In Chicago literary scholar Lauren Berlant’s formulation, cruel optimism describes an object of desire that is, in her words, “actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” This optimism becomes cruel, she explains, “when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” One example she gives, drawing upon the 1999 French film Resources humaines (director Laurent Cantet), involves a son whose father urges him to do well in school to avoid the menial path to factory work taken by his father. Yet precisely in excelling at university and gaining a foothold in a managerial position, the son undermines his father’s already precarious employment. His task, presented of course as technical necessity, is to carry out what we now understand as a typical regimen of neoliberal restructuring. The result? His father’s termination.
But what happens when the object of desire involves the fate of another in such a way that it doesn’t affect the fate of the desiring subject? Let’s call it the liberal paternalist inflection of cruel optimism: precisely in attempting to uplift another, one undermines that individual’s own capacity for flourishing. Or maybe it’s better understood as a case of simple irony, finish and klaar.
In either case, imagine this scenario, and let’s take the welfare of “the African” as the liberal paternalist’s object of desire. This might play out collectively, such as in cases of US-provisioned famine relief: The dumping of American agricultural surplus drives down prices and reproduces precisely the conditions of starvation intended to be overcome. Meanwhile, Americans can pat themselves on their backs for their open-handedness and generosity.
Or take private sector “development” projects. Imagine a scenario in which an isiXhosa-speaking boy on the Cape Flats is scheduled to receive formal housing from the state after his family has been on the waiting list for years or even decades. Evictions and electricity disconnections are proceeding apace in his neighborhood, to the point where land invasions and illegal reconnections appear to be the only solution, however provisional.
Meanwhile, a man working at a firm — let’s say an Irish firm, as Irish real estate capital really does have substantial holdings in Cape Town — presides over the building of a factory in a peripherally located township. He is convinced that this will uplift the boy, saving an African child from a life of misery. Yet while the Irishman celebrates over a drink with his coworkers in Belfast, the Xhosa boy’s housing project is put on hold to make way for the factory. Hopes dashed, he’s again stuck in his shack. Meanwhile, the Irish project manager toasts the boy — “To Sifiso!” — assuming that his work is helping him out.
This is the marvelous intervention of Irish filmmaker Phil Harrison’s low-budget film The Good Man, shot over the course of a fortnight in Cape Town and Belfast.
In many ways it’s the perfect corrective to the orgy of ersatz postracialism on display in a movie like Crash (2004, director Paul Haggis). Rather than that film’s obsession with rendering racism about personal affectation, Harrison does a proper job of relegating good intentions to the dustbin. History and, above all, white monopoly capital are what matter.
As in Crash, seemingly disconnected narratives coincide. The Irishman in question, played by Littlefinger from Game of Thrones (Aiden Gillen), is convinced he’s responsible for the death of another man. He nabs another man’s taxi, and the poor guy goes running after him, right into the road. He’s immediately pummeled by a car and dies on the spot. Michael (Gillen) witnesses the entire thing. He goes into a stoic depression, to the point that his wife nearly leaves him. In proper masculinist fashion, he doesn’t tell her what he’s seen — at least not for a while.
Michael can’t overcome his guilt until finally he makes contact with the deceased’s parents. Initially furious, they finally make peace, explaining that the dead man had been supporting a child in Africa — South Africa, it just so happens — his entire life: little Sifiso. Michael takes on Sifiso as his personal project of expiation.
Meanwhile, throughout all of this, we see Sifiso’s (Thabang Sidloyi) struggles in school and above all, in his informal settlement in Gugulethu. (While filmed in Gugs, the site appears to be Khayelitsha, as Mandela Park is referenced once or twice. I wasn’t certain.) Rather than the flat figure of the African child imagined by Michael, Harrison presents what must be the most nuanced account of post-apartheid housing politics on film — documentary or otherwise. We see how South African housing delivery works, get a taste of the disarming experience of life on the waiting list, witness the politics of the Anti-Eviction Campaign, and more. Sure, the AEC is presented a bit too individualistically, less as an organization, and more as a single individual rallying the troops in his area. To be fair though, if Harrison caught the AEC amidst its dying gasps, it’s unfortunately probably an accurate representation. And when security forces are called in to remove a shack and evict its occupants — Red Ants? Anti-Land Invasion Unit? — residents get into a fistfight with these storm troopers. This is probably an overly dramatized version of very mundane relations that occur on daily basis. Absolutely, they are violent, and absolutely, fights break out, but the real tragedy is the dull relations of eviction and forced relocation rather than the occasional conflagration.
In any case, Sifiso and Michael finally meet — never face to face, but through relations of cruel optimism. This is the greatest strength of Harrison’s film. Michael knows a single photo of Sifiso, and he’s convinced that his firm’s development project is going to lead Sifiso to a better life. Yet as in most cases of capitalist development, profit wins the day, and the factory leads to displacement. The state-provisioned home promised to Sifiso and his family is indefinitely deferred. Sifiso is back on the waiting list.
While Harrison’s portrayal of the intersection of the two life trajectories is quite striking and I couldn’t get enough of the South African scenes, the last third or so of the Irish plot suffers from needless flattening. Perhaps this was intentional: it’s not the African child who turns out to be the cookie-cutter figure, but the clichéd liberal paternalist from the metropole. But there are times when I wished for a less lifeless account. What is this factory they’re building? Why in Cape Town? There are also a couple of scenes related to the project that made me cringe. “Municipal land? But doesn’t that belong to the people?” one naïve coworker asks Michael. This approach struck me as out of place, oddly unimaginative, given the robustness of the rest of the film.
But these are minor gripes. My biggest qualm is that the film is a sparse 74 minutes, and I was left wanting more. With an extra half hour, the expedited scenes at the Irish firm could have been given time to develop, and the film could be a masterpiece. But I have to say, for a film shot on a shoestring budget in two weeks, it’s pretty damn impressive, especially for a director without formal training. If you have the opportunity to see this film, don’t go alone. Be sure to assemble all of the “Save Darfur” types you know and bring them to a screening near you.