When you watch High Fantasy you may already be armed with some knowledge of how it was shot and made – a collaborative writing effort filmed entirely on an iPhone 7. That’s right: not even the latest iPhone.
It’s confusing at first. Has there been a grave mistake? The footage appears raw and unedited, jumpy, badly lit, random … exactly how it would if you or one of your friends had been holding the phone in a car on a road trip.
This, along with the premise of body-swapping (the reason for which, and the subsequent reversal of which, is never explained, keeping it merely as a means to an end), serve as the tools for creating a story with hard-hitting truths and relevant topics explored in exactly the best way for it to be understood by the teenagers and young adults in modern-day South Africa.
Simply put, High Fantasy taps into the still-current-with-no-sign-of-abating trend of selfies and recording every minute action on smart phones, while delving deeper into uncomfortable issues.
The cast is comprised of four young South Africans, representing the zeitgeist of our “Rainbow Nation” – a concept that, 25 years after the birth of our democracy, is not necessarily accepted by everyone, as the film reveals.
Racial and gender harmony are not quite what they seem, and true empathy is impossible without walking in someone else’s shoes – or their body, as the case may be.
In the car on this camping trip to the middle of nowhere are Lexi (Francesca Michel), and her two best friends – politically radical Xoli (Qondiswa James) and happy-go-lucky Tatiana (Liza Scholtz). Without telling the others, she’s also invited a new male friend, Thami (Nala Khumalo), whose rampant chauvinism puts everyone on edge.
Each of these strong yet flawed personalities comes with baggage, from white privilege to the notion that post-apartheid South Africa, where everyone gets along, is just a fantasy.
This scene is set in the first 20 minutes of the movie, and the next thing you know, the four friends wake up the next morning in each other’s bodies.
The first thing anyone would do is look inside their pants, followed by filming and photographing the phenomenon. Here, Xoli is freaked out by having Lexi’s hair, and Tatiana has to get a grip (so to speak) on having Thami’s anatomy.
The events that follow are interspersed with mockumentary interviews with each of them as they dissect the results of the body swap, and perhaps more importantly, the feelings and emotions evoked, which give them unique new perspectives on themselves and their place in the world – which will never be the same again.
Director Jenna Bass began with only the thinnest of concepts (“We didn’t have any character descriptions. We hardly had a synopsis”), and after the superb cast had been assembled, the script was workshopped in a collaboration; the actors also contributed to the filming and the result is a startlingly natural portrayal of their characters, which draws the viewer into their world.
“The young audience for High Fantasy doesn’t only have an appetite for genre, but for its subversion,” says Bass.
“As television, rightly so, raises the expectation of mould-breaking and structural surprise, High Fantasy does likewise.
“What could be less expected than, if in the middle of a body-swap narrative, the characters are returned to their original bodies? What could possibly remain of the story? But this is indeed the tale that High Fantasy has to tell: how its characters deal (or fail to) with the aftermath of this supernatural event, and how what began as hilarity now has very real, dark consequences.”
“How appropriate that this perfectly mirrors the story of our country, where the happy ending of the Rainbow Nation miracle in 1994 was really only the middle of a much longer, more painful story, one in which reconciliation remains as elusive as ever.”
High Fantasy was well-received at numerous international festivals ahead of its big-screen South African release in November 2018, being hailed as “ingenuous” by NOW magazine following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year. At the 2018 Durban Film Festival, it was awarded Best South African Feature, as well as the Award for Artistic Bravery.