High Fantasy


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

High Fantasy
"The overall effect is more like watching a drama class experimenting with a theme than watching a film."

Out in remote places, off the beaten track, strange things can happen. This is one of the oldest principles inherent in any folkloric tradition, used to keep the group together and out of danger, to make a case for civilisation. Modern South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, is all about togetherness - at least as far as the official messaging goes. High Fantasy takes four young people on a trip out into the wilderness to put that to the test.

Whilst this looks like the middle of nowhere, the land is technically owned by the family of white girl Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel). She's out there with black friend Xoli (Qondiswa James), the brown skinned Tatiana (Liza Scholtz), and token (black) boy Thami (Nala Khumalo), who has attended in the hope of getting some action but is in fact only tolerated because Lexi's parents insisted they should have a man there for protection. His casual use of mysogynistic language is given short shirift, but there's a sense that at least some of the girls feel sorry for him because he's burdened with a cluelessness not of his own making.

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These young people have history together. They're determined to have a good time, and make an effort to ignore issues around race, even though it emerges that Xoli is politically active on them in day to day life. But in the night, something happens - something never explained - and when they wake up they have been transferred into one another's bodies.

Questions of identity are now unavoidable. The gender swap immediately raises questions about propriety, with Thami - now in the kind of body he has always seen as weak - having to drastically reevaluate his priorities, especially as the new inhabitant of his body is more lascivious about the experience than he is in Xoli's form. Xoli, meanwhile, has to consider what it might mean to be white, and reflects on the assumptions she has always made about white people and their politics. This is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, if only because race body-swap stories generally focus on the opposite side of that experience.

Between them, the four very capable young actors take us on a tour of what it means to be South African today, exploring the matrix of identities that make up the nation and the still difficult, underexplored conflicts between them. The problem is that this is pretty much all they do. The drama is evidently aimed at teenagers who haven't given these issues a lot of thought before, but it still comes across as unnecessarily heavy handed, especially with post-adventure to-camera interview segments inserted at intervals throughout. There's very little additional plot, so the overall effect is more like watching a drama class experimenting with a theme than watching a film.

High Fantasy is successful in highlighting that there are a major social issues South Africa still needs to deal with through cultural conversation, with the law only able to take things so far. Sadly, it doesn't succeed in carrying that conversation very far itself.

Reviewed on: 19 Mar 2018
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A group of four young South African friends go on a camping trip in the Northern Cape and experience a supernatural body-swap incident.

Director: Jenna Cato Bass

Writer: Jenna Bass, Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo, Francesca Varrie Michel, Liza Scholtz, Loren Loubser

Starring: Loren Loubser, Qondiswa James, Nala Khumalo

Year: 2017

Runtime: 71 minutes

Country: South Africa, Switzerland


Glasgow 2018

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