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Apartheid and Cinema Verity

It's Tough to Reconcile Truth With New Film's Handling of It

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page N01

The South African widow collapsed in her chair, gripped by a seizure of pain. A piercing wail escaped from her throat, exploding with the hurt of her husband's murder more than a decade earlier.

The pain of apartheid, that's what it was: the pain of the widowed, the orphaned, the tortured, the maimed.

The first witness before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is sworn in at the panel's first hearing, in April 1996. (Pool Photo Mike Hutchings)

Many of those survivors had filed into the hall and clung to one another for support that day, the day the truth-telling began, when a widow's shrill cry became the iconic sound of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was there, and I will never forget it.

But in the new John Boorman film, "In My Country," the wail is more of a moan. It rings hollow, does not slash the soul.

That momentous day is rendered small in the film, not in any way as large and charged and extraordinary as it actually was. Instead of in the cavernous Victorian-era town hall in the South African city of East London where that first truth hearing was held on April 15, 1996, Boorman shot parts of his film in a small community center. There isn't even a bomb threat like the one, in real life, that cleared the building and reminded all in attendance of the state of siege in which the truth commission, known as the TRC, would operate.

I admit to being a purist on this subject. Having witnessed these events while based in South Africa for The Washington Post in the 1990s, I absorbed their import. The truth had become a new and growing presence -- affirming for some, tormenting for others -- in the life of President Nelson Mandela's South Africa after white-minority rule ended. So it seemed that a film about the truth should itself have been more true to the facts.

Like "Hotel Rwanda," "In My Country" made me wonder about responsibility: whether films of conscience or films about momentous historic events ought to uphold a higher standard of reality, of authenticity. When wounds still are fresh, and victims still living, as they are in South Africa and Rwanda, is the moral imperative even greater?

Both films stick to the Hollywood script: They place a heroic or pathos-driven personal narrative in the foreground, in each case with large-scale atrocities as backdrops. It is as though the microcosmic stories being told were more important than the macrocosmic events of history (genocide, apartheid) that provided the raison d'etre for the films in the first place.

"In My Country" stars Samuel L. Jackson as Langston Whitfield, a U.S. newspaperman, and Juliette Binoche as Anna Malan, a South African radio reporter. They have a love affair in the course of covering the TRC hearings.

But Whitfield is a mere filmic device, whereas Malan is the lead character. She is based on the real-life persona of journalist Antjie Krog and her very fine 1998 book, "Country of My Skull." The book chronicles Krog's struggle to comprehend what her people, the Afrikaners, did in the name of white supremacy during apartheid. Their atrocities were aired by the TRC.

Binoche's Malan finds an odd match in Jackson's Whitfield, a character who really got under my skin. He is billed as a Washington Post correspondent sent to cover the TRC. Frankly, it was annoying to see a character in my shoes and flubbing it all so badly as a journalist. There were times when I wanted to jump up and shout, "No journalist could be so dumb!" and "That's not how it happened!" and "What about South Africa's black life?" and "Where's the heart and soul of 'the arch'?" (That's retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC's leader, known to many in South Africa as "the arch.")

Tutu's character -- named Rev. Mzondo in the film -- seems stifled. Mzondo has none of the moral authority, biting wit or lilting phraseology that defined Tutu, who was the heart and soul of the TRC as he cajoled, consoled and prayed his nation through an avalanche of wrenching testimonials.

Movies dramatize. They fictionalize and mesmerize. They represent reality, even mirror reality. But they are only reality imagined.

But when does imagination go too far?

The film industry has been dogged by debates over historic accuracy since some critics lashed out at D.W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" for its gauzy depictions of the battered South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

One can point to more recent debates, about Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic "The Battle of Algiers" (about the Algerian independence struggle against France) or the 1973 Costa-Gavras film "State of Siege" (about the Tupamaro guerrillas of Uruguay), two highly realistic films about real historical events.

For polemics, those films set the standard and were followed by a host of others with a moral point to make. Among them: "Missing" (about an American murdered in Augusto Pinochet's Chile); "The Killing Fields" (about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge); "Cry Freedom" (about the death by torture of South Africa's Steve Biko); "Mississippi Burning" (about the Klan's murder of three civil rights workers); "Life Is Beautiful" (a tragicomedy set in a Nazi death camp); and "JFK" (about the John F. Kennedy assassination).

Add to this list yet another film about Rwanda, this one called "Sometimes in April," directed by Raoul Peck ("Lumumba"), which aired beginning March 19 on HBO. Where "Hotel Rwanda" focused tightly on one heroic character's impact on the genocide, Peck pulled back and took a wide shot of the genocide, accurately portraying its many local and international facets even as the film, too, told a human story.

But it does not pay, most times, to expect history from the movies. It is more than a few hours can deliver.

"Ultimately we should not judge a movie as we judge a history book," cautions Saverio Giovacchini, a University of Maryland film historian.

"In order to create a story, you have to edit," he says. "You edit lines. You edit shots. You edit time. You collapse hours, days, into two hours. You always create a fictional representation of reality."

Did the Russian roulette sequence of the "The Deer Hunter" actually happen in real life? That's beside the point, says Gilberto Perez, another film historian. The scene's metaphoric impact captured part of the essence of the Vietnam War. It was a poetic device.

"Aristotle distinguished poetry from history by saying that history deals with the particular, whereas poetry portrays the universal," says Perez, a Sarah Lawrence College professor and author of "The Material Ghost," a study of films and their meanings.

"So in the endeavor to reach a more general truth, one can give license to a poet, to a fiction writer or filmmaker to take some liberties with the actual facts," he says.

Boorman ("The Tailor of Panama" and "The General") says he employs the "truth of the imagination" in "In My Country." When you know enough and you're grounded deeply enough in your subject, "you can often find a truth that transcends the facts, and that's what we tried to do," Boorman said during an interview last month.

His film is cinematically gorgeous. And there is some fine acting amid some interesting plot twists involving Malan and her Afrikaner family. The Afrikaners are the descendants of French Huguenots and Dutch settlers who came to South Africa in the 17th century.

Apartheid was an Afrikaner creation, and in this film as in real life there is plenty of guilt among the Afrikaners. And Malan's anguish in the film is powerful. The more TRC horror stories she hears, the more she melts down. The tempo of the film is set by these scenes as Malan and Whitfield cover the hearings.

We are meant to grasp the essence of reconciliation, the dilemmas of reconciliation, by viewing it through their eyes. They argue heatedly about race and reconciliation -- Whitfield railing that the TRC is letting killers go free; Malan arguing that Whitfield is missing the point of reconciliation. They even come to blows. (She hits him, not vice versa.)

And then -- presto! -- they are in each other's arms, becoming lovers in a relationship that grapples with truth and lies and reconciling past with present.

The film, says Boorman, needed a personalizing device, like the love affair. He knows, he says, that some viewers think this device trivializes the broader story.

"Well, a lot of people have that reaction," he says. "They feel that it kind of gets in the way. And yet I didn't want to make a film where it's just a succession of people giving evidence at the TRC.

"It needed to be filtered through two people -- one knowledgeable, one ignorant. And the fact that they, coming from such different places spiritually, geographically, emotionally, would find some accommodation and indeed love, was reflective of what the TRC was trying to do and reflective -- this was my intention, anyway -- of what was happening in South Africa between black and white."

The device is a bit naive. The facts on the ground in South Africa are that blacks and whites remain largely separated, occupying different worlds. It is always dicey to use romance as a gauge of racial accommodation. And by using a black American character to complete his South African racial dichotomy, it's as if Boorman is suggesting that blacks on both continents are of the same racial mind-set. That's not necessarily so.

Perhaps it would have been more authentic to have two South African characters -- one black, one white -- wrestling over the question of justice vs. reconciliation, since that is the debate that swirled around the TRC process.

But Boorman says the casting of Jackson was a commercial decision "in the sense of trying to connect with an audience, a worldwide audience."

In any case, we see the core story, the story of the TRC, sort of recede behind the love stuff. We get little sense of the TRC's scope: that it held hearings for seven years, declared some 22,000 people victims of gross human rights violations, granted about 1,200 amnesties and refused more than 5,000. Some of those amnesty decisions remain contested in the courts today.

The fault lines live on. The wounds for South Africans still are fresh -- so much so that Boorman, during the film's shooting, had a couple of actual TRC counselors on the set. The shooting dredged up memories and pain for some of the South African cast and crew as they worked and needed consoling, he said.

I e-mailed Antjie Krog to ask what she thought of "In My Country." She was reluctant, but did make an offering.

"I have deliberately refrained from making any comments or any demands about the film," she wrote. "The story of the South African truth commission is not my story. It is the story of a country which has always been and will be told in many ways and by many voices."

One can only hope the truth will prevail.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company