Love, African Style

A drama about post-Apartheid hearings devolves into a clumsy romance

In My Country

Directed by John Boorman. Screenplay by Ann Peacock, based on the novel Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog. Starring Juliette Binoche, Samuel L. Jackson and Brendan Gleeson. Opens Friday, April 1, at the Tivoli.

It's always difficult to pan a movie that features good actors, important issues and noble intentions. But In My Country, a romantic drama about two journalists covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in post-Apartheid South Africa, leaves little choice. Clunky and obvious, it makes the mistake of asking drama to do what documentary should (and, in this case, already has). It also introduces a romance into an excruciating historical event, where the extant conflict could have easily done its own work.

Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche) is a journalist and an Afrikaner, a member of the white and formerly ruling class of South Africa, which perpetrated infamous atrocities on blacks for over 30 years. Anna has always opposed Apartheid, and in 1996, when the movie opens, she sets out to cover the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings -- the black African government's groundbreaking, compassionate attempt to heal without using war crimes tribunals or, in fact, retribution of any kind. Conservative members of Anna's family express disapproval, but Anna's husband seems to support her choice. With a hopeful smile, she kisses her children and heads off to the city, scarcely fathoming the darkness that awaits.

Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is a writer for The Washington Post, sent to South Africa to cover the hearings, of which he takes a dim view. According to Langston, granting amnesty to white perpetrators who tell the truth (and prove that they were following orders) is tantamount to letting them get away with murder, which white people have been doing for centuries. He prefers justice -- or what the archbishop running the hearings (in real life, it was Desmond Tutu) might label vengeance. The subtleties, that is to say, elude Langston, including the fact that many of the 1,163 perpetrators seeking amnesty are black.

Of course, these blacks were forced into their mandated crimes by whites, but the blacks often exceeded their white counterparts in cruelty. (As one white torturer explains of the black police, there's nothing like the self-hatred that arises from treason to drive a man to desperate violence.) The point is not that blacks are responsible for the atrocities of Apartheid (hardly!), but that it's just not as simple as good and evil, as Anna is at pains to point out.

At first Langston has no patience for his fellow journalist, who calls herself African and demonstrates immense sympathy for the suffering of her black compatriots. The film is good on this point, never allowing Anna to be blameless, exposing her culpability in her naiveté (how could she not have known what was happening, when the rest of the world did?) and in her grief (none of the blacks cries as much as she does in the hearings; they did their crying long ago).

Where In My Country falters is in bringing Anna and Langston together. There is no chemistry between them, at least partly because the characters are ciphers, not people but symbols for something (Anna for forgiveness, Langston for justice). It's hard to kindle romance between a pair of abstractions. Worse, the union is not merely forced but also distasteful, since the characters bond over horrific tales of suffering, and since the film foregrounds the coupling over the stories of the victims, distracting from what truly deserves our attention.

Then there's the chop. Maybe it's the editing (it could also be the script), but many scenes end abruptly, without having taken the time to fully explore the issues they raise. Then, director John Boorman slices up the main plot by interspersing scenes of the hearings, and of Anna and Langston, with an extended interview between Langston and De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), one of the most notorious torturers of the regime. It's a mistake. First, the interview reeks of freshman composition, in which a conversation is a vehicle for the expression of ideas instead of character. Second, the back-and-forthing is jarring and inelegant. The main plot is already clunky enough, with its obvious posturing (in place of real drama) and self-important urgency. Must we inject this lecture with something even more pedantic?

Finally, In My Country doesn't seem to believe in its own message of ubuntu, or forgiveness over retribution. When De Jager fails to receive amnesty, the black Africans rise and call out in joy. Neither Anna nor Langston does -- but how do they feel? We never learn. Of course, at least by Western standards of justice, it's only fair to award black South Africans the satisfaction of seeing a vicious torturer held to account. But isn't the film asking whether we can find it in our hearts to forgive even De Jager? Isn't it suggesting that vengeance is simply a perpetuation of violence? Hard to say.

In the end, In My Country actually detracts from what was in real life an incredible, moving and spiritually enlightened process. For a better look at what happened at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, see Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid's 2000 documentary Long Night's Journey Into Day.

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