Everybody’s Into Weirdness: LOST IN THE DESERT (1969)
The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The thirty-second entry into this disreputable canon is the traumatizing South African kid’s film, Lost in the Desert…
Alternate Title: Dirkie
Trailers: Starbird and Sweet William; The Secret of Magic Island
When you’re a kid and your dad tells you to do something, you best do it. This rule still applies when you’re the son of a writer/director who, for reasons that can only be explained via crass capitalism (adventure films were something of a fad during the early '70s), needs you to star in his nutso film about a plane crash in the Kalahari desert. Such is life for Wynand Uys, whose father Jamie Uys (eventual helmer of The Gods Must Be Crazy duology), cast him as the eponymous lead of Dirkie – Lost in the Desert (which was the full international moniker). What the movie really should’ve been titled is Child Trauma: The Motion Picture, as Young Master Wynand is forced to endue a plethora of painful happenings, all in the name of Daddy’s art. Ostensibly the cinematic equivelant of a papa pushing his too scared son over the edge of a diving cliff when he’s refusing to jump, Lost in the Desert is absolutely terrifying.
The setup is simple, if more than a touch absurd. After Dirkie receives a poor bill of health from the family physician, his widower father (played by Jamie Uys, which feels somewhat like an admission of abuse culpability) sends the boy off to live with a relative in the desert, hoping that the dry air will clear out his tiny lungs. Unfortunately, the farmer flying the two-seater plane has a heart attack while Dirkie is asleep in the co-pilot seat, clutching his adorable terrier, Lolly (played by Lady Frolic of Belvedale, who has the greatest K-9 name ever conceived). The craft crash-lands just outside the dunes of the Kalahari, leaving Dirkie and Lolly to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, the boy’s father finds himself on the other end of a radio, desperately trying to monitor the situation and communicate with his son. Unfortunately, the batteries in the wounded plane’s receiver are about to run out, threatening to disconnect Dirkie and his fluffy beast from the rest of society.
The remaining seventy or so minutes of Lost in the Desert are devoted to scaring the ever-living shit out of Dirkie, as he must first fend off hyenas by attempting to not fall asleep, and then accidentally blows up the plane whilst trying to start a warming fire (thus rendering the whole battery situation a mute dramatic point). Really, Uys’ movie is a series of escalations and too real reaction shots, as young Wyanad really seems to be perturbed by everything he’s being asked to do in front of the camera. Meanwhile, Dirkie’s father is surrounded by South African military figures, all of who seem to have never received a day of sensitivity training during their careers. As the grieving pop attempts to keep his shit together, decorated officers and advisors leer at him and tell him to “give up”. His son is “lost” and there’s “no hope” of recovery, no matter how much of his life savings he pours into printing leaflets to shower the wilderness with, hoping Dirkie will pick one up and discover that there are, in fact, a legion of forces searching for him. The callousness of these government servants is almost as spectacular as Dirkie’s ordeal.
Adding a layer of discord to this awful trial is the artful way in which Uys depicts the Kalahari. Though the landscape is harsh and unforgiving, the writer/director (along with cinematographers Herman Esterhuizen and Johann Schutte) discovers pockets of beauty within the windswept Hellscape. A muddy watering hole becomes a temporary oasis for Dirkie and the dog, diving in before being scared off by a gigantic elephant. Were the movie mired by a constant sheen of ugliness, it’d perhaps be harder to sit through (especially once Lolly becomes a hyena’s chew toy). However, Uys never forgets that a journey through a foreign environment, pitiless as it may be, should also be revelatory for both the adventurer and the audience. We’re experiencing a world we’ve never seen before, through the eyes of pure innocence. No matter how shocking certain scenes may be, they’re balanced out by a true sense of discovery.
Lost in the Desert is highly unusual, in that it presents harrowing events with the same chaste bubbliness as something like Homeward Bound. It’s a kid’s movie that never seems to fully consider just how upsetting it could be for the intended audience. Yet once you consider Jamie Uys’ insertion of both himself and his own son, Lost in the Desert suddenly takes on a deeply personal air, as if the filmmaker weren’t making the movie for anyone beyond the two of them. Keeping this in mind, the movie actually fits more into the arena of outsider expression, containing the unique point of view of an artist who is working through some deep-seated issues. While attempting to deconstruct artistic intent is usually a fool’s errand, perhaps the sole motivation behind making Lost in the Desert together was so that the kin could spend more time together creating something that would last far beyond their own years? However, through this (presumably somewhat forced) collaboration, what results is a weird cinematic distillation of awkward parental instruction, delivered via celluloid. Grounds for a call to South Africa’s Division of Child Services? Possibly. But we’re all the better for receiving this oddball all-ages trip into an arid apocalypse.
This Week at Weird Wednesday: Massacre of Pleasure
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers; Message From Space; Rabid; Child’s Play