May 2, 2005

In My Country

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In My Country, directed by John Boorman, explores the emotional aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. Based in part on a memoir by Afrikaner poet Antjie Krog, the film follows the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the purpose of which was to confront and move beyond the atrocities committed during the era of apartheid. Controversially, the Commission granted amnesty to all perpetrators who offered full disclosure of their crimes, on the condition that they could prove that they were following orders and that their crimes were politically motivated. The goal was to promote healing in accordance with “Ubuntu”, the African value of forgiveness, rather than to simply punish the guilty.

Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche play journalists covering the proceedings of the Commission. Jackson portrays Langston Whitfield, an American reporter who initially questions the offer of amnesty given to perpetrators of such brutal violence. Binoche plays Anna Malan, an Afrikaner poet and journalist who, in contrast to Whitfield, at first naively believes that the Commission will help black and white South Africans move happily forward as an integrated society. Along with Malan’s sound engineer, Dumi (Menzi Ngubs Ngubane), they travel from village to village, hearing the stories of the thousands of witnesses who are testifying about the atrocities committed against them. Malan soon comes to realize the role that she and her Afrikaner family played in the perpetuation of violence against blacks, largely through her own indifference. In this way, the movie takes a bold step by focusing mostly on the emotional fragility of white South Africans, exploring the psychological effects of being part of a violently repressive minority.

The stress of covering such horrific material bears on both Malan and Whitfield, who have an affair after Malan melts down emotionally during one of the Commission hearings, disturbingly laughing and then crying at the story of a white family blown apart by a landmine planted by black rebels. The affair between Whitfield and Malan, both of whom are married with children, is an obvious attempt to transpose the reconciliation between black and white South Africans into the context of an interracial relationship.

While In My Country raises some important questions about the guilt of passive Afrikaners such as Malan and about the best course for reconciliation following such a history of violence, these themes could have been explored in a more cohesive storyline. The romance between Whitfield and Malan, along with the attempts to partially develop too many peripheral characters, in the end bogs down the flow of the movie. The lack of rhythm and continuity is heightened by the occasional jump to an ongoing interview between Whitfield and Colonel De Jager (Brenden Gleeson), one of the most notorious apartheid enforcers. The constant shifting from one short scene to another produces a heavily disjointed effect.

The only truly effective shots of the movie come in the opening moments, which contrast the beautiful scenery of rural South Africa with documentary footage of military brutality against black South Africans. Blacks are rounded up and beaten; one, desperate to escape, hurls himself into a web of barbed wire. This sequence powerfully contrasts the quiet wonder of the African landscape as seen by helicopter with the ugliness of political repression.

The actors perform adequately, but the scattered organization fails to invoke any emotional connection with the characters. Furthermore, the movie is filled with pointless zoom-ins during emotionally intense scenes, causing them instead to just seem silly. And a few forced attempts at humor fall flat, rendering the task of watching this movie simply exhausting.

The film as a whole simply is overwhelmed by its attempts to cover all aspects of a very complex situation. Trying to take on the tension between the desire for revenge or for forgiveness, the feelings of guilt or denial among the white population, the underlying justifications for violence and the details of the atrocities themselves stretches the movie thin and simply ends up producing a cloud of ambivalence. This is not the sort of dramatic ambivalence that can result from skillful storytelling, but rather a general sense of murkiness caused by a story that doesn’t know exactly where it wants to go.

Archived article by Geoff Bakken
Sun Staff Writer
2 Stars