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Riding through the back streets of Cape Town with a camera and his conspicuous rich-boy appearance, Teboho Edkins – a White South African filming Black or Mixed race gangsters – would certainly have stood out in the making of his 55-minute documentary Gangster Project. Apart from differences in race, there are differences in ambition, in earning a living and in standards of living.

In an attempt to balance his story, Edkins discovers and lends some screen time to the ghetto’s rich people. The negatives however outweigh the positives and it’s difficult to view the director himself as nothing more than a voyeur with a condescending air about his project and towards the young men who opened their doors to him. He seems to have only gone into the gangsters’ den in a bid to poke fun at them, feel like one of the boys, or simply to reassure himself that his life is indeed far better than theirs.
But, of course, with gangsters it is not always fun. Despite the film showing the gangsters in a constantly happy mood, an underlying sense of imminent danger runs through the film’s unfolding events, which culminate in an unexpected ending for Edkins’ Gangster Project.

This exposé on Cape Town’s gangsters is made intriguing via Edkins’ portrayal of the gangsters, who all seem to agree that becoming a gangster is inevitable in the ghetto: one of them believes gangsters are community’s guardians, another follows a natural path of “gangsterism” because his father and uncle were gangsters. It is interesting watching these people, whether as gangsters on the job, as devoted friends, family members or as human beings with their own list of problems.
Gangsters, the crux of Edkins’ film, are just as human as the rest of us. But we are not sure that this is Edkins’ motive or just another contribution to the demonization and stereotyping of South Africa’s uneducated non-white community. The film music is hardly surprising; it features a playlist of the usual suspects from gangster rap: cue 50 cent, but with a few surprises.

His display of the city’s landscape underscores the film’s comparative thread, with the cinematography depicting the serenity of Edkins’ upscale estate in contrast to the rugged hustle of Cape Town’s ghetto. To his credit, the director does not employ lighting as a tool to harmfully depict black and white. On the other hand, his entry into the gangsters’ commune can be considered intrusive, boring into the ghetto’s shanties and her residents’ private lives and thoughts.

Edkins’ approach is fitting for his purpose though, especially as a parallel to his own privileged existence, where the matter is not a lack of choice in his life ambition but of too many choices and varied opportunities, unlike the gangsters in his film, who lack most of the good things in life but have a natural inclination towards gangster living.

 

*Written during the FESPACO/Africine Critics’ Workshop in February 2013

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