Poppie Nongena is a South African historical biographical drama about a housekeeper who struggles to keep her family together in the face of inhumane pass laws. Set in Cape Town during the ’70s when South Africa was subject to the Apartheid government, Poppie Nongena is an important and powerful story, based on Elsa Joubert’s ‘The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena’, one of the best African novels of the 20th Century.

Directed by Christiaan Olwagen, whose films include Kanarie, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie and Die Seemeeu, it was a highly anticipated feature film for cinephiles. Olwagen’s continous shots allow him to explore his dramas through free-ranging cinematography. Composing shots, planning meticulous and grand exterior scenes… it’s exhilarating and brilliant to observe and experience.

While the respected filmmaker has developed a strong reputation for himself, Poppie Nongena is one of his more troubled films in terms of continuity. By embracing such brilliant single shot departures, the rest of the film is shown up and made to look inferior and less cinematic. These special moments raise the film’s profile and make it look as accomplished as his international peers. The uneven feel makes for a see-sawing film experience where you’re longing for the bigger scenes.

The screenplay operates according to a similar line. The more intimate interior scenes help move the story along but seem insubstantial next to some of his portrait shots of Poppie Nongena, played by a spirited Clementine Mosimane. Travelling in a bus, closing the film… these shots make it seem as though some longer shots would’ve worked for the drama as well as the crowd scenes.

As an adaptation you imagine that there must have been some pressure to keep the film as close and faithful to the book as possible. Yet, somehow there’s a slight disconnect with Poppie remaining resilient with her guard up in understandably difficult and frustrating circumstances. Operating from this distance, the film is more about events than character and this alienating aspect is further exacerbated by some contrived and stifling drama.

It still has some emotional power, something that Olwagen prefers to allow as a natural side effect rather than a manipulation. The writing enables us to get an inside perspective on her two polar opposite worlds and the government’s stonewalling tactics, but contributes to a stagey feel in the tighter confines. There are some furious scenes that bubble with spontaneity but then there are some that seem stilted. Poppie Nongena’s a slow-moving movie, which could have been more interesting with a touch of humour.

It didn’t have to go full Jojo Rabbit like Taika Waititi did for his Caging Skies adaptation, which turned a sinister drama into a full-blown anti-hate satire. Perhaps if Olwagen had a bit more creative control over the story it would have had a better sense of urgency and intimacy. As it stands, Poppie Nongena is a respectable and relatively safe adaptation, restrained by its flaws and elevated by its touches of brilliance.

A Tale of Two Sides of the Story