“Nommer 37 is a movie about people, not gangsters,” goes the line director Nosipho Dumisa has been repeating in interviews about her Alfred Hitchcock-inspired film. It is a bit hackneyed for a film that doesn’t need to explain its Cape Flats setting.
But Dumisa (of Gambit Films), a Cape Town resident born and raised in KwaZulu-Natal, understands something about the import of that location and the potential pitfalls that could come with an outsider’s take on it. She appreciates that “the stakes are just higher” in the Flats, and the burden of authenticity perhaps more palpable than in many other settings.
Nommer 37 is an adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1952 film Rear Window. The main difference between the two is that Nommer 37 is shot on location whereas Rear Window was done in a studio.
Most of it, in fact, takes place inside the flat that Pam (Monique Rockman) and her partner Randal (Irshaad Ally) move into to evade Emmie (Danny Ross), a loan shark who lent Randal money for a drug deal. This, alluded to in the beginning of the movie, goes wrong, leaving Randal paralysed, his friend Lester dead and a debt he needs to settle before his grace period from Emmie is up.
In an effort to help her now paraplegic partner pass the time while she is at work, Pam buys him a pair of binoculars, setting off his initially inadvertent spying on his neighbours in the building across from his. Blessed with unlimited time, Randal makes swift progress, zeroing in on the activities of Lawyer (David Manuel) and his cohorts.
The ruthless Lawyer murders a crooked cop and stashes the money they were going to exchange inside the flat usually populated by members of his crew. Randal follows it so intently that he even has a ballpark estimate of the amount, triggering an extortion scheme in his mind.
Taking a leaf out of Hitchcock’s book, the pacing of Nommer 37 is deliberately slow, building momentum as the paralysed Randal ropes in his close circle, namely Pam, who initially wants none of it, and Warren (Ephram Gordon), a jittery character who lives in the same building with Lawyer and his crew. What is seemingly a predictable, relatively simple score comes up against a number of obstacles, cranking up the film’s pace and the levels of suspense.
The cinematography in Nommer 37 is of prime importance. The chief protagonist is in a wheelchair and much effort is made to portray his new environment from his perspective, more psychologically than physically.
But there are also a fair number of physical cues involved. The audience adopts his vantage point through the rounded frame of his binoculars. The claustrophobia engulfing Randal is made all the more real by red and maroon walls that give a sense of foreboding. All else is dark in his world — his prospects, the hallway outside and the deep recesses of his mind from which an escape must be sought.
Because of Randal’s disability, it is Pam who must do his dirty work, which she carries out with a gusto that betrays her core values. Besides the film’s ever-thickening plot, it is the portrayal of Pam and to some extent Gail February (a play-it-by-the-book cop played by Sandi Schultz) that had me mulling over the film after its closing credits.
Dumisa frames the women in the film as almost the opposites of their male counterparts, offering to a degree an examination of how performances of masculinity drive some of the issues prevalent in our society, be it in systematically oppressed communities such as “New Haven” or elsewhere.
It is a complex and troubling portrayal that wrestles with naivety and agency. When Gail’s partner (a corrupt policeman) is murdered, she has to reckon with her own idealistic (if unrealistic) view of the law as being above all else in her work environment. The other, less prominent women are also proxies for male desires and whims. Depending on what informs your opinion, the trope of women as sacrificial lambs for the redemption of men may or may not sit well but it is to some extent a byproduct of Dumisa’s own world view.
Nommer 37 is undoubtedly a slick and entertaining film with gutsy performances from its principal cast.
It is also one in which the setting functions as a protagonist and vehicle for sociopolitical commentary. Dumisa’s caution as an outsider makes Nommer 37 a safe film, alveit one that executes well within its limits.