The most shockingly violent film in the Competition at the Tokyo International Festival this year was also the most stunningly poetic, with an exquisite use of sound that rivets the spectator to the screen. Michael Rix's Accession, set in an unnamed township in the director's native South Africa, features a down-and-out protagonist, John, who wanders through town in moody contemplation, thinking he has contracted AIDS. The camera basically follows his footsteps as the man silently trudges through the streets, brooding on his plight. We hear cars, birds, and voices: a constant stream of noise that makes us feel right there with John, identifying emotionally with a man who has -- it turns out -- no concern for anyone but himself. "To sleep with a virgin will make the disease go away," pipes up one friend cheerfully, and John proceeds to seek and rape any virgin in his path, including one who goes beyond the limit of under-age.
"I feel the issue has to be out there," Michael Rix shared with us in the Roppongi Hills cinema complex. "This is absolutely an issue in South Africa. The rape of minors is so common that the news doesn't even pick it up anymore. It happens all the time. It is ignored. Unfortunately that is the way it is. It has never been on film before. It is the reason I struggled so hard to get it funded.'
He noted that to prepare for his film, he "spent a lot of time with people in these townships, doing research, like for a documentary."
Yet the film does not have a documentary feel, but has the breathtaking effect of an auteur art film, reminiscent of Tarkovsky or Pasolini. The close-ups of John's troubled eyes below his cap, the constant buzz of sound, the experimental shift from color to black-and-white after a horrific climax: Each moment creates cinematic immediacy and spectator pleasure, despite the horrors depicted.
Rix took care to emphasize that his aesthetics and use of sound were not, however, an homage to these auteur directors. "I think sound is the best way to engage the audience into the story, in an immediate way," the director told us sincerely, showing his commitment to the message of his film.
The film ends with a long shot on a burning white cloth, crinkling in the fire, while smoke rises and thunder roars in the distance. There is (plot-spoiler!) "justice" at the end of this morally unsettling film: but it is a settling of accounts that, as the smoke rises, underscores the impotency of the South African legal system -- and the continuing problem of extreme violence.
"My film ends this way because that is, unfortunately, the way it is in South Africa," said the director. "These episodes generally end in vigilantism before the authorities even hear about it."