Sunday, March 18, 2012

In South Africa

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

In My Country is the latest film by veteran director John Boorman, whose career encompasses classics from Point Blank in 1967, through Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance and Excalibur to The General in 1998; his last release was The Tailor of Panama in 2001. He has twice won best director at Cannes (for Leo the Last and The General) and has several Oscar nominations, but is likely to be overlooked in any list of the greatest filmmakers – regardless of whether the list inclines to artistic or to popular excellence. His career includes numerous projects of mythic ambition and numerous major flops, and the two categories frequently overlap: Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Where the Heart Is (perhaps his nadir, a Dabney Coleman comedy based on an updating of King Lear). David Thomson says that Boorman “is a unique, visionary filmmaker, but his yearning for new types of material does not quite hide a record more at ease with reliable genres. His most conventional pictures, the most accessible in their situation, have been the best.”

In My Country

In My Country might be the most conventional and accessible of them all – a dramatization of the hearings held in the 1990’s by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told through the prism of a romance between two journalists – an American from the Washington Post (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and a South African (Juliette Binoche). But the film has only received a minimal release (I saw it at the Carlton with a handful of other people), and the reviews were almost uniformly bad. Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it “high-minded but hopelessly wooden.” In one of the better reviews, Roger Ebert nevertheless found “something too calculated about the movie's pairing up of the political and the personal.”

I'd agree with that, but I think I end up admiring the film more than anyone else seems to. This is a little surprising to me, because I’m not generally a fan of the approach that relegates the victims of mass tragedy to potential bit players in their own story. A few months ago I mildly criticized Hotel Rwanda in this regard, and I’ve often written that Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom may well be my least favourite film of all time. In My Country is hardly the formula’s most subtle application. The two characters are introduced as political opposites. Jackson is outspokenly skeptical of the Commission’s approach, which allowed amnesty to apartheid offenders who made an honest accounting of their crimes and could convince the panel that they were acting on orders. Binoche, more in tune with the country’s deep divisions and challenges and its urgent need for healing, is much more inclined to trust the effort, but her privileged upbringing has rendered her unaware of the scope of the company’s atrocities.

Tossing A Pancake

They come together in a way that echoes decades of genre convention, with a booze-sodden night easing the way. The film’s transitions between the mechanics of the hearing and of their relationship are astonishingly blatant. Anguished snippets of testimony are elbowed aside by an exuberant Binoche dance scene. A grisly statement about a dismembered leg leads directly to the first time they have sex. As her political conscience develops, she disrupts a bland poolside get-together by asking if rape can be a political act; it’s odd psychology, but good dialectic.

When she ultimately confesses the affair to her husband, the conversation takes place in terms of hearings and amnesty. It’s too glib an appropriation of vitally important terminology for mundane personal ends. But that seems to me meaningful in sealing off the film’s pervasive theme of the white South Africans’ inadequate sense of what happened within their borders. And the film’s very last incident, where Binoche’s amiable black colleague suddenly meets with his come-uppance for his own culpability while a powerless Jackson looks on, indicates how this inadequacy spreads across races, borders, and ranges of intellectual commitment.

I’m sure my description of all this makes it sound somewhat obvious, which indeed it is. But Boorman has a profound sense of how meaning is produced in cinema, and it seems to me that the film works best if you distance yourself from the details of the love story and view it in the abstract; as a phenomenon which by its very smallness tells us something broader about our understanding of such events. If memory serves, he may have been doing something similar with his use of Patricia Arquette in Beyond Rangoon, and even the modest Tailor of Panama sometimes seemed to achieve an almost metaphysical scope through sheer confidence and assurance in quirkily contrasting large and small motives. After wrapping up its sweeping plot of international politics and cross-border meddling, that movie ends on a final freeze frame of kids looking on as Geoffrey Rush tosses a pancake. It could hardly be a more meaningful, throwaway final image, and I guess that was the point.

Boorman’s big mistake in In My Country, I think, was to lose control of his stars. I don’t mean that Binoche or Jackson overact – actually they’re both fairly sombre – but Binoche in particular is so inherently evocative that she’s almost incompatible with realist cinema (I don’t think that any of her English-language work really counts as a normal contemporary role). In In My Country she sometimes looks as beautiful as she ever has, and of course this is saying something. Her emotional turmoil, however well-acted, is allowed to radiate across the screen, and I think it seriously skews the overall balance.

No Surprise To Us

This obscures the film’s broader awareness that the truth of a situation like South Africa’s is only partly a matter of law and transparency and at least as much a matter of personal identification. Early on, Binoche proclaims that she belongs to the African continent, and when Jackson asks what that means, she responds simply “I would die for it.” But toward the end, the arch-abuser played by Brendan Gleeson similarly cites his readiness to die for his country in defending the killing he carried out in his name. The malleability of the concept of dying for one’s country reminds one (in a manner that’s particularly timely given the current rhetorical excess in the US) of the cheapness of maxims and stated positions.

The inadequacy of words is signaled in another way when Jackson asks why the native blacks aren’t crying, as Binoche does, at a particular testimony, and receives the simple reply: “It is no surprise to us.” As with the Holocaust, the original victims retain a privileged place in any consideration of the event, but political reality cannot stop with that. The idea that a 70-year old outsider like Boorman could tell us anything direct and revelatory about Africa is hopeless, and the ways in which the attempt fails are perhaps as meaningful as those in which it might have succeeded.

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