Silence often ‘speaks’ louder than words. It breathes, imbues, implies that which cannot be conveyed through dialogue. In Sink, an eerie, tense, and emotionally-charged ‘quiet’ permeates every aspect of the film, producing a striking effect that haunts the viewer.
This multiple award-winning local production is based on director/producer/writer Brett Michael Innes’ novel, Rachel Weeping. It tells the story of a Mozambican domestic worker, Rachel (Shoki Mokgapa) and a tragedy that threatens her whole world and those around her. Rachel has a live-in job with a young couple, Chris (Jacques Bessenger) and Michelle Jordaan (Anel Alexander), in one of Johannesburg’s leafy suburbs. The couple treats Rachel well, and pays for the private pre-school attended by her exuberant five-year old daughter, Maia (Asante Mabuza).
The film opens in the present, with the Jordaans and Rachel sitting at opposite ends of a kitchen table. The stark interior and silence evoke an intense feeling of apprehension, a kind of pervasive dread. It’s been three weeks since the worst thing that could happen to a mother happened: the loss of a child. Rachel’s little girl Maia has died, and though there are hints the Jordaans may be involved in some way, the details of exactly what happened only become clear in a series of flashbacks throughout the film. Chris tells Rachel they would understand if she wanted to quit her job, and that they would compensate her. In barely a whisper, Rachel replies “I’ll stay”. As a foreigner, Rachel is forced to make an awful choice: continue living at the house that reminds her of her devastating loss, or face another loss — her livelihood, her visa, and the financial support she provides for her poverty-stricken parents back in Mozambique. At the same time, the Jordaans, particularly Michelle, are being chewed up by their own guilt. The situation is made even more unbearable when Michelle falls pregnant. It’s clear that something will give, that the string of anger, loss, and guilt will break.
The tension in Sink is built up masterfully as the plot vacillates between past and present. The flashbacks to a happier time come with a sense of impending doom, while in the disquieting present there is a constant threat to the fragile equilibrium the three characters have managed to create. This pervasive unease is achieved both through striking cinematography (a grey, desaturated palette that creates a sombre mood) and phenomenal sound production, the kind of which is rarely achieved in local films. At night, the sound of the swimming pool’s creepy crawly sucking up air, like some cruel monster, haunts both Michelle and Rachel. The clever use of pure silence through much of the film creates something that is intensely visceral. Real life rarely has a soundtrack, and grief cannot be adequately heard in the strings of a violin.
This leaves it up to the actors to convey emotion with sparse dialogue, something they do with skill and aplomb. Lead actress, Anel Alexander, is no stranger to South African films. Her portrayal of Michelle’s oscillation between immense shame and a wish to move on, are heartrending. But it is the singular breakout performance of her fellow lead, Shoki Mokgapa, that is a testament to the incredible talent this country has to offer. Rachel is a woman of few words, and even when happy, she is soft-spoken and gentle. Mokgaba plays Rachel with an almost austere sensitivity. Rachel’s grief is restrained, but all the more potent as her emotions briefly and barely flicker on her face, while she struggles to hold back her immense rage and heartbreak. Her hunched, thin frame carries a mountain of pain that cuts into the viewer. During our interview, Mokgaba’s humility struck me. She never expected to win the Best Actress Award at last year’s Silwerskermfees. And little Asante Mabuza, who plays Maia, is as artless and sparkling as any child actor, anywhere.
Sink is not just a story about that which can divide us, but about that which can bring us together. Even though the film never mentions race or class outright, it doesn’t shy away from unspoken commentary about this very topical issue. However kind the Jordaans may be, their kindness forms an inherent part of their white privilege. Michelle gives Rachel first option to pick from a black bag full of clothes intended for charity, the hand-me-downs a well-intentioned gesture that nevertheless is a stark reminder of the chasm that still divides black and white in South Africa. The Jordaans pay for Maia’s school, where none of the little girl’s friends or their parents know that Rachel, who changes out of her uniform every time she fetches her daughter, is a domestic worker. As gracious as the Jordaans may be, they are rich and Rachel is poor. They have power. She does not. And yet, as Alexander told me, this is still a story about people, one that is universal in the themes it explores: loss, forgiveness, motherhood.
I must add the disclaimer that I can claim Brett Innes as a friend (he was an avid amateur filmmaker even in high school). It’s always difficult reviewing books or films by friends. But, in this instance there was no need to be nervous about being stuck with trying to say something negative in a gentle way. Having read Rachel Weeping, I knew the film’s plot. And yet Sink blew me away. I can say with certainty it is one of the best local films ever made in South Africa, comparable to the likes of Dis ek, Anna, Skoonheid, and the Oscar-winning, Tsotsi. These are great films because they are fearless and don’t hold back. Sink is the same.
Aside from Mokgapa’s win as Best Actress, Sink also won the awards for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Score at Silwerskerm. Sink is part of the official selection for the upcoming Atlanta film festival, and other festivals are showing interest as well.
Sink is immensely powerful, bringing to life Innes’ story in a way that, judging by the red eyes of those who attended the premiere, will stay with the audience long after the credits have rolled.
Director: Brett Michael Innes
Cast: Shoki Mokgapa, Anel Alexander, Jacques Bessenger, Asante Mabuza
Rating: 4½ out of 5
SA release date: 18 March 2016
If you want to know what Brett, Anel, and Shoki have to say about the film, you can find a podcast of my interview with them here.