On the heels of “Get Out,” the racially charged science-fiction/horror film comes “High Fantasy” delving into the poignant and socially relevant race and gender issues confronting the world today. Jenna Bass directs and co-writes this feature film, her second, capturing 4 young adults on a camping trip in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The care-free, fun-loving group find themselves having swapped bodies and deal with the emotional impact of seeing themselves as a different race or sex. The social implications of such a situation are immediately intriguing if not insightful as the group attempts to find meaning behind the transformation.
While South African have their own stories and history of politics, wars, and rebellions, the concept of taking advantage of groups of people and how we view one another is quite universal. Crossing all cultural boundaries, Bass brings to the forefront the concept of land ownership and reparations as she gives each of her characters a unique platform to show their perspectives. All of this is captured using today’s universal technology and ideas—an iPhone and selfies.
It’s a carefree time for these young adults as they joke around, ready to start their adventure of camping on Lexi’s family’s farmland. We quickly cut to individual interviews with a stark white background as we get a glimpse into their future events. One by one, they report that the fun and laughter comes to a screeching halt when the four wake up one morning, realizing they have switched bodies. The story flips back and forth between the events that occurred and the individuals’ recounting of their feelings about it. The impact and sometimes lack of impact is simply enlightening at times and maddening at others. The story unfolds rapidly as the four seem to have lost their edit mode, truly revealing their thoughts about race and gender.
“High Fantasy” doesn’t feel rehearsed—there’s an element of “Blair Witch Project” to it, but the story goes much deeper. And the emotional range goes from one extreme to the other as do the personal revelations. These young people are wrestling with their histories, their ancestry, and their futures, creating a complicated portrayal of life in South Africa. Xoli (Qondiswa James) is the most outspoken and brash of the group, never shy about her opinions, but rather unseeing from another’s viewpoint. Her judgmental and unbending perspective is representative of many people we all know. All of these characters seem to be a compilation of someone we know. Tatiana (Liza Scholtz) gives us a softer and more touching portrayal of what it means to be black and female in South Africa. Tatiana becomes Thami (Nala Khumalo) and gains an even deeper understanding of the opposite sex. Thami becomes female and his insight is the most poignant of the group, but it is Lexi’s understanding that creates the dynamic and jumping off point of conversation about race, racism, and our future.
This is a strong cast of characters. Responsible for portraying not only their one character, but also another’s personality within their body, as well as acting as camera person is remarkable. The weight of the topic and the requirements for these actors is simply extraordinary and they each carry the weight with ease. Thami and Lexi stand out as their personalities change the most. They portray this with body movement, voice, and mannerisms, paying careful attention to the suprasegmental features of speech. While we are seeing Thami and Lexi, we have no question that it is actually their inhabitants, Tatiana and Xoli, respectively.
To find a film that can start a deep and honest conversation while using an initially perceived humorous body swapping concept as the vehicle driving the concept forward, is a unique gem. Stylistically, the film feels as if we are truly privy to the group’s camping expedition and the actors sublimely take on the personality of their inhabitants. Race and racism as well as gender discrimination and male power is as much a part of the conversation as it was 100 or 200 years ago and just as vital to understanding. “High Fantasy,” while frustrating in that there was more to be discovered by each character, it still starts a much needed conversation long after the credits roll.