Written and directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, 'Sew the Winter to my Skin' is a South African Western-style epic set in a time when apartheid was being written into law and Afrikaner nationalism was rising.
The cinematic period tale of indigenous outlaw John Kepe, the film explores the story of the folk hero who, from the 1920s to the 1950s era, is said to have stolen livestock and supplies from rich white people and given to the poor, indigenous people of the Karoo.
In Qubeka's retelling, Kepe (Ezra Mabengeza) is pitted against the fictional landowner general and embittered World War II veteran Botha (Peter Kurth), whose obsessive desire to capture him is further fuelled when a sheep herder is found dead and Kepe is accused of the crime. Aiding Botha in his search is a character known only as the Black Wyatt Earp (Zolisa Xaluva), a ruthless Black police officer on the side of the colonialist regime. Botha's money problems and alcoholic wife threaten him more than a few missing sheep, but his hatred of black people leads him to obsess over Kepe. Meanwhile, even though he lives in a black neighborhood, Black Wyatt Earp tries to live like his Afrikaner masters, going so far as to grow a ridiculous moustache like that of his namesake. Both men begin an epic manhunt for Kepe through the mountains, where he is rumoured to occupy a mysterious cave.
Evading capture for more than a decade, outwitting Botha and his posse, Kepe's raids become ever more brazen and his escapes from the authorities ever more daring.
The outlaw's legend grows in the hearts and minds of the poor and marginalised indigenous population, and the self-proclaimed "Samson of the Boschberg Mountains" emerges as both an enigma to his pursuers and a romantic object of adoration for his fellow victims of oppression. With Kepe's very existence representing a threat to the inevitable march of colonial displacement, the hunt to capture and kill the outlaw reaches a desperate crescendo.
Qubeka's third feature, which only features around five minutes of dialogue (much of it in isiXhosa, an African language), seems to have drawn inspiration from filmmakers like Dziga Vertov and Jean-Jacques Annaud, using imagery (via DP Jonathan Kovel) and score (via Braam du Toit) to get his story across on the screen and compliment the psychology of his protagonist. Another point of comparison is Andrew Dominik's 'The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford', which is also dominated by beautiful landscape shots and haunting scores.
The film conveys the narrative primarily through artfully crafted scenes and the physicality and expressiveness of its actors.
The film conveys the narrative primarily through artfully crafted scenes and the physicality and expressiveness of its actors. In the multiple manhunt scenes before his apprehension, Kepe moves silently through cliffs and unforgivable terrain - all while carrying a live sheep on his back. Throughout the film, he sneaks into houses and finds unique - if not stomach-churning - hiding places all for the sake of survival.
Besides the Western iconography, there are sequences of horror, comedy, suspense and tragedy, even a scene of prayer that riffs on sci-fi with its unconventional sound design. The movie commits to its time-jumping, explanation-free approach, but the more straightforward sequences keep us grounded and attentive.
While 'Sew the Winter to my Skin' is lushly shot, the director's emphasis on aesthetics sometimes robs the characters of depth. They seem more like the static subjects of a masterful painting, and the film's limited dialogue compounds the issue.
Despite these somewhat thin characters, 'Sew the Winter to my Skin' is a hypnotic neo-Western film of captivating power, with plenty of sublimely beautiful moments.