It took me several days to think about how I was going to write this review. Largely because it took me a while to actually comprehend what was going on with this South African movie adaptation by Zola Maseka based on the popular novel by Zakes Mda. Normally, a movie that requires this amount of thinking is a sign of something thought-provoking and intelligent. Sadly, with the Whale Caller, it’s because nothing makes sense – including your reasons for watching this movie in the first place.
The Whale Caller was actually directed and released way back in late 2016 to film festivals, but it’s taken almost a full 18 months for the film to finally make its way round to local audiences in the form of a DVD. It’s been an unusual release process but when you watch it – you start to realise why. As it’s a film which must clearly have been a hard sell to cinemas and distributors and it’s no surprise many people didn’t take them on in releasing it.
The Whale Caller is essentially the story of a love triangle between a Hermanus whale caller (Sello Maake Ka-Ncube), a woman named Saluni (Amrain Ismail-Essop) and his beloved whale Sharisa (yes you read that correctly). It’s a story quite rich with allegory and symbolism, but if you’re like me and haven’t read the book, you’re probably not going to get it because the movie does a poor job at trying to portray all of this to you. I still do not know why the whale caller feels so passionately about his beloved whale, have no clear reason why he and Saluni were drawn to each other and even less Saluni’s strange behaviour throughout the whole movie.
It’s a perplexing and strange film which gets completely lost in the visual spectacle Maseka puts on here. To his credit, the film does feature some decent visual effects for a low-budget film and it’s clear that at times the director is reaching for a vision that is perhaps beyond the scope of what he is able to accomplish. It’s just a pity that it is all lost by some frankly terrible story-telling. The film makes no effort to establish its characters and their motives and there are just too many jumps between plot points to often understand how the film fits together or behave the way they do.
Which is especially true for the character of Saluni who seems to veer from wild drunkard, to insecure lover, to responsible care-taker of two children, to aspiring artist with little connection between the different moods. At one moment she is in love, the next moment she is filled with insecurity and jealousy towards a silly whale, despite the man going out of his way to love her. Sometimes she is sober; sometimes she is drunk. And why she drinks – you never know. Throw in her character just swearing at everything for the sake of it and you have an idea of what to expect. It almost feels as if they had no clue what to do with the character and perhaps if they had just let actress Amrain Ismail-Essop do random things and film them instead her character might have landed up making more sense.
It’s a pity, because although I have not read the book myself, its reputation is that of a story with a lot of depth and is undeserving of an adaptation such as this one. Maseka has proven before that he is a fantastic director this with his 2004 film Drum. The result of this film is perhaps an experience that should’ve best been left to the stay where its lose narrative and artistic style might have been more appreciated than on film which requires a lot less avant-garde and more substance to be watchable. That its pacing is so frustratingly slow only adds to what becomes a complete bore-fest.
If you haven’t read The Whale Caller, I wouldn’t’ recommend this movie because it will likely confuse you. And if you have, it’s probably still a good idea to stay well clear as this film may tarnish its image for you.
Last Updated: February 26, 2018