Review: Dancing towards a South African storm

BALLROOM dancing has long been a source of easy irony for film-makers - the suggestion that behind the sequinned grins and practised rapture lie competitive envy and petulance. But 'Township Tango' (BBC 2), which started Beloved Country, a new series of documentaries about individual South Africans, managed to refresh the conceit. Their ballroom dancer was a nurse and the off-stage back- stabbing was the real thing.

Frankly, you would have been grateful for something as simple as a stab in the back. Dorothy Mphahlele works at Baragwanath Hospital, which receives the casualties from the combat zone of Soweto. It is also an informal research department into the reckless ingenuity with which one human can harm another. In one scene, in which Dorothy was filmed working the Saturday-night shift, patients lay everywhere, mutilated and damaged (they stick fluorescent stickers marked 'Urgent' on the foreheads of those who might die if they join the queue). A doctor held up an X-ray which revealed that the man moaning on a nearby trolley had the blade of a kitchen knife embedded from the bridge of his nose to the roof of his mouth, a wound which didn't appear to qualify him for a sticker.

Dorothy hadn't escaped such violence herself. She had been out of competition for seven months after being shot in the calf and the film observed her wincing return to the dance floor, an arena where she could briefly forget the violence of everyday life. Even there she couldn't forget politics, because though there are now multiracial competitions, the judges are still white and black dancers have difficulties in finding proper training facilities.

Christopher Terrill, the film's producer, wasn't out to play down the obvious contrasts. The determined glamour of Dorothy's competitions were intercut with film of her boyfriend Mandla S'hlakula at work as a Soweto policeman, scenes which replaced easy-listening favourites with the sound of gunfire. I don't know whether they were simultaneous in real life but they were edited to look that way on screen, delivering a powerful image of the persistence of violence.

Elsewhere, in a scene of mild comedy, you saw how the most innocuously domestic decision has inescapable political consequences. Dorothy wants to move out of Soweto to a larger house and a nicer neighbourhood but Mandla likes the liveliness of the township - as they sit in her tiny, spotless house poring over the property pages they looked like Thelma and Bob from The Likely Lads, bickering about social climbing and local roots. But the suburb in question is Dawn Park, where Chris Hani was assassinated, and Mandla's reluctance was a calculation that staying in Soweto offered better odds of survival if civil war broke out than isolation in a white community. This was no easy decision - policemen are hated figures in the townships and shortly afterwards a colleague was killed in an ambush.

There were moments when the film- makers seemed to have arranged a collision between public and private life - as when Dorothy danced alongside Nelson Mandela at an open air rally that had featured in news reports last year. But for the most part, the overlap between headlines and individual anxieties was entirely natural. 'You know we are going to be like Somalia,' said Dorothy at one point, capturing the nervously apocalyptic mood that pervaded the film. In case you thought she was exaggerating, Terrill flashed up a caption pointing out that 1167 people had died in political violence in the two months following the announcement of an election date. 'Getting killed in South Africa as a black person - you don't even have to think about it, it can happen any time,' she added a little later, and in that case events backed her up rather than statistics - the film ended with the funeral of a member of the dance club, who had been robbed and shot. In tails and tulle his friends performed a melancholy, cramped waltz down the aisle of the church to say goodbye.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?