Finally, Highbrow by Chawezi Chaz Munthali has premiered after a long wait from movie enthusiasts in the country.
Inspired by the Cashgate scandal of 2013 that involved the looting and corruption at Capital Hill, Malawi’s seat of government, the movie aroused people’s interest as it tackles a familiar issue.
The 120-minute movie revolves around a “flamboyant” young man in Lilongwe’s Area 43 who is just appointed the country’s budget director and some powerful civil servants at Capital Hill who help him use the position to steal money through dubious means (Cashgate).
The main source of conflict between the protagonist—the budget director and his fellow senior civil servants and business tycoons on the other hand, is his refusal to help them get money from government through dubious means.
However, despite its quality production, including pictures in high definition, good sound, aerial views, setting, lighting and properties, the movie has many talking points.
While the movie’s strength lies in its production, its weakness is in its plot and storyline. It must be said that the story is the action of the movie and the plot is how the story is told.
A story in any movie ought to show events that logically follow from one another and not haphazardly heaped like jagged peaks without recognisable form or shape.
For a movie based on a true story that most Malawians are familiar with, the scriptwriter should have gone beyond the familiar by adding a touch of creativity to the work. By failing to pick a unique aspect or episode within the Cashgate to build the movie around, the scriptwriter ended up just regurgitating the very same familiar Cashgate story as people know it.
As literary scholar Viktor Shklovisky argues, a good piece of art is that which achieves defamiliarisation, which is when a familiar work/story becomes unfamiliar because of the artist’s value addition.
For instance, in a movie titled Hotel Rwanda, the scriptwriter does not present the history of Rwandan genocide, but focuses on one issue—how people were rescued in a hotel from the civil war. The same can be said of a movie titled Tears of the Sun which was also inspired by the Nigerian Civil War of 1967. The script writer tackles how the American rescue mission operation in South Eastern Nigeria changed. Back home, in the movie titled The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, the focus is on the hunger of 2001/02 season and how a young man made an innovation to beat it.
In these examples, it can be argued that a true story or a book can inspire a writer to produce a movie script. However, a writer should pick one aspect to tell and is also free to use his ingenuity to add colour to it.
The beauty of art is that it is flexible and that gives writers an opportunity to experiment with style and other aspects. But what is presented in Highbrow is a parody of what happened during Cashgate in the capital city.
The failure to come up with a unique storyline is compounded by the disjointed scenes throughout the movie. At one moment the movie opens many scenes which fail to link with one another. Some of these scenes, including the fight scenes, should have been deleted as they add no value to the plot.
It must be said that stories can have one or two plots—a main plot and a sub-plot. However, both plots should have events that move logically. Importantly, a sub-plot supports the main plot or acts as a comic relief, sometimes. This also lacks in Highbrow.
Secondary to plot—the movie’s action—is characterisation, which is also average as the actors did not fully embody the character of those who purportedly took part in Cashgate. This is another point to consider when making a movie based on a true story.
In the movie, it is said the budget director is a flamboyant man who is liked by the ladies, which is indeed portrayed. However, when these qualities are mentioned before his appointment as budget director, one would think they will be used to advance the plot by either fanning the conflict or leading to his downfall. Instead, it is his quarrel with his fellow civil servants that leads to his shooting.
Generally, Cashgate presents a dark side of the country’s public finance management history. It is almost a tragic subject considering the billions of public money that was looted at the expense of poor Malawians. Ironically, the movie depicts a cheerful mood with its endless merry-making events.
Further, the lack of a soundtrack in the movie is conspicuous. Yet, scholars such as Aristotle have written about the importance of music/soundtrack in drama for it creates mood.
Nevertheless, the movie successfully portrays that the love of money (Cashgate) is the root of all evil. The budget director, who brags to be intelligent and represents the highbrow in society, crashes down from his glory when he is shot and linked to the plunder of public money at Capital Hill.
At his peak, he lived a lavish life but reality catches up with him that there is more to life than the pursuit of mundane appetites.
As for the lawyer whom he suspects of hiring the gang to shoot him, he is also dismissed from his ministerial position.
He had great expectations of controlling the budget director, but little did he know that sometimes in life, high hopes can be reduced to heaps of nothing.
Moral of the story is who he lives by the sword, perishes by it.