Wednesday, January 3, 2007

DUST DEVIL - the 2006 Director's Cut

It takes two hours to watch a movie, but it took a shopping safari to the U.S. for me to locate a copy of this rare DVD set. Since acquiring DUST DEVIL -The Final Cut, I've invested an additional twenty hours or so reading about and compiling notes on the career of its South African born Writer/Director. Richard Stanley, is now something of a obsession, and a great career to study for insight into Independent film production.

DUST DEVIL, was originally completed in 1992, and immediately betrayed by the producers. They tried to cut and paste it for a general distribution in American, breaking their agreements with Stanley. In the end it got no distribution at all. Resurrected and now restored as a "Limited Collectors Edition" showcasing Stanley's work, it's a five disc, vest pocket marvel. Now you may scoff about "weasel words" of marketing, but how does only 9,999 copies for worldwide distribution sound? That should explain why I had to jump the border to score a copy for my collection. If you check out the Pros who did the superb job with this DVD release last September, you might get the final peak, because this puppy is already SRO and has shown up on EBay at $50+.

This is a "horror" film with several grisly scenes but it offers no genuine shudders. Let's NOT try to label it. DUST DEVIL is set in Namibia during the transition period when South Africans were forced by the U.N. to abandon their colony of South West Africa. This allowed the political arm of SWAPO to form a government. [Canadian cops are not mentioned, but we had a 100 man contingent of RCMP onsite, to oversee the handover of assets to black majority rule.] Into this confusion of a lost cause and lost power returns a "Nagtloper" or Night Walker, a shape shifting demon that the Herrero have long understood, but white's are quick to dismiss. The role was handled well enough by an American, Robert John Burke, who may have been cast at the insistence of MIRIMAX, the original U.S. Distributor. The Nagtloper of course begins to murder with studied ritual and claims trophies. The significant twist is that he seeks only those who have already lost the will to live. The highway of shame stretching back to South Africa runs through the shit town of Bethany. He senses, as do we, that the town itself has lost the will to exist. A bountious hunting ground indeed.

Director Stanley assures us in the ample bonus material, that his script is based on a series of unsolved killings that unnerved people in a region already numbed by the war against the SWAPO insurgency. The bonus goodies include a lengthy, and informative Production Diary and a DUST DEVIL colour comic. Most important is a "Work Print" disc, assembled from both finished scenes and rough dailies, which does show what might have been.

As the story itself begins to take shape, a savvy black police Sergeant, (in a memorable performance by Zakes Mokae) realizes that these are not covert military killings, but at that critical moment his white Boer colleagues pull out. He is forced to consult with the local witch doctor, (John Matshikiza) proprietor of the town's now redundant Drive-In movie theatre. A modern African, he resists the bush wisdom of his people. "Stop being a white man. Be a man." The clever forensic examiner (in a cameo role for Marianne Sagebrecht) comforts him with police science, but his frequent nightmares warn us that that he is losing his disbelief in magic.
I won't give away the story but I must note that there are plenty of catches for the film buff. Homage is everywhere. If you remember the train station in Once Upon A Time in the West, you'll smile. And if you loved the cemetery sequence in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with tough guy Tuco dissolving into tears with a noose around his neck, you'll chuckle when you see the DUST DEVIL heroine walk down the road, pumpgun on shoulder, leaving a blubbering hubby hand-cuffed to a Land Rover. Nuff!

This story plays out in a brilliantly lit landscape. Ostensibly a flat desert plain, the skills of the cinematographer reveal southern Namibia in all of its sun-baked splendor - rusty and folded sedimentary slabs, vast rippling dunes and an immense plunging canyon complex reminiscent of the Colorado. Stanley used helicopter and crane shots to great dramatic and aesthetic effect. The musical score, written by Simon Boswell, is superbly mated to the dramatic elements of the tale but also enhances our enjoyment of the journey through the Karoo.
This film delivers a good time, and I am enjoying Richard Stanley on several levels. There were just a few scenes I found a tad obvious, but in sum DUST DEVIL offers something fresh. Stanley is a craftsman who has demonstrated repeatedly that he will go to extraordinary lengths, make any sacrifice, to tell his stories in his own fashion. It's an admirable trait, and certainly worthy of our interest and respect. His work is well grounded in spite of the hazards thrown up by his itch to wander the globe. I think there is much more to this moviemaker than just cinema, and I plan to profile aspects of career, and specific projects, as soon as I have finished with the research.

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