/demonstrated. The characters are cardboard cut-outs. Kepe himself comes across as a directionless, almost loopy bandit, which I am sure was not the intention of the filmmakers. Had there been fewer scenes (definitely less of Kepe running around with sheep) and a more disciplined, clear edit, the actors could have had more breathing space, time to get their contribution across.

The focus on the aesthetic of the film (epic landscapes, cinematography, music), combined with cardboard characters and a timeline that jumps back and forth, makes for a very confusing feature film, one that feels at least half an hour too long.

The attempt to mythologise Kepe dips into melodrama and ridiculousness at times. Perhaps if I cared more about the characters, I could have suspended my disbelief.

Sew the winter to my skin does not live up to its utterly poignant title.

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