In South Africa, the ANC is finally in power. But rather than seeking to punish the perpetrators of human rights abuses, a process of truth telling and reconciliation seeks to restore rights through forgiveness and to rewrite history to acknowledge peoples' sacrifices. Journalists Anna Malan, a married Afrikaans woman from a Free State farming family, and black American Langston Whitfield, meet at the hearings. Soon, many their assumptions about each other and about South Africa are shown to be unfair, as the many complications South Africa faced during this period are explored through their difficult yet warm relationship.
While In My Country is flawed, it is nevertheless deeply moving, and a lot better than many foreign critics have made out.
In My Country - which is based on Antjie Krog's semi-autobiographical novel, Country of My Skull - has been the focus of much criticism since production began since its worldwide release. It's been said that there was no reason to have Juliette Binoche, Samuel L. Jackson and Brendan Gleeson in the starring roles when there are many great South African actors out there. Many overseas critics have said that the TRC scenes are "overdramatic". Other critics slam the film for focussing too much on the romance between Anna and Langstone. Others accuse it of "plot contrivances" and "pandering to overseas audiences." Others question the need to change of the title just because the American public might assume it was a horror movie.
Well, some of this criticism is fair, and with such an emotive issue at the centre of the film, it will probably polarise many viewers. But much of the criticism levelled at the film is simply naive.
Juliette Binoche, with Le Accent Afrikaans isn't always convincing. But she's an amazing screen presence, as is Jackson. Big names draw big audiences, and help make big stars of the (smaller, South African) stars who appear with them.
The TRC scenes, which many American critics say were overblown, are incredibly emotional, and moving. At least, they are if you are a South African, who remembers watching almost identically emotional footage of actual hearings on TV. It's a flashback that's both disturbing and a huge relief, just like it was the first time. The screaming and wailing of the mothers seems real enough, and the moments of forgiveness, unbelievably miraculous as they may seem, are credible. I guess it helps to be African.
Plot contrivances? A plot IS a contrivance, used to make stories less boring. Should African films be simple and honest? No, that's patronising rubbish, thanks very much. The romantic plot of Anna and Langstone's affair provides a personal thread to the movie, a mechanism that allows non-Africans and those who are cynical about grief or embarrassed by it, to understand of the important achievements of the TRC. It's absolutely necessary.
The TRC achieved some important things. It showed South Africans who denied or disbelieved the atrocities perpetuated by the government (and by freedom fighters) that those atrocities and suffering were real. It also provided comfort to the sufferers by publicly acknowledging that their experiences were real. Thirdly, it tried (less than successfully) to assign compensation to the deserving and hold wrong doers accountable.
Anna and Langstone's relationship mirrors this process of discovering "Ubuntu". At first, they're both arrogant and at odds. Although Langstone is actually American, he at first imagines he's African because he's black. For her part, Anna has to come to terms with her denial of what her own people have had a hand in doing. But as the hearings break the characters down and build them up again, they come together. They realise they didn't really know as much as they thought they did. But they also have to pay for their wrongdoings, as do others.
In My Country? The final title may be less poetic than "Country Of My Skull" but it does convey the horror felt by many when they found out what had happened under the calm veneer created by censorship and lies for so many years.
An important message that runs through the film is that nobody is exactly who they at first appear to be, or even who they themselves imagine they are. The film also successfully explores issues of truth, pain, and forgiveness in the context of two characters' lives. In My Country does preach, but it does so in a pragmatic, touching manner. It captures the heart rending experience of looking straight at terrible things that people have done to each other, and from which you may have benefited, without trying too hard to explain it.
The strong supporting cast consists of Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as a very convincing de Jaager, Menzi Ngubane as Anna's sound engineer and supportive friend, and many other recognisable South African stars, including cast members from top local dramady Hard Copy.
The cinematography, which depicts South Africa's beauty and harshness (both human and natural) is unpretentious. Music and dance are used to great atmospheric effect as well as to create many very welcome lighter moments that remind the viewer why this was all worthwhile. Overall, as harrowing as this film can be at times, it's uplifting in the end.
- Jean Barker
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