I’m not a fan of South African films that are heavily social or political in their themes. Often the directors involved with such productions, or the scriptwriters who pen the scripts, focus too much on the issues and forget the fact that people will be paying to watch their film: that – even though the film may be ‘serious’ – it still needs to satisfy certain requirements.

Enjoyment is one of these. Now that may sound like a contradiction, how can you – as an audience member – enjoy or take pleasure in something that is meant to instruct or inform you about a certain issue? Enjoyment, however, is not limited to giggles and laughter only. Enjoyment, for this reviewer at least, has to do more with engagement. How involved do I become when watching a particular film or story?

Beat the Drum, made in 2003, is a cautionary tale about HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa where an attitude of ignorance has caused ‘the disease’, as it is commonly referred to, to spiral out of control. It tells the story of Musa (Junior Singo), a young boy from rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, who after losing his family to ‘the disease’, sets out to find his uncle, and a means of supporting his grandmother, in Johannesburg. As he travels, Musa’s path intersects with many people whose lives have also been touched by ‘the disease’. Whether it be the lonely truck driver, street kids or the seemingly healthy social worker ‘the disease’ affects everyone.

It seems strange to me that scriptwriter David McBrayer would choose to refer to HIV/AIDS as ‘the disease’ in Beat the Drum. As a film that sets out to promote awareness it loses itself in its own dialogue and language and this rhetoric of ‘the disease’ (that is the last time I will say it) portrays the characters in the film as a bunch of bumbling idiots. Their level of ignorance concerning HIV/AIDS is staggering and I can’t help but feel that McBrayer has misjudged the intelligence of his audience completely. Beat the Drum is a film that instead of feeling like it was made in 2003 feels like it was made in 1983. It tells us things we already know and talks down to its viewers in the process.

I don’t for an instant think that ignorance around HIV/AIDS has disappeared nor do I think it will – we still have former government leaders taking showers to protect themselves against it – but Beat the Drum treats the majority of its audience like children. It’s the ABCs of HIV/AIDS.

As far as the story is concerned – with its routine rural to urban migration pattern and Musa getting lost in the big bad city – it’s all-pretty standard. Nothing sticks out apart from the performances from young Singo and his fellow child performers. David Hickson does the best he can with a clunky script and delivers – with the kids – wonderfully at times. The same, however, cannot be said for some of the adult performers who miss the mark completely and give over-blown, melodramatic performances that are, as a result, more comic than serious.

Beat the Drum is yet another example of how South African filmmakers play to their strengths – using social and political issues – in order to secure funding and positions at overseas festivals and screenings. If you search the web you will find quotes from overseas reviewers that make Beat the Drum sound fantastic. I like to call these pity quotes because even if a reviewer, removed from the South African situation, wanted to comment negatively he or she can’t because the serious nature of the film and its good intentions. The film immediately becomes a ‘good film’ because it promotes a good cause.

As a reviewer immersed in the South African climate I can tell you, and have no reservations in doing so, that Beat the Drum is mediocre and extremely uninspired. It offers very little for the audience to become involved with because it simply rehashes the same message that Yesterday did before it. Beat the Drum would be far more successful with a run on local television because more people will see it and as an instructive film that’s what it needs. I fear it will languish at the box office.

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