Resisting petty apartheid

The historian Premesh Lalu’s film about an apartheid-era cinema on the Cape Flats also offers a glimpse of a future beyond racism for South Africa.

Still from The Double Futures of Athlone © Premesh Lalu.

When Shiba Patel opened the Kismet Cinema in 1958, Athlone was a multiracial (Indian, “Coloured,” and “African”) hub with its own central business district, sitting at the gateway to the Cape Flats, about a dozen kilometers southeast of downtown Cape Town. It wasn’t the township’s only cinema—there were at least three others in the immediate vicinity—but it was by far the largest, serving as a cultural hub for residents from across the Flats.

Soon, however, Athlone was designated a so-called “Coloured” space under the Apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act, forcing Patel and his family, who had immigrated to South Africa from India, out of the neighborhood. It was only by formally entrusting the Kismet to a “Coloured” manager that he was able to keep the place open, where it remained a crucial space in which to catch glimpses of a world beyond Apartheid.

Premesh Lalu’s new film The Double Futures of Athlone tells the story of the Kismet, but in a very particular way. Rather than a potted history, Lalu’s narrative relies on the reminiscences of those who once frequented the cinema, from area residents to those who walked miles from nearby townships to catch evening screenings to those who played jazz and rock on its stage.

Double Futures deftly avoids sentimentality in favor of a more complicated set of affects, simultaneously evoking nostalgia and longing for a post-Apartheid future. Lalu begins the film with a title screen explaining that “apartheid was experienced not once but twice—as grand apartheid of spatial segregation, but also as petty apartheid of everyday life.” The Kismet, the title screen continues, “offered a glimpse of a future beyond racism.”

Still from The Double Futures of Athlone © Premesh Lalu.

And it did. Seemingly uncontroversial screenings, including dozens of kung-fu films, were politicized by a paranoid regime. Kung-fu films were produced in China, after all, a Communist country, and so Bruce Lee movies fell prey to the rooi gevaar (“red danger,” akin to the American Red Scare). As multiple interviewees in the film explain, it wasn’t only a matter of Black and white, but about the regime’s obsessive introduction of intra-Black distinctions. While some films were exclusively available to white people, including all Chinese films, others included complicated regulations. A number of movies were not to be shown to anyone between the ages of 4 and 12 or to “Bantus” (how the state referred to Black Africans), among the clearest possible examples of racist infantilization.

Of course, this didn’t stop “African” viewers from frequenting the place, even after they were expelled from the area. Anti-apartheid activist and theater director Itumeleng Wa-Lehulere recalls walking all the way from the township of Gugulethu, often not returning home until well after midnight. When he did catch the bus, it dropped him in Mannenberg, and he had to move quickly to avoid gang violence.

The films themselves are described with a mix of past- and future-orientation. One resident smiles when recalling her favorites from the late 1950s and early 1960s: Bruce Lee, Westerns, “golden oldies”—clearly the regime didn’t successfully enforce its ridiculous ban on Kung-fu films.

Another viewer, seemingly nostalgic, remembers the Kismet in a very different way. Film and music were ways to gain exposure to the outside world. Cinemas and performance spaces were therefore sites of aspiration.

Wa-Lehulere explains, “The experience of Kismet and cinema gives you a lot of knowledge. It exposes you to the outside world. I think that’s why the Board of Publications was very strict: because they knew the power of cinema.”

The regime attempted to restrict permissible movies to comedic representations of Black people. But Wa-Lehulere remembers seeing films from abroad as expanding the horizon of his politics: “Black people in America do this. Why can’t we do this here?”

Still from The Double Futures of Athlone © Premesh Lalu.

Even seemingly apolitical films became sites of desire, with the Kismet serving as a space in which to imagine an alternative future. We might expect a nostalgic representation of an organizing site, including the multiple union offices just across the way from the theater. But this is Lalu’s point: in addition to fighting grand Apartheid, Cape Flats residents simultaneously had to wage war against the petty Apartheid of everyday life.

Of course, these twin Apartheids were ultimately inseparable, as the film itself demonstrates. There are a number of particularly effective sequences in which images are superimposed over aerial shots of Athlone. Early in the film, movie posters and a spinning jazz record appear, layered over the iconic Athlone Power Station’s pair of cooling towers. This is not mawkish sentimentality, then, but a nostalgia inextricable from the memory of resistance to petty Apartheid.

The film closes with a brief account of the Trojan Horse Massacre. On that day in 1985, a truck – painted in the regime’s orange—made its way down a major road, flanked on both sides by residents returning home from work. It was of course a provocation: security police and soldiers were hidden in a crate in the back. Bold residents began lobbing rocks at the orange truck, a visible symbol of the Apartheid regime, unaware of the violent passengers hidden in the back. Once the stones began to hit, cops and soldiers leaped from the crate and opened fire, murdering three residents, two of them under 16.

A memorial to the victims of the massacre appears behind the title of the film at the very beginning and, later, images from the massacre are layered over aerial shots of Athlone, signaling that both petty and unabashedly coercive Apartheid were baked into the very spatiality of the place. Double Futures, then, is a history of one particularly important site of resistance to petty Apartheid. But it is simultaneously a demonstration of the relationship between Apartheid’s twin moments of consent and coercion. Behind every banned film stands a line of heavily armed cops ready to murder children.

When the film began, I expected forthright nostalgia. But what Lalu presents here is something far more complex. Certainly his anxious camera can’t resist panning across the space of downtown Athlone, with residents recalling this pharmacy or that record store. But these are bittersweet memories, cherished because they once enabled residents to imagine a world beyond Apartheid repression.

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