Francois Knoetze’s dystopian short film ‘Optimus Usimende’ lays bare issues of resource distribution

Imagine a world divided; a city in which the majority of the population have become periphery-dwellers – forced to the outskirts and subjected to a historically entrenched spatial divide. Imagine a place in which a violent state vehemently defends a formidable and oppressive social structure.

Envisage a city divided into zones: one zone in which there are readily available resources and access to pristine, well maintained infrastructure; another denied access to basic services.  

To most, this scene reads like a work of science fiction. For many South Africans, however, this is a daily reality.

Artist and filmmaker Francois Knoetze’s latest short film, Optimus Usimende, was created in response to the PPC Imaginarium’s call for proposals. Using meticulously constructed hand-animation, the film personifies the city’s built environment and lays bare issues of spatial and land politics, domestic servitude and urban resource distribution.

Delving into the dystopian genre of sociological science fiction, a field concerned with speculative societies, Optimus Usimende sees its protagonist, a border zones-dweller who travels to the city to sell his labour to the wealthy elite, find escape and empowerment through childhood memories and imagination.

The short was filmed by Anton Scholtz, co-written by Francois, Zara Julius (also co-director), Daniel Nel (also co-production designer) and Amy Louise Wilson, with performance by Aphiwe Livi and an original soundtrack by Caydon van Eck (B00n). Watch the poignant and incisive film below, and read our interview with Francois about how – and why – it came together.

Optimus Usimende (Excerpt) – 2016 from Francois Knoetze on Vimeo.

Tell us a bit about how the idea for the short film came together.

I developed the idea in response to the PPC Imaginarium’s call for proposals.  I think it was probably sparked by conversations with my brother who is a housing and urban land justice activist. Over the next couple of weeks I worked alongside co-writers Zara Julius, Amy Louise Wilson and Daniel Nel to refine the idea and turn it into a script. The competition asks that the work make reference to cement, and we decided to use this as a springboard for the dialogue about resource distribution, housing, space and land politics.

Usimende is ‘cement’ in isiZulu, which has obvious connections to PPC, but how much does the protagonist’s name influence his character?

We struggled with a tension between wanting the film to be local and global – not wanting to fix it to a particular location, but also not wanting to lose the local idiosyncrasies. The name was one way of making the film identifiably local. The protagonist has a complex relationship with cement – the image of cement becomes something like a floating signifier in the film, picking up and casting off various meanings.

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You chose black and white as a colour scheme, only highlighting the waste and the resources in colour. What informed this decision?

It was primarily an aesthetic decision. The film was originally intended to be in full colour, but when we started to play around with different colour grading options during the edit, black and white just seemed to make the film more visually cohesive. I think it was Daniel who said that it gave the film an old sci-fi/monster film feel, like Metropolis or the original King Kong.

We used colour to emphasise the unequal flow of resources in and out of spaces. We created a wasteland on the outskirts of the city, where resources are scarce and contrasted it with a lush, leafy suburbia in the heart of the city. The third space shows a CBD in which the state and political elite are in cahoots with monopoly capital. This is the space which decides the direction and distribution of the resources.

Cape Mongo – VHS. Photo by Francois Knoetze.
Cape Mongo – VHS. Photo by Francois Knoetze.

Your previous work, Cape Mongo, also featured excerpts of cartoons from your childhood. What’s the fascination there?

I’m interested in how we internalise the media we are exposed to growing up. By revisiting the personas from childhood TV programs, video games and fairy tales, I am able to simultaneously mould and be re-moulded by the myths that surrounded my growing up. As I revisit these myths through adult eyes, I find the fairy tales of my youth to be tainted and decayed.

The characters in my work therefore inhabit a state of ambivalence; being at once absorbed in the child-like activity of imaginative play, and grounded in grim realities of the present. This conflation of childhood fairy tales and realism reveals a blending of my adult perceptions and the spectres of TV characters lurking in my subconscious. They are perhaps a jaded adult’s attempt to salvage those characters from a kind of nihilism.

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The film is set in a sci-fi dystopian world where a near police state serves the wealthy and criminalises the poor. Imagining we had that sort of technology now, do you think it would play out much the same?

When one looks at the way in which political dissent and service delivery protests are routinely and brutally quashed in South Africa, I think the film borrows more from reality than sci-fi. In preparation for the 2010 World Cup, the South African police force technology saw a massive shift towards the military-style ‘riot protection gear’ which we now see police wearing, for example during the Marikana and #FeesMustFall protests. Last year, Cape Town Metro Police tested drones for crime surveillance in low income areas. In this case, the line between sci-fi and reality is blurry.

Optimus Usimende is animated entirely by hand. How long did it take to create all of the costumes and set and how did you go about sourcing the material?

We had a very limited budget for this film. I wanted it to have a lo-fi, handmade feel, in reaction to the polished, clean aesthetic of things like adverts and most Hollywood films which demand very little of the viewer.

I spent about two weeks constructing the masks and props out of cardboard and printed building facades. After that, Daniel Nel and I worked together to animate the background plates (the images that replace the green screen). We built miniatures of the world using soil, sticks and staples, created sky effects using food colouring, oil and soap and even added smoky moodiness to some scenes with a hubbly. Most of our materials were sourced from the Woodstock Drop-Off Facility and local Chinese supermarkets. Our cinematographer Anton Scholtz managed to brilliantly capture our tiny handmade worlds, as well as moving actors against a green screen.

I have been very influenced by old low-budget sci-fi films with a handmade look and feel. I like how the visible imperfections in these films allow the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. Things are more open-ended; the image is not complete. If the viewer can imagine how things were made, (s)he is able to imagine her/himself making it.

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The sound design is crucial to the film’s overall aesthetic. Can you tell us a little about B00n’s use of sound throughout the film?

The film uses subtitles instead of voice-overs and so it relies heavily on sound to convey mood. Caydon van Eck’s (aka B00n) soundscape provides an extraordinarily evocative set of audio cues and atmospheric rhythms to the film.

You’ve exhibited work in both Lagos and Germany before. Has there been much of a change in how your work has been received compared to South African audiences?

I think the work is appreciated for different reasons in different places. I draw from a local context but I think the themes in my work are globally translatable: waste is something that is a part of everyone’s lives.

On the topic of spatial politics, do you have any plans to screen the film in spaces outside of galleries and online spaces?   

Optimus Usimende is available online in both English and isiZulu. I am also hoping to have film screenings at local high schools.

Optimus Usimede will be screened later this month at Moholo LiveHouse in Harare Square, Khayelitsha. Find more details on the Moholo LiveHouse website

Find more of Francois’ work here

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