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Dust Devil

Dust Devil

By Ben Cook • January 30th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Original release: August 8th, 1992
Running time: 103 minutes

Writer and director: Richard Stanley

Cast: Zakes Mokae, Chelsea Field, Robert John Burke Teaser

Dust Devil

No landscape is as intrinsic to 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 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. It’s in the old places we find such things….and so inevitably the Namib, 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 besieged creatures. Fifty-five million years of shifting plates and spiralling climate have led it to this. Countless deserts within a desert, limitless vistas for a cinematic archetype.

There’s 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 the single tracks of 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’s the idea that’s king and true filmmaking is achieving that idea despite the restrictions of finance, time and man power.

Dust Devil

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….these 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. Drive on it and some miles west you turn north and here you’ll find Bethanien. In the film it’s a town 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 to 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 to which the creature belongs. He’s 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. Dust DevilFilmed in garish colours, the camera slung askew, often drifting omnipotently over the landscape, complementing, in a way that betrays Stanley’s 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 threads 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 allows the film to be part of that strange family of films that belong together but you’re never quite sure why… El Topo, Eraserhead, Freaks, Performance, Videodrome, Tetsuo, Society, PI, they belong together because they have nowhere else to go. As the Namib is many deserts within a desert, Dust Devil is many films within a film.

It’s 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, chaotic. Too often these quixotic attempts at film collapse under their own weight and the director becomes some kind of 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.

Dust Devil

Ben Cook

Ben Cook

Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.

In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.

He has his own site www.antitypefilms.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @AntiTypeFilms.

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