Western Civ gets a brutal debunking courtesy of this South African expat auteur
The titles of Ian Kerkhof’s films are both seduction and warning about what to expect from the underground cinema’s baddest bad boy: The Boy Who Masturbated Himself to a Climax, Confessions of a Yeoville Rapist, and Ten Monologues from the Lives of the Serial Killers, for example. Kerkhof is highly controversial in Europe but almost unknown here, though that may be changing with the help of a major profile in Artforum magazine and scattered retrospectives (most recently one at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in March 2000). Wasted is the title of one of his films, an inside look at the Dutch rave scene, but also says much about his career and worldview.
Kerkhof emigrated — more properly, fled — his native South Africa for the Netherlands at age 19 to protest apartheid and avoid the draft. Since then he’s carved out a career with a hitherto unseen combination of agitprop, hardcore sex and thus loads of nudity (including men), performance art, and technological edgeplay. Most of his films, shorts and features, are shot on digital video using that format’s full range of effects — strobing, double-exposures, pixelation, hyperspeed editing — and then blown up to 35mm. Kerkhof is so imaginative and expert in his visual manipulations it’s possible to mistake him from a techno-geek, but the content shows he’s far from the self-absorption that phrase implies.
His most recent feature, for example, Shabodama Elegy, was made in collaboration with “pink movie” producer Suzuki Akihiro and stars Japanese porn queen Mai Honisho as Keiko, the girlfriend of a hunky Dutch gangster trying to escape from some yakuza. The escape mostly involves hardcore sex scenes shot through color filters, sometimes pixelated, and otherwise manipulated to both seduce and unsettle the viewer. Kerkhof forces us to confront the effects of rape and violence against women in grueling scenes of abuse, some staged, some lifted from porn footage, including an especially taxing close-up “facial” that Keiko endures. For Kerkhof, rape is the pared-down essence of male institutions oppressing not just women but any marginalized group they engage. This is not to say this film, or any of them, is mere propaganda. Kerkhof’s energy, his kaleidoscopic imagery, leaves the viewer breathless — if indeed there’s a viewer left standing by the end. The films are as difficult and demanding as the lives of the characters who inhabit them, and his visual assaults are aimed at both those characters and an audience complicit in what he sees as a kind of easy, almost unconscious fascism that can spring up anywhere, anytime.
Kerkhof’s nothing if not versatile, and in Nice to Meet You, Please Don’t Rape Me, he tackles the musical, though fans of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire may bristle at the thought. The title is also the theme song of the film, a hammering satire of a South Africa in which citizens are trained to assault each other and “rape is the only growth industry.” Kerkhof gets points for sheer brio, for example, having his three male stars prancing around naked on a rooftop as they plan their assault on the status quo and themselves. (The opening scene is one in which a black man demands a white man rape him — which he does.) Audiences in Burkina Faso, where the film was shown recently, apparently couldn’t get out of this film fast enough.
Unseen by this reviewer but surely provocative is the documentary Ten Monologues from the Lives of the Serial Killers (1993). This one apparently combines found footage, including porn imagery, with extracts from J. G. Ballard’s infamous “Atrocity Exhibition” and the ramblings of such luminaries in the serial killer realm as Ted Bundy and the inevitable Charles Manson. This film too reportedly sends some viewers stampeding toward the exits.
Kerkhof has associations with some of today’s most cutting-edge artists: Japanese “noisician” Merzebow, who’s scored several of his films; self-lacerator Ron Athey, immortalized by Kerkhof in Ron Athey: It’s Scripted; and conceptual artist Matthew Barney, the subject of The Emperor’s New Clothes. These are shorter films (20 minutes or so), a length well suited to Kerkhof’s talents and certainly easier on the audience. Still, he can produce harrowing effects even on a small canvas. Dead Man 2imagines western civilization as a drooling, pathetic old white man wandering through a postapocalyptic bar begging for degradation via golden showers and other dubious pleasures. The film’s opening hardcore scene — queer edgeplay taken to an extreme not seen outside underground gay s&m porn — may make some viewers wish they’d snuck in late.