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Shepherds and Butchers

2016-10-28 09:33

What it's about:

South Africa, 1987. When Leon, a white 19-year-old prison guard, commits an inexplicable act of violence, killing seven black men in a hail of bullets, the outcome of the trial, and the court’s sentence, seems a foregone conclusion.  Hotshot lawyer John Weber reluctantly takes on the seemingly unwinnable case. A passionate opponent of the death penalty, John discovers that young Leon worked on death row in the nation’s most notorious prison, under traumatic conditions, befriending the inmates over the years while having to assist in their eventual executions. As the court hearings progress, the case offers John the opportunity to put the entire system of legally-sanctioned murder on trial.

What we thought:

Despite the controversy that surrounded the film at this year’s Durban International Film Festival, Shepherds and Butchers is a South African masterpiece (though production consisted of a variety of nationalities) that tackled one of the darkest elements of the Apartheid regime – the death penalty. The last person to be executed in South Africa was in 1989, with it officially being abolished in 1995, and was a big victory for our young democracy. Unfortunately, there are still many who wish for it to be brought back, and if you fall into that category, you really need to see this film.

Based on the book by advocate Chris Marnewick, young Apartheid-era prison guard Leon (Garion Dowds) is charged with a multiple homicide and faces the death penalty. Anti-death penalty activist Johan Webber (Steve Coogan) takes on his case, and attempts to prove that working on death row caused Leon’s dangerous breakdown.

Though a great film, it is a very dark story, and one of the most emotionally taxing ones I have seen in a while. Although there’s no question of the accused’s guilt, the court case delves into the reasons behind why the tragedy occurred, and whether the prison guard should be held accountable for his actions. So many emotional layers are targeted throughout the film, and the audience is dragged along this nightmarish ride. The flashbacks drops you right into the mind of Leon, and it’s hard to distance yourself from the character. I can only imagine what the actor himself had to go through to perfect the role, and he delivers a performance that will make you cry until nothing is left. 

Although set during Apartheid, little about the regime is mentioned which makes for a nice change of pace. Everyone knows how terrible Apartheid was and the various atrocities they committed, and the filmmakers understand that this doesn’t have to be emphasised again for the audience. This makes for a very focused film that doesn’t detract from the subject matter at hand, though some might have problems with its focus on a white man’s trauma instead of the black men he killed. I would argue that the black people’s pain came through very poignantly through the executions scenes, especially the riot scene, and that their voices are still heard. The film is more about the trauma of being part of executions on a daily basis, rather than the race relations of that era, and this should be kept in mind while watching it. 

If you are a sensitive person, the portrayal of the executions will be difficult to sit through. Raw, horrifying and miserable, it’s terrible to realise that humans are capable of such atrocity. The fact that the people being executed were criminals did not lessen the impact at all. It wasn’t so much the visuals as the sound effects that gave it such authenticity, and it ended up playing a major part of the story. The fact that a government would engage in such a vile act makes one weep for humanity in general.

Coogan and Dowds made a formidable team and the South African held his own against the veterans, both delivering remarkable performances in Shepherds and Butchers. It’s strength lies in these performances that drive home the human injustice that is the death penalty, not only for the doomed prisoner but also for the executioner. 

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