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High Fantasy

.
Jenna Bass / 2017

A group of young friends on a camping trip, deep in the South African countryside wake up to discover they’ve all swapped bodies. Stranded in the wilderness, they’ll have to navigate a personal-political labyrinth if their friendship and their lives are ever to be the same again.


See More
Running Time: 74 min.
Subject(s): Activism, African Cinema and Culture, Arts and Culture, Conflicts, Current Affairs, Gender, Human Rights, Politics see all »
Language(s): English, Xhosa
Director(s):
Producer(s): Jenna Bass, Steven Markovitz, David see all »
Cinematographer: Qondiswa James, Nala see all »
Editor(s): Kyle Wallace
Production Company: Fox Fire Films, Big World Cinema, Proper Film in association with Deal Productions

Press

  • Jenna Bass' found-footage picture uses supernatural body-swapping to explore race relations in South Africa.
    A Freaky Friday exploration of identity politics as they're felt by today's college-age kids, Jenna Bass' High Fantasy sends four ethnically diverse friends off into the desert of South Africa's Northern Cape and then magically transports each one into the body of another. It's shot mostly on these characters' haphazardly held cellphones, spliced together with reality-TV-style post-trip interviews, and any reader to whom this is starting to sound annoying will almost certainly say "yep, thought so" while viewing. That doesn't mean the picture is totally without merit, even for viewers to whom the many kinds of inequality plaguing our world are old news. But any distributor considering putting the film before American art house auds will need to think strategically.

    Our four young road-trippers are a black woman, Xoli (Qondiswa James); Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel), whose white family owns the vast property they're camping on; Tatiana (Liza Scholtz), referred to at one point as "colored" and a sometime activist alongside the more militant Xoli; and Thami (Nala Khumalo), the sole male, who was only brought along because Lexi's family insisted the women had a man to look out for them.

    They're having a fine time as they make their way into the wilderness, breezing past little digs about how this is land that "Lexi's family stole, generations ago." But cutaways to the friends' individual interviews, recorded after their return, reveal something uncomfortable and strange is about to happen.

    Once they've set up camp, things get antagonistic when self-styled player Thami uses "smash a bitch" as a synonym for sex. He's quickly dressed down, and while he seems resistant to the enlightenment being dished out, a quick cut to his white-wall interview finds Thami chastened, admitting that "all men are trash," him included. What gives?

    They're having a fine time as they make their way into the wilderness, breezing past little digs about how this is land that "Lexi's family stole, generations ago." But cutaways to the friends' individual interviews, recorded after their return, reveal something uncomfortable and strange is about to happen.

    Once they've set up camp, things get antagonistic when self-styled player Thami uses "smash a bitch" as a synonym for sex. He's quickly dressed down, and while he seems resistant to the enlightenment being dished out, a quick cut to his white-wall interview finds Thami chastened, admitting that "all men are trash," him included. What gives?

    The four are friendly again by bedtime, all sharing one tent. But they awake in a panic, pawing at the bodies they inhabit as if they had bugs crawling on them. They initially think they're victims of some hallucinogen, but in fact, some never-explained magic has decided to teach them a hard lesson in diversity and coexistence.

    The cast, which has already shown itself to be a reasonably charismatic bunch of newcomers, now gets to spend some time doing acting exercises in the bush. Khumalo gets in touch with his feminine side; Michel imagines what it would be like for a black woman to wear the oppressor's skin; James begins to walk like a man. While their (mostly improvised) dialogue offers many observations recognizable to citizens of any diverse nation, it also builds on politics specific to South Africa's recent history — sometimes in ways we understand easily (a post-transformation Thami says he used to believe in the "rainbow nation" but now has been disillusioned), and sometimes not. What everyone will recognize, though, is the self-righteousness and defensiveness of youth and the ease with which offense is taken. Most will also quickly understand why shooting video in your cellphone's portrait mode is a bad idea.

    A mercifully brief encounter with a social media-addicted fifth character aside, not a lot happens before these four get returned to their bodies as mysteriously as they were taken away. And weirdly, it is only now that their individual friendships are truly tested. Pointedly, Bass ends the film with the dispirited travelers folding up a camp chair emblazoned with South Africa's many-colored flag, stowing it in the trunk with used beach towels and dirty cooking gear. These characters' parents might have had rosy hopes for racial harmony in South Africa; though they seem to be living that dream on a personal level, these youths aren't so optimistic.
    'High Fantasy': Film Review | TIFF 2017
    John DeFore
  • If you take the title of Jenna Bass’s new film, “High Fantasy,” at face value, you’ll probably picture a stoner comedy-cum-genre flick, a’la “Your Highness,” in which unlikely heroes are pitted against mythical dangers while stricken with a case of the stoned giggly-fits. To an extent, this characterization is fair: Bass does assemble of diverse troupe of characters, and she does set them on a quest of sorts, and she does incorporate a fantasy element in their travels after they all get roasted on weed, but the fundamental conflicts of “High Fantasy” are rooted in the real world, and those conflicts make the film feel all too familiar. Whether you’re white, black, South African, or American, you know those conflicts regardless of the stance you take on them.

    The film’s premise reads like the stuff of prototypical horror: Four young friends go out into the wilderness to have fun and end up accosted by the supernatural. (If not the supernatural, then at least the inexplicable.) Once you get by the premise and start watching “High Fantasy,” that read is further validated by Bass’s aesthetic, packaged in the handheld shooting style of found footage movies like “The Blair Witch Project.” But Bass isn’t telling a conventional monster story, or even an unconventional monster tale. Instead of a literal boogie man, she focuses on a figurative boogie man, racism, embodied in conversation by her cast as they’re forced to acknowledge their biases following a bizarre body swap scenario. There’s no explanation given as to why or how the cast switch identities. It just happens, and hell, of a sort, breaks loose.

    It’s an inelegant set-up, but Bass doesn’t care for elegance. She’s making magical realism. It’s up to us to let ourselves be swept up in her extraordinary conceit, at least to a point; the rest is up to her cast, comprised of Xoli (Qondiswa James), Thami (Nala Khumalo), Lexi (Francesca Varrie Michel), and Tatiana (Liza Scholtz). The film rests its weight on their performances: If they fail to sell their metaphysical transformations, then “High Fantasy” fails, too. They don’t fail, and “High Fantasy” succeeds. If anything, the movie might have benefitted from having them all swap bodies sooner and for longer. Until that happens, it’s a road trip film that orbits around the fraught subject of race relations, bringing each character’s proximity to racism to its fore. Lexi is the lone white member of the quartet, and it’s her family’s land they’re camping on; Xoli, Thami, and Tatiana are each persons of color whose experiences with and thoughts on white supremacy are varied. (Xoli is most vocal about her beliefs, a product of systemic abuse she’s endured at the hands of South African authority while participating in political protests.)

    “High Fantasy” is a movie for the woke set in 2017; it’s about the exploration of the beliefs we espouse on the surface, art that bores beneath that surface to mine its characters’ true feelings. It’s therefore uncomfortable to watch, but that’s natural. Racism isn’t an easy topic to discuss, even among friends, and it isn’t easy to confront in ourselves, either. (This extends to sexism, a side tangent to Bass’s interest in race; Thami, the lone male in the cast, talks a good game about his sexual prowess, and as one might imagine, spending an undisclosed period of time living in the body of a woman, even temporarily, has an effect on his outlook.) Maybe it’d be easier if we had the luxury of being able to actually walk in another person’s shoes; maybe it’d be easier if we could actually see the world through another’s eyes.

    That’s the real “fantasy” component of “High Fantasy.” We don’t have that luxury. We don’t have that privilege. “High Fantasy” does the taxing legwork of generating empathy for its audience via its premise and plot mechanics; that the challenges of racism grow no less challenging under the conditions Bass engineers for her film is a harsh reminder of precisely how daunting they are for us poor schmucks watching from the relative safety of a theater. The characters bicker with each other even after growing accustomed to their new, temporary bodies; they project, they lash out, and they refuse, at times, to see beyond their own personal interests even after being given the gift of perspective. (We can’t judge them for flying off the handle, either. Xoli explodes at Tatiana when Lexi runs off into the wilderness by herself after they each return to their rightful bodies; Xoli is furious at Lexi’s selfishness for fleeing, and aggrieved at Tatiana’s suggestion that they go to the police for help. Just try holding her anger against her.)

    “High Fantasy” is a tough film to evaluate and unpack, which most likely means that, like Sean Baker’s 2015 masterpiece, “Tangerine,” folks will gravitate toward its artistry instead of its messages. Bass shot “High Fantasy” on her iPhone, giving the film a necessarily homemade feel; her physical lens also adds layers of intimacy to the innately personal tone, keeping the primary cast members crammed in the frame together. Occasionally she pulls the camera back to capture landscapes and sunsets in their natural majesty; more than once she takes to the skies, flying above the world and the characters like an all-seeing deity, intervening in their lives to teach them valuable lessons about prejudice. It may be inevitable, as technology improves, that more filmmakers will lean on smartphones as filmmaking tools, but just because you can shoot a movie on your mobile device doesn’t mean you should. Bass justifies use of the method handily, though: “High Fantasy” is art we shouldn’t be able to look away from. Thanks to Bass, we can’t. [B+]
    ‘High Fantasy’ Is An Artistic & Intimate Body Swap Drama [TIFF Review]
    Andrew Crump

Festival & Awards

  • Toronto International Film Festival - 2017
  • AFI Fest – American Film Institute - 2017
  • Berlinale - 2017

additional materials

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  • Director's statement

    I like to think of my films as follows: “Strange things happening to people
    you know”. The people in my films should feel real because they are: Not
    only are they familiar, but they’re fully realised, breathing characters, ready
    to step of the screen at any moment. I see one of the greatest strengths of
    cinema as it’s ability to place a viewer right into another’s shoes – no
    matter how comfortable or uncomfortable – right into another’s otherwise
    inaccessible life experience. With High Fantasy, the message and the
    medium perfectly synchronise.
    This story allows an audience of young South Africans a cathartic, headon
    collision with the layered identity politics so relevant to the born-free
    generation of our country, and abroad. It’s a story for those who are
    questioning their freedom and the very narrative on which they were
    raised. Issues around race, gender and class have made us even more
    painfully aware that the societies we live in value some of our bodies more
    than others. White bodies formed an untouchable human shield during
    Cape Town’s Fees Must Fall protests around free, equal education in
    South Africa, while black bodies were water-cannoned and rounded up
    into police vans. Such images calcified the reality of our country: A place
    where the past haunts us still, like a curse, something it seems it will take a
    miracle – or at least a supernatural intervention – to escape from.
    Key in-amongst this is the idea of empathy, our ability to understand each
    other, an issue much in debate, especially when it comes to generational
    pain. What would it really take for us to live happily together in mutual
    understanding? To fully understand each other’s pain? Do we need to
    literally swap places? And what would the result of this utopian miracle
    actually be? What can we, as humans living together, really do with this
    hard-earned empathy? Does it help us change our behaviour? Or does it only heighten our discomfort, our feelings of guilt, anger and despair? The
    body swap premise of High Fantasy also helps us confront – in the most
    direct way – sensitive issues around ownership of land, property and even
    people. When roles are reversed, what right do we have to what we
    previously owned? And tied to that, how much ownership can we ever
    expect; over material possessions, what we’ve inherited, or even what
    we’ve come to believe in? It also helps us look, through a fantastical lens, at
    serious matters of gender and rape, the assumed powerlessness or
    commodification of women’s bodies, as well as the liberation that is slowly
    but surely happening as gender and sexuality barriers are broken down.

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