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A little something about 'Dust Devil'

Subatomic logical collapse or Herzog's desert

Its in the old places we find such things….and so inevitably the Namid. Which pushes hopelessly into the Atlantic and is itself pushed back into the continent, stretched and compacted into great canyons, spires of granite and empyrean tidal waves of sand. Harbouring near immortal plants … and endemic species. 55 million years of shifting plates and spiralling climate have led it to this. Countless deserts within a desert, limitless vistas for a cinematic archetype.

No landscape is as intrinsic to the different types of cinema as the desert, the western, the road movie, the dystopian picture, science fiction. A symbol of the external conflicts of man and nature (anatomy of film western), and the internal tribulations of emotion. A substitute for other worlds or the end of the world. It also often appears as a landscape where madness resides, chaos and the end of the road, the breakdown of the psyche, or the family (The Hills have Eyes), or civilization (Mad Max), or morals (Laurence of Arabia), a prism for greed (The Treasure of Sierra Madre), revenge (Daratt), aimless evil (The Hitcher), even raised to levels of Sisyphean punishment (Woman of the Dunes) and inevitably this seeps into the filmmakers….the heat and the space gets to them. The equation goes like this…the desert is to the land what Herzog is to filmmakers

There is something about insane ambition in a film that draws me, films that juggle ideas like literature, endless plots, counter plots, ideas and obsessions snaking across the screen, seemingly not constrained by single tracks of the conveyor belt films, or even the mounting aspirations of more daring films which weave a second, third or fourth into the mix. The budget is just money, it is the idea that’s king and true filmmaking is achieving that idea despite the restrictions of finance, time and man power.

Richard Stanley takes an idea, a long standing idea (I like to believe it was an obsession), of the Nhadiep, a mythical Namibian demon, as the first track, the foundation and from there weaves all the ideas he can muster to and fro across it, in varying levels of opacity, horror, serial killing, a road movie, a chase movie, a myth, a western, the politics of a country under change, cinema, race….and much more make up Dust Devil.

The B4 is the track, an absurdly uninspiring name for the road between Keetmanshoop and Luderitz on the cold Atlantic. Some miles west you turn north and here you’ll find Bethanien. In the film it is haemorrhaging civilization, a magnet for the demon of the title who feeds on those at the end of their road, the hopeless and the lost, enacting ornate rituals on their murdered corpses to gain control over the material world. Wendy a woman pursued by her abusive husband from the sterile civilization of suburban Pretoria and too the brink of suicide, is suitable prey for him, dressed fittingly in cowboy boots, hat and long coat. In pursuit of the demon is a guilt ridden police officer, torn between the white procedural world he inhabits and the black world of tradition and myth of which the creature belongs. He is helped by Joe Niemand, a Sangoma, cinema projectionist and the narrator of the film (an excellent wild-eyed performance by John Matshikiza), to understand the thing he pursues.

The finale, filmed in the real-life sand choked ghost town near Luderitz is a work of surrealist beauty. The deserted cinema, with sand pouring through the walls, and the earlier mention of Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires, stress the deep love of film ghosting through the picture. Stanley pulls out the motifs and symbols of midnight cinema to animate his ideas. Filmed in garish colours, the camera slung askew, often drifting over the landscape, complimenting in a way that betrays Stanleys music video roots, the increasingly dreamlike quality of the film. (A style which brings to mind Russell Mulcahy’s equally demented desert film Razorback). As the material world of the film unravels the thread of the film become indistinguishable, we no longer see it as ‘a bit of horror’ or ‘a bit of a road movie’, it becomes simply Dust Devil. An effect that As the Namid is many deserts in desert, Dust Devil is many films within a film

Dust Devil is a 4 star film, not a 4 star film in the way, say The Shawshank Redemption is, a solid, well-constructed film, beautifully made and ordered. Dust Devil is unsolid, too often these quixotic attempts collapse under their own weight and the director appears as some madman rather than a leader, wielding shamanic incantations rather than monopolistic control of the thousand threads of film. But isn’t that half the fun? Watching a film write its own language, constructing the grammar from whatever it desires? Throwing away the text books and finding friends and leaders in midnight movies and others banished to the sands.

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