South African folklore is center stage in 8, a supernatural thriller by director Harold Holscher.
Set in 1977, William and his wife Sarah (Garth Breytenbach and Inge Beckmann) have inherited his father’s house in the country and William hopes it will be a new experience for their adopted daughter Mary (Keita Luna), whose parents have tragically died. Upon moving in it becomes clear that the house needs work, and Lazarus (Tshamano Sebe), who once worked for William’s father, offers his services to help with the repairs. Known as “The Wanderer”, and shunned by his village, Lazarus is a haunted man who travels the countryside.
Having lost his wife in childbirth and his daughter in a fire, he made a deal with a darker power to resurrect his child. Now saddled with an evil entity in his bag, Lazarus traverses the land in search of souls to feed her. Although he becomes friends with Mary due to their experiences with loss, there is a dark chore, unbeknownst to the family, that he still must complete.
8 is well-made, with beautiful cinematography, great performances from Chris April as Obara, the village elder, and Luna as the insightful young Mary. However, there’s something I just can’t get past. As a person of color, I don’t know what to make of this film. I see a rich character in Lazarus, partially due Sebe’s performance, and I see one-dimensional white characters who serve as foils for the black “outsider” cast. Sarah is the classic “BBQ Becky”, mistrustful of black people and ready to rat out a black man the first chance she gets, a man who is dealing with his grief in a horrifically symbolic way.
I also see a white director telling a black story in a way that feels like it is trying to pander to black audiences. I don’t know this director, I don’t know what his creative process is, so I don’t want to judge in that way, but I’m not ok with a white director telling stories of an historically oppressed people in an historically colonized continent. Whom did he consult to tell this story? Actual villagers of small rural communities, or did he read a few anthropological texts to gain insight into black South African culture and folklore? I’ve seen an interview where Holscher talks about the production and his tragic loss of a friend that spawned this film, but there was no mention of any black African consultants for the story. Which probably explains why some of the themes fall into the overused sacrificial/magical negro trope.
There needs to be a point where different cultures come to a place of peace and understanding, but I am not sure if this film is the place. Perhaps it’s my own problem as we are currently experiencing a breakdown in understanding and proper discourse around race right now in North America. While there’s no denying the technical skill and beauty of 8, stories like this need to be told by those who live the culture, not the observer.