Salute! (2017, Namibia)

Salute! is a prison film that deserves more than casual attention; it was, in part, written by inmates from the Windhoek Correctional Facility after the story was workshopped there, it was filmed at the prison, and the cast includes prisoners as well as civilian actors. But those assets are probably also its biggest weaknesses.

The story – which covers some familiar territory of ritualistic gang activity – deviates from similar stories (e.g. the South African contemporaries Noem My Skollie and The Number) by delving, a little clumsily, into a same sex relationship.

Indeed, if you watched just the final minutes of the film and the solemn postscripts drawing attention to the unavailability of condoms in Namibian prisons (and the illegality of sodomy driving the stigmatisation of gay relationships), you could be forgiven for assuming that it was a film about a loving same sex relationship in prison. Which it is, in a way… but it’s a relationship complicated by the fact that it started as exploitative, as coercive, as abuse of power – as rape. Maybe a film that hadn’t been workshopped by prisoners might have been more conscious of those contradictions. Or maybe I’m just narrow-minded when it comes to such things.

The coerced party in that relationship is Carlito (nicknamed ‘Kado’ and played by Adriano Visagie). He is a meek young man, fresh-faced and brand new to prison, having been sentenced to 5 years (two of which were suspended) for a theft or fraud in which his pregnant girlfriend, Julia (Odile Muller Gertze), was also involved. He has taken full responsibility for the crime to protect her and his soon-to-be-born son.

He is assigned a cell, but before he can take up residence there he is spotted by members of the 28s gang, and lured to stay in their cell by an oily prisoner known as Obnoxious (Dawie Englebrecht). Staff, for some reason, never intervene and direct him back into his rightful cell; he remains with the 28s.

He is very easily preyed upon and manipulated. He is driven to asking his cellmates for more food and toiletries, and the gang’s General (Monray Garoëb) generously grants them to him. Only George (Jeremiah Jeremiah) warns him that nothing is given for free; Kado is too naive to work this out for himself. Or to take heed.

When he first rejects the General’s inevitable sexual advances, the General responds not with violence, as one might expect, but by getting the kitchen to cut back his meals. Soon Kado is back pleading for more food and ‘agreeing’ to being used for sex; pork for pork.

He becomes more deeply inducted into the 28s (partly to tell prisoners from other gangs that he is off limits); he has gang tattoos and then a wedding band inked on his wedding finger. All of a sudden he goes from being raped, and from being bashed for simply politely responding to another prisoner, to willingly and lovingly taking on the role of the General’s wife, and taking Obnoxious’s role in recruiting cute young men into the 28s’ lair.

He gets released after his three years is up, and returns to the faithful Julia and the son he has never seen (because he didn’t want him to see him in prison). All goes well, picking up from where they left off, with Carlito adeptly batting back Julia’s questions about his strange tattoos… until she tests positive to HIV.

It is, in the end, a disquieting film – not just because Kado’s Stockholm syndrome turnaround is a little unbelievable (and the implication that sexual abuse victims can learn to love their abusers is a little dangerous), but because the gang culture, having seemingly seeped up the coast from neighbouring South Africa, is depicted in such benign terms; no stabbings, no attacks on staff, and rituals limited to saying ‘Salute!’ after very conversation as a tennis player might say, ‘C’mon!’ after very point.

Maybe that’s how it is in Namibia, but methinks the Windhoek prisoners might have been under some pressure to underplay the gang stuff and to come up with (forgive the pun) a more salutary message. I could, of course, be wrong.

 

 

 

You can find the movie, at a short 1 hr 7 mins, on YouTube.

Posted on February 20th, 2022 at 4:22 pm. Updated on February 20th, 2022 at 4:25 pm.

#308 in the Top 500

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