The very scale of the horrors of colonialism renders it a difficult subject to wholly render in fiction, but fantasy filmmaking – horror and science fiction in particular, arguably – have proven remarkably adept at allegorizing elements of its seemingly never-ending long, nightmarish tail. Around the world, genre films from countries whose history is drenched in the blood of colonial violence have often excelled in reflecting on often complex, sophisticated elements of colonialism and how that has impacted the contemporary cultures in which these films are produced.
With its recent world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Kelsey Egan’s Glasshouse from South Africa is a masterclass in how small-scale fantastic allegory and its world-building potential can provide fertile ground with which to examine the stain of colonialism itself on that country’s cultural imagination. Co-written by Egan and Emma Lungiswa De Wet, the film centers on a mother, her three daughters and her son, who have protected themselves from an airborne contagion called The Shred which has ravaged society, causing a dementia-like condition in those who inhale the infected air.
Protected in the airtight chamber of the film’s title, Mother (Adrienne Pearce), the older sisters Evie (Anja Taljaard) and Bee (Jess Alexander) and their little sister Daisy (Kitty Harris) work to sustain their heavily ritualized existence as they care for Gabe (Brent Vermeulen) who was infected with The Shred when he was younger and whose condition is deteriorating. Sustained by the histories, songs and stories their mother shares with them in order to maintain a sense of both their cultural and individual identities, the arrival of an enigmatic stranger (Hilton Pelser) has a dramatic impact on the two older girls in particular, triggering rivalries, betrayals and a shift in loyalties that will have serious consequences on the way these people live their lives.
Filmed at the exquisite Pearson Conservatory in the Eastern Cape, this real-life colonial relic provides a perfect location with which to tell this tale about how the intersection of memory and ritual can align – and be corrupted – to create a sense of history. Although never articulating colonialism as a central thematic focus of the film, its presence is thus escapable, and Glasshouse excels in its understanding of how the mechanics of genre cinema itself allow them to strip back the specifics of history itself to get at its heart.
How do we remember? Why do we remember the things we do, as individuals and collectively, and what is at stake when those memories are corrupted? A historiographical manifesto framed with all the satisfying trimmings of the dystopian science fiction film, Glasshouse is a thrilling reminder of just how powerful fantastic filmmaking is when placed in the hands of filmmakers who truly understand its power.