Journal of Religion and Film

“This is my world!” Son of Man (Jezile) and Cross-Cultural Convergences of Bible and World1

by S. D. Giere
Wartburg Theological Seminary
Dubuque, IA, USA

Vol. 15, No. 1 April 2011

“This is my world!” Son of Man (Jezile) and Cross-Cultural Convergences of Bible and World1

by S. D. Giere
Wartburg Theological Seminary
Dubuque, IA, USA
sgiere@wartburgseminary.edu

Abstract

“This is my world!” is reiterated by the character of Jesus throughout Son of Man (Jezile), a telling of the story of Jesus set in a modern South African township. With dialogue and music primarily in the South African language of Xhosa, for people in the West and perhaps everywhere outside South Africa and Xhosa culture the film is a cross-cultural experience. The telling of Jesus’ story in this cultural setting paints a convergence of the biblical horizon of Jesus stories and the contemporary horizon of the world’s deep brokenness particularized in modern South Africa. This paper examines the film’s portrayals of Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion as cross-cultural translations of biblical texts that send the “reader” back to the biblical text with new and otherwise unavailable insights.

Introduction

[1] “This is my world!” With this phrase, Son of Man (Jezile) makes a claim upon its telling of the Jesus-story2 as one that has to do with this world and the battle between the forces of good and evil, with Jesus being the example and embodiment of the good.

[2] Against the grain of what Richard Walsh identifies as the “Americanized” Jesus who plays in so much of the Jesus-film canon,3 Son of Man tells the Jesus-story in a manner that for Westerners is more cross-culturally analogous to reading the New Testament gospels themselves. The New Testament gospels, after all, are ancient stories about a rabble-rousing rabbi who wanders about Judea and the Galilee during the late Second Temple period in the midst of the imperial power struggles and religious skirmishes of the day. Son of Man sets the Jesus-story in a South African township wherein there are violent struggles for power, for the heart and soul of the people, for justice and truth… where there is a struggle between good and evil – a struggle over the right to claim, “This is my world!”

[3]For those outside Xhosa culture and the recent historical realities of contemporary South Africa, Son of Man provides an artistic, cross-cultural interpretation of the Jesus-story. This paper explores that interpretation, focusing on the film’s cross-cultural reading of Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. Finally, the conclusion explores how this film as a cross-cultural reading sends the careful reader/viewer back to the biblical text with new and otherwise unavailable insights.

[4] One interpretive assumption that I should briefly state has to do with the nature of texts and particularly Scripture. Scripture (not just the Christian Bible) is a relatively stable category; as fundamentally written text, it has the quality, using the language of Paul Ricoeur, of “semantic autonomy.” The text of Scripture is inscribed, and therefore, “the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.”4 As Ricoeur continues, “The text’s career escapes the finite horizon lived by its author. What the text means now matters more than what the author meant when he wrote it.”5 Scripture and its interpretations are rooted in time and place, culture and language, but not limited by the finite reality of the author. Where there are readers, the text will be read and interpreted. In this way, the interpretations of a text belong to the meaning of the text itself. Thus, the artistic, cross-cultural interpretation (re-telling) of the Jesus-story in Son of Man belongs to the Jesus-story.

[5] Released in 2006 by Spier Films (based in London and Capetown),6 Son of Man (Jezile) was directed by Mark Dornford-May, an Englishman, who also co-wrote the film with his wife, Pauline Malefane, and with Andiswa Kedema. Malefane, arguably the star (even heroine) of the film, plays Mary the mother of Jesus. The film’s all-South African cast also stars Andile Kosi as Jesus, Andeis Mbali as Satan, and features the South African music/ theatre troupe Dimpho di Kopane (meaning “combined talents” in Sesotho).7 Filmed entirely in South Africa, Son of Man is unique in that over ninety percent of the dialogue in the film is in Xhosa, a language of the Bantu family spoken by approximately one-fifth of South Africans. Portions of the film’s dialogue – restricted to government officials and news media –are in English, as well as a bit of Latin with a choir singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” at the birth of Jesus.

[6] The film’s narrative operates with ease8 in parallel spaces between the Jesus-story and contemporary South Africa. It is clear that the setting is more than a flat, two-dimensional backdrop; it, too, plays an integral role in the story.

[7] The film stresses a number of tensions within the Jesus-story and sees it primarily as the battle between good and evil. The line between the lived reality of this world and that of the world of angels and demons is blurred. While there is a strong emphasis on justice, solidarity, and peace, it is insufficient to characterize the film solely as a Marxist or Liberationist interpretation of Jesus. The film portrays the battle between good and evil in this world as intimately involving the cosmic forces of good (angels) and evil (Satan). There is a clear emphasis that while Jesus is cognizant of both this-worldly and cosmic forces, he is fully committed to transforming this world. Yet, the distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds is not Western and is  more akin to the worldviews of the New Testament itself.9

[8] Son of Man goes a long way as a counterpoint to the “Americanizing” of Jesus.10 Not only is the film shot and produced away from traditions of Hollywood, the story is also told within a very different cultural world and worldview. While Jesus the individual matters in Son of Man, Mary, the disciples, and the angels play more than supporting roles: The grand redemptive act in the film is when Jesus’ body is pulled from the unmarked grave by Mary, the women, and Hundred (the centurion) and hoisted onto the cross in order to unmask the evil deceptions of corruption. Though this may be the point where the telling of the Jesus-story in Son of Man builds the most friction with the New Testament gospels and Christian doctrinal orthodoxy, it is also the point where the telling most clearly engages the political realities of South Africa—as well as other places11 where the “disappearance” of individuals has been or is used as a governing strategy. Far from an Americanized portrayal of Jesus, perhaps epitomized most graphically by the also-subtitled Passion of The Christ, Jesus is a Xhosa-speaking African who teaches toward justice, heals the sick, raises the dead, cradles infants, dances with angels, and disappears.

[9] What is clear in the film is that the Jesus-story is about this world with all of its cultural and political realities. In this case, Son of Man beautifully and carefully incarnates the story in contemporary South Africa.

Son of Man (Jezile) and the Cross-cultural Reading of Jesus’ Baptism
and Crucifixion

[10] As we look more closely at the cross-cultural readings in Son of Man, we will consider the film’s interpretation of two essential elements of the Jesus-story: Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. While there are examples of both quotation and paraphrase of New Testament texts in Son of Man, it quickly becomes clear to the viewer that Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion are neither quotation nor paraphrase.12Instead, these are examples of cross-cultural translation, both artistically and hermeneutically.

Baptism

[11] The cross-cultural nature of Son of Man includes the portrayal of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in light of the Xhosa ritual of adult male circumcision called Ukwaluka.13 Nelson Mandela, himself Xhosa, writes about the rite:

In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father’s wealth, cannot marry or officiate at tribal rituals. An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal incorporation of males into society. It is not just a surgical procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. As a Xhosa, I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision.14

[12] The Xhosa rite of adult male circumcision is a liminal time when boys become men in their own eyes (self-identification) and in the eyes of the community (corporate-identification). Veiled by a shroud of secrecy for many generations, in recent times the ritual has come under the public scrutiny primarily because of an increasing number of initiates who are disfigured and/or suffering from post-circumcision infection, including HIV/AIDS, which have at times led to death.15

[13] The ritual itself is lengthy, lasting from a few weeks up to six months. Although it includes the actual severing of the foreskin, the rite is more than this one act, for it includes the passage from boyhood into manhood both in the eyes of the initiate and in the eyes of the community as well as an initiation into the oral histories of the Xhosa, including what it means to be a man.16

[14] The rite is complex, but we will note a few elements that are highlighted by the film. The initiates, in their late teens or early twenties, begin by washing in a local river.17 The actual circumcision takes place early in the ritual. Just after the surgeon, the inchibi, cuts the foreskin, he says to the initiate, “Yithi uyindoda,” or “[Say] you’re a man!” At which point the initiate shouts, “Ndiyindoda!” or “I’m a man!”18 In addition to this verbal recognition of his new status as a young man, he also receives a new name.

[15] At this stage the young men are called abakwethaaba means ‘group’ and kwetha means ‘learning.’ As abakwetha, they spend the next weeks or months together secluded from regular society. During this time of physical healing the young men are smeared with a white clay or chalk as a symbol of their new purity, and they are brought further into manhood by learning the histories and mysteries of the Xhosa men. The first midnight following the circumcision, the abakwetha are woken and sent out of the hut into the dark of the night to bury their foreskins. In Mandela’s words, “The traditional reason for this practice was so that our foreskins would be hidden before wizards could use them for evil purposes, but, symbolically, we were also burying our youth.”19
[16] When the period of seclusion comes to an end and the young men are on the verge of reentering the community, other, older men bring them again to the river where they are again washed. This time, however, they are anointed with a mixture of red clay and fat or butter. Their hair is shaved, and they receive a new blanket.20 The return of the young men to their homes is marked by a large party with both men and women. For now in the eyes of Xhosa society, the young man may marry, establish a household, be taken seriously, and be in leadership within the community. During the six months the young men dress smartly in a style akin to that found in the English countryside.21

[17] The images in the baptism/temptation scene in Son of Man22 are striking and unmistakable glimpses into the Xhosa rite of adult male circumcision. This is Jesus’ baptism – a translation of this liminal moment in the New Testament gospels into an analogous liminal moment in Xhosa culture.

Crucifixion

[18] As with Jesus’ baptism, Son of Man’s telling of Jesus’ crucifixion differs significantly from the New Testament gospels. In short, at the “garden” Jesus is abducted and “disappears.”23 After this he is tortured and dumped in an unmarked, rural grave, where his boots are removed as something of value. He is shot and buried. Jesus’ grave is later identified to his mother and other women by Hundred, the centurion. They remove his body, return it to the city, and place it upon the cross for all to see. What was concealed – the corruption and violence that ultimately result in Jesus’ death – is now revealed in the full light of day in Jesus’ body hanging on the cross. The crucifixion is clearly central to Son of Man’s interpretation of the whole of the Jesus-story, and is in some sense redemptive—but it does not follow the New Testament sequence of events.

[19] Before getting to the crucifixion itself, it is important to consider an earlier scene24 in which the film first begins to read Jesus’ crucifixion in light of disappearance. The scene combines a glimpse of Jesus’ teaching and a version of the healing of the paralytic,25 who in the film is a young boy. Jesus’ teaching in the scene crescendos as he says, “When you are told, and you will be, that people just ‘disappear,’ you must say we have been lied to. And evil will fall.” As Jesus finishes saying this, a panel of the ceiling is opened, the sick child (the paralytic) is lowered into Jesus’ arms, and the child is healed.

[20] The convergence of this statement about disappearance, deception, and the fall of evil together with the healing of a child is no coincidence. After listening to the testimony of the mothers of Gugulethu Seven, seven young men, black South Africans, murdered by security forces, white and black, on 3 March 1986,26 it is impossible to speak of children in this context as mere symbols. Real, flesh- and-blood children died, leaving grieving families and their own children orphaned. At the same time, the children are the hope for the future. The convergence of Jesus’ teaching and in particular his mention of disappearance and the fall of evil is directly related to the healing of a child.27

[21] The next step in the film’s reading of the crucifixion in relation to disappearance comes in a scene in which Pilate meets with the Elders, Annas and Caiaphas, together with one of their henchmen who is also the Satan-figure, and Judas.28 Annas and Caiaphas show Pilate videotaped evidence of Jesus’ revolution – a portion of an earlier scene of Jesus’ teaching that concludes with his call, “Let us unite. Solidarity! Unity!” Pilate, not impressed, says there is nothing he can do. Annas says to him, “Then let us deal with him.” Pilate, pouring himself a glass of water, says, “It will have nothing to do with me if he disappears.” Reminiscent of Matthew 27.24, the water overflows the glass and Pilate is shown drying his hands.

[22] Disappearance here is located in the political reality.29 While there is not a white face in the whole of the film, the film is a commentary on the era of Apartheid or its residue.30 In fact, the policies established by F.W. de Klerk, known as the “Total Strategy,” emphasized the use of vigilantes, like the film’s Elders, in order to stir up “black-on-black” violence within the townships. The targets of the vigilantes’ violence were the same as and coordinated with that of the security forces, and the violence created by these vigilantes was “evidence” that the security forces needed to use violence in order to maintain what has been called a “violent stability.”31 In the film, the calculated role of the vigilante is apparent. While there are no white faces, there are white Apartheid “strategies”32 – strategies distinct but not unique to South Africa.

[23] Disappearance is the primary interpretive lens for the crucifixion.33 When Jesus’ bloodied, lifeless body is hoisted up on a cross,34 the violence and death within which the people are living and dying is revealed. Beneath Jesus’ body his mother Mary sings, “The land is covered in darkness.”

[24] As a crowd begins to gather beneath the cross of Jesus and more and more voices are added to Mary’s defiant song, they begin to dance. The dance is specific. It is toyi-toyi.35 In video footage of the funerals for the Craddock 4 and the Gugulethu 7, one sees thousands of people chanting and singing and dancing toyi-toyi through the streets.36 It is a dance of protest in the face of power. Combined with singing, toyi-toyi defies. In the words of South African musician Hugh Maskela: “Because you can’t beat this people physically, you scare the shit out of them with the songs.”37 Together with the singing of Mary, Hundred, the disciples, and the others gathered beneath Jesus’ cross, they toyi-toyi in the face of the powers that represent the threat of bodily harm and the continued concealment of the truth about disappearance.

[25] The crucifixion in Son of Man may well also be in conversation with the principle of “restorative justice” that governed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The actions of Mary, which are facilitated by Hundred—one of those responsible for Jesus’ death—begin the process of truth-telling. Hundred tells Mary of her son’s death, helps her find Jesus’ body, and himself with the others sings and dances toyi-toyi beneath Jesus’ cross and in the face of the forces that would silence them. While there is this move toward restorative justice with Mary and Hundred, there is also an acknowledgment of the incomplete nature of the process. In short, there are still powers that are bent on concealing. Here the Jesus-story comments on restorative justice and exemplifies the (incomplete) move toward reconciliation.38

Conclusion

[26] “This is my world!” These words encapsulate Son of Man’s cinematic telling of the Jesus-story – a telling deeply and powerfully rooted in and shaped by the contextual. This film is a welcome addition to the canon of Jesus films. In addition to being aesthetically amazing, emotionally engaging, and intellectually stimulating, it provides a fine artistic piece of cinema and jostles with the so-often “Americanized” Jesus of Hollywood.

[27] All that said, Son of Man as a retelling of the Jesus-story drives the viewer back to the text itself with insights, questions, and perhaps even answers.

[28] The two bits of the film which have occupied the bulk of this paper, Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion, deviate extensively from the New Testament narratives. For the baptism scene there is no John the Baptist, no dove, no voice from heaven. Rather, the baptismal story is told and depicted in terms of the ancient Xhosa cultural liminal rite of adult male circumcision.

[29] It is from Jesus’ baptism/circumcision that he is able to begin his public ministry, for without it in Xhosa culture he would not be a man. Also important is that his temptation is located within the ritual period. Of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the synoptic gospels,39 Matthew and Mark move seamlessly from baptism to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Luke, however, inserts Jesus’ genealogy between baptism and temptation.40 One might surmise that the film here is closest to Luke’s telling. Sandwiched between Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Luke’s genealogy ultimately identifies Jesus as “son of Adam, son of God.” This is perhaps analogous with the initiation into the histories and mysteries of Xhosa culture which the abakwetha receive post-circumcision.41

[30] For the crucifixion, things are seemingly out of order. There are no other criminals; there is no bodily resurrection. Rather, Jesus’ death and crucifixion—for we cannot speak of them in the same way in this film as in the New Testament gospels—are respectively the result of evil and the answer to corruption. His crucifixion unmasks the evil and violence inherent in disappearance. In the film’s telling, there is a move with Hundred, the centurion, and Mary the mother of Jesus toward restorative justice. Perhaps one of the primary thrusts of the film is this transformation of Hundred, the centurion, with the echo of the centurion’s claim in Luke’s telling, “Certainly this man was right.”42

[31] This move toward restorative justice raises an important question regarding the redemptive and reconciling nature of Jesus’ death and the cross. Just where is the locus of the redemptive and/or reconciling activity here? It does not seem that it is Jesus’ death itself, but rather his crucifixion. It is the uncovering of the evil—the lies have been exposed, just as Jesus taught earlier in the film. The crucifixion as portrayed in the New Testament gospels and more generally detailed in other ancient texts was a culturally specific weapon—an instrument of death imposed by political authority. Jesus, as he was crucified, was flanked by common criminals. At Pilate’s behest, Jesus’ crime and Pilate’s taunt of the Jewish leaders hung above Jesus’ head, “King of Jews.” Jesus’ crucifixion was within the tradition of Rome, what Josephus called “the most pitiable death.”43 Son of Man makes it possible to draw the analogy between crucifixion in the ancient world as an instrument of execution and Jesus’ “disappearance” in the film. One can hear Josephus’ ancient description of crucifixion as à propos also for disappearance. The film, however, does not seem to locate the redemptive and/or reconciling element of the story in Jesus’ death.44 Rather, the redemptive moment is in Jesus’ crucifixion, when something like restorative justice is evident between the dead man’s mother and his killer and when the truth of it all is revealed. In this way Son of Man interprets Jesus’ cross in terms of John 12.31-32, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."45 And John 8.32: “… and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus’ revelation on the cross overcomes the political authority of disappearance and ratifies his claim in the film, “This is my world!”

[32] Son of Man as film is a work of art which both creates a reality and participates in that which it interprets. With all the disturbing beauty that this film is, as a work of art and as a Jesus-story it drives the viewer back to the text having walked in the Jesus-story (at least for Westerners) in a foreign land.


Grouped Notes

FILM CREDITS
Son of Man


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